Jamal Murray starts to find his footing in NBA, just in time to help lift Nuggets

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Consistency. Defensive game plan discipline. Physicality.

That is what Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone is preaching to his young stars coming out of the All-Star break. He and the team are making no bones about it, they want the eighth seed in the playoffs (the Nuggets currently hold that spot, with Portland and others three games back). Denver wants to get invited to the dance.

“(Getting the eighth seed) is talked about a lot, that’s our main goal right now, just stay consistent and make the playoffs,” Nuggets rookie Jamal Murray told NBCSports All-Star weekend while signing Panini trading cards. “We’re just trying to play consistent right now and it’s tough, there are a lot of good teams in the West.”

Murray is a big part of that push — Malone is giving him more and more responsibility on the court as Emmanuel Mudiay’s role fades. So far, Murray has been up to everything asked of him, which is why his name is coming up in the Rookie of the Year discussion. (With Joel Embiid playing just 31 games, Murray and the Bucks Malcolm Brogdon have emerged as the primary alternatives.)

“I enjoy playing the point, I enjoy running the team, reading the play, leading the team, I just try to make sure coach trusts me and can go to me down the stretch,” Murray said. “I do everything at the point. I like to score, but I like to get assists, I like when my team does good and plays for each other.”

It’s a lot asked of him, which is why All-Star weekend was a break in what has been a whirlwind rookie season for Murray. Although that weekend in New Orleans was a bit of a whirlwind in and of itself.

Murray was the MVP of the All-Star weekend Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night dropping 36, plus he spent the weekend connecting with fans and being at things such as a Panini trading card signing. Murray is just one of a select handful of rookies Panini is working with, and he was signing cards his new cards just about to hit the market, and helping promote the soon-to-be launched Panini Instant mobile app, which will feature mobile e-cards for fans.

“It’s a chance to connect with the fans, put on a show at the gae, and I had a lot of fun with fans all weekend,” Murray said.

Murray is at ease in these settings, comfortable with the fanfare that comes with being a rising NBA star.

The adjustment to the NBA was not that simple.

Murray — who set a record at Kentucky for most made threes in a season — started his career 0-of-17 from the floor for the Nuggets. He didn’t knock down his first field goal until Nov. 5. When asked who he leaned on through a rough start in the NBA, he points to his father, standing about 12 feet away.

“Once I made my first shot it was all fine,” Murray said. “It was a struggle to make that first one, just thinking too much, and your confidence goes down when you’re not making them and you’re expected to score…

“Everyone was just telling me shoot the ball, it will fall. They knew I was going to make shots at some point so (my teammates and coaches) weren’t mad about it or anything.”

A lot of players struggle to adjust at first to the speed and athleticism of the NBA game, and Murray has been no exception. He continues to have his ups and downs.

“Just getting used to the physicality, guys are more athletic and stronger and they’re grown men,” Murray said. “You’ve just got to adjust to it and work on your body, get used to everything.”

Murray’s dad, Roger Murray, agreed that getting his son stronger to handle the contact and the punishment that comes with driving the lane in the league needs to be at the heart of his off-season program. Roger is a father, mentor, and coach who set his son on this path long ago. For the Murrays it was always about basketball — even when Roger signed Jamal up for martial arts classes as a kid he said it was about hoops.

“I was thinking basketball. I wanted him to put everything together, the mental and the physical, I knew it would help him,” Roger said.

That path has landed Jamal in a good NBA place — Denver has a quality young core with Murray, Gary Harris, Juan Hernangomez, and the emerging star that is Nikola Jokic (who has had back-to-back triple-doubles since the All-Star break).

“He’s so unselfish, and he doesn’t just find one person, he finds everybody, and he picks his spots (to score),” Murray said of Jokic.

As a team, the young Nuggets are focused right now on making the playoffs. That will start with playing better team defense, which Murray said is really about them staying focused on the game plan and knowing their opponents better — which guys do you go under the pick on, which guys get iced off the pick-and-roll, just a lot of decisions that require the kind of focus young players often struggle to do consistently.

Beyond that, Murray has dreams of playing in the Tokyo Olympics for Canada.

“That’s one of my big goals, to play in the Olympics and make some noise there as well, but whatever opportunity is given me I will take,” Murray said.

But for now the focus for Murray is on the court — it’s always about basketball.

Watch Lonzo Ball’s 29 point, 11 rebound, 9 assist game Friday night

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This was more of what fans expected from Lonzo Ball.

After a rough first game against the Clippers — with Patrick Beverley in his face all night — Ball found plenty of room to operate against the soft defense of the Phoenix Suns. With room to operate Ball had 29 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists — just one assist short of a triple-double. He helped the Lakers pull away to a lead in the third then hold on for a 132-130 win over the Suns.

Ball wasn’t terribly efficient, 12-of-27 shooting, but he was 4-of-9 from three, he played with great pace, he was decisive, and was finding guys with his passes. It was a step forward, even if it was against a sad defense (Eric Bledsoe can be a good defender, but he has seemed disinterested in recent years).

Ball and the Lakers are going to be up and down this season, the goal is for there to be more ups near the end of the season.

LeBron James rejects Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim

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Through the first couple games of the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has put up impressive numbers — he dropped 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Cavaliers Friday night.

But the Cavaliers still have LeBron James.

He had 24 points and 8 assists, leading Cleveland to the win.

LeBron also reminded the Greek Freak just how good a rim protector he is. Few people can slow Antetokounmpo on the drive, but LeBron is one of them.

Is it too early to root for a Cavs vs. Bucks playoff series?

Hawks’ DeAndre’ Bembry out with fractured wrist

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In their season opener Wednesday, Atlanta second-year man DeAndre’ Bembry came off the bench and played 17:45, scored six points and was +13 on the night. It was a good start to his career.

But now he is going to miss some time with a fractured wrist.

Bembry underwent an MRI, which revealed a fracture in his right wrist, the Hawks announced Friday. He will return to Atlanta with the team (the Hawks lost to the Hornets Friday night) and will meet with team doctors at the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center on Monday. His status will be updated after that.

“We just may play some other guys more, we may use some of the young guys,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told the AP before Friday night’s game. “We’ll just figure it out tonight and as we move forward. I don’t think there’s anything guaranteed for anybody, it’s unfortunate for DeAndre’ and for us.”

 

Danny Ainge says Celtics will apply for Disabled Player Exception

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It’s not likely Gordon Hayward returns this season. His agent said as much, although a return in March is not out of the question. (It’s better PR wise for the Celtics to say he is out for the season, then if he returns early great, it’s better than setting a deadline he doesn’t meet.)

With that, the Celtics are going