Similar to the Warriors who built the foundation of their team through successful draft picks, the Nuggets have emulated the defending champs’ strategy with their own stroke of lottery luck and are in the process of creating what looks to be the second coming of the Splash Bros.
The backcourt of Jamal Murray, 21 years old, and Gary Harris, 23 years old, is booming with potential and shaping a future for a franchise that could carry them into unfamiliar territories. With their continued development, it’s not irrational to think they could be one of the premier backcourts in the foreseeable future.
This isn’t me telling you “Jamal Murray is the next Steph Curry,” or “Gary Harris will be better than Klay Thompson.” It’s more so a comparison of the similarities between two sharpshooting backcourts, and how Murray and Harris can capitalize on the same advantages to find success in their own careers.
So, yes, on the surface it may sound far-fetched to compare them to the three-time champs, Steph and Klay, but when you really sit back and evaluate Jamal and Gary’s talent, skill set, and age, it becomes a lot more reasonable than you think.
Whether you love him or hate him (Laker fans), you can’t deny that Jamal Murray is a problem on the hardwood. It’s not every day you see a player as young as him with the combination of talent and superstar-like intangibles.
He’s got supreme confidence, he welcomes a challenge, he doesn’t shy away from big moments and will go head-to-head with just about anyone. He’s also durable as hell. This is a kid who played all 82 games of his rookie season with a hernia and only missed one game during his second season.
Murray fared nicely in his sophomore season with a pretty stat line of 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists with admirable efficiency numbers — 45 percent from the floor, 37 percent from three and 90 percent from the foul line — in less than 32 minutes per game.
For a second-year player who just turned 21 halfway through the season, what more could you ask for?
What makes Denver such an elite offensive unit — like Golden State — is their shooting, specifically from their guards. While Murray might be a point guard, he sure doesn’t play like one. And that’s probably because he was a shooting guard at Kentucky and is just transitioning into an NBA point guard.
Murray finished the regular season with the seventh most made three-pointers (165) among all point guards. In addition, he attempted 626 two-point field goals and converted on 314 of them, giving him the 11th best 2-point field goal percentage within his position. He also finished fifth in free throw percentage in the entire NBA.
Much like his backcourt partner who is tremendous at moving without the ball, Murray excels in that area as well.
At 6’4” — an inch taller than Curry — Murray is crafty at maneuvering around screens and wearing his defender out with quick movement. Being the natural shooting guard that he is, Murray can leave defenders gasping for air when he’s racing around the court trying to free himself open for a jumper.
You can’t tell me you don’t see shades of Curry in this clip.
Having to deal with Murray’s outside shooting is difficult enough, but then you pair him with another sniper in Gary Harris, and your chances of surviving their barrage of three-point missiles are slim.
The Nuggets acquired Harris with the 19th pick in the 2014 draft from the Bulls, in a trade that would send Harris and the Bulls other first round picks, Jusuf Nurkic, to Denver for Doug McDermott. It’s still early, but I think it’s safe to say the Nuggets won this trade.
Gary Harris strikes eerie similarities to Klay Thompson. I covered this topic early in the season but I’ll get into it a little more again.
Like Klay, Harris has a knack for moving without the ball. He’s constantly on the move, running around screens, burning defenders on back-door cuts, and finding holes in defenses to get himself open looks for an uncontested jumper.
Because of his constant movement away from the ball, Harris was able to give the Nuggets one of the best shooting seasons — in 2017-18 — by any player at his position.
Harris posted the 6th best true shooting percentage (.597) — .001 percent worse than Klay Thompson who was fifth — second best field goal percentage (.485) right behind the same player I just mentioned and finished first in 2-point field goal percentage at 55 percent.
And unlike his backcourt partner Murray, Harris is a splendid defensive player, on and off the ball.
For a team that struggled mightily like the Nuggets did defensively, Harris was one of the very few bright spots in that department.
He averaged 1.9 steals a game during the 2017-18 season due to his quick instincts and court awareness. He knows how to put himself in position to pick off a sloppy pass for easy points in transition. And if tasked with the responsibility of having to slow down whoever he’s guarding, he’s more than up to the challenge.
Steph and Klay have made a killing (and a career) with their outside shooting. If they get open behind the three-point line for a basic catch and shoot a jumper, then that’s all she wrote. The chances of one of one of them missing that shot are extremely thin, like razor blade thin.
Murray and Harris can make teams pay in the same manner. When you combine their catch and shoot numbers for the 2017-18 season, the young duo shot a respectable 40% on 7.6 attempts.
For comparison, we’ll use Klay Thompson’s fourth season to compare with Harris’ fourth season, and unfortunately, NBA.com’s tracking doesn’t go back to Curry’s second season to compare with Murray’s season, so we’ll just have to use the earliest year available.
So, combining Klay’s fourth season (age 24), and Curry’s fifth season (age 25), the duo shot 46% on 7.6 catch and shoot attempts.
With minimum professional experience on a young roster, those numbers for Jamal and Gary don’t look too shabby. One can only imagine what it’ll look like in another year or two.
Having a player like Draymond Green on the floor makes Klay and Curry’s duties effortless. The versatility of Draymond along with his playmaking takes pressure off of Curry, who’s allowed to run around screens and get open looks, basically making him the second shooting guard on the floor.
This is the same power that Nikola Jokic brings to the table. With his tricky passing and court vision, it gives Murray (and Harris) easier scoring opportunities. His strengths as a passer allow Murray to play like a shooting guard — his natural position — much like Draymond does for Steph.
With that said, I dug into the numbers for both trios; for the 2017-18 season, Klay Thompson scored 132 field goals on passes from Draymond Green, no other Warrior came even close to assisting on that many made field goals. We’ll use 2016-17 for Curry because he only played 51 games in 2018. During that season, Draymond assisted on 130 of Curry’s made field goals. Again, no other Warrior came in reach of that mark.
Using that same criterion for Murray and Harris, Jokic assisted on 124 of Harris’ made field goals, and 85 of Murray’s. Like Green, no other player on the Nuggets roster came in reach of matching those numbers.
Jokic has and will continue to be a big part of the development of Denver’s budding tandem going forward.
Lastly, Murray and Harris accuracy behind the three-point line will benefit them largely in transition. They could burn nets and opposing defenses to the ground with some hot shooting.
Since the 2015-16 season — that’s the furthest NBA.com’s transition stats tracking goes back to — both Curry and Klay have been top 10 in transition points each season, with their highest averages coming in 2016-17 — Curry (6.0 pts) and Klay (4.7 pts). With those two blitzing teams in the open court, the Warriors scored the most transition points (2,025) among all 30 teams. The three-point shot is a powerful weapon.
Essentially, this is the same effect Murray and Harris can have on defenses.
Gary Harris finished the 2018 season in the 83rd percentile, averaging 3.9 points in transition for a top 20 finish among the league’s best fast-break scorers. Murray, however, was only at 2.3 points putting him in the 42nd percentile. But, again, he just turned 21 years old. I anticipate that number will climb as his career progresses.
Having those two out in transition with a third teammate pushing the ball — this is where Jokic’s skill-set comes in handy again — they could leave team’s scrambling to make a last-second decision; do you stay with Murray and give Harris the three, or do you stay with Harris and give Murray the three? Oh, and then there’s that Jokic guy who’s also a pretty respectable outside shooter — 39% on 3.7 attempts — and one of the best passing bigs to ever step foot on an NBA floor. It becomes pick your poison at that point.
Early in the 2017-18 season, the young backcourt gave us a glimpse at their potential with some notable performances.
One of their best games as a twosome came against the Pelicans when Murray tallied 31 points on 13-for-18 shooting, 3/7 from three and was a +30. Harris chimed in with 22 points making nine of his eleven shot attempts and draining four three’s in six shots. He finished with a plus-minus of +41! FORTY-ONE! This was just fifteen games into the season.
Nearly one month later, the Nuggets went into Boston with no Jokic, no Paul Millsap, and no Will Barton. Though Boston came out victorious — 124-118 — this was the game that really sold me on just how lethal this backcourt can become.
Their numbers against the NBA’s top-ranked defense:
Murray: 28 pts, 11 rebs, 4 asts, 3 stls, 9-17 FG, 4-8 from three.
Harris: 36 pts, 6 asts, 2 stls, 16-25 FG, 3-8 from three.
If I read you these numbers without telling you the names of the players, what two teammates would you think it was? Paul and Harden? Lillard and McCollum? Steph and Klay? You’d probably guess every possible duo you can think of before Jamal Murray and Gary Harris’ names ever crossed your mind, right?
Then there was the game against OKC that gave a large audience their first taste of the duo — and the Nuggets — on national television (TNT).
This one was a classic. Maybe the game of the year.
We saw Paul George go for 43 points missing only seven shots from the floor, Russ drop a 20-21 and just missing a triple-double with 9 rebounds, and Jokic delivering a 29-14-13 triple-double for Denver. But the most memorable moments of the night came from none other than Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.
Murray, who shot 14-for-23 overall and 5-for-8 from three, turned in a 33-point performance and snatched Steven Adams’ soul in the process with one of the filthiest ankle-breakers of the year.
It was the play of the game, maybe of the week, until his partner one-upped him on the final possession of the game.
Harris sank the game-winning three at the buzzer and ended the game with 25 points, 9-16 from the floor and 5-9 from beyond the arc.
Performances like these are encouraging if you’re a Nuggets fan. To watch two of your youngest players rise to the occasion against premier teams and defenses like seasoned vets, lets you know your franchise is taking a step in the right direction.
And after falling just one game short of playoffs for the second consecutive season, Denver will need every last bit of those performances from their two marksmen if they hope to extend their season beyond the regular 82-game schedule.
This is a two guard tandem you’re definitely going to want to keep on your radar.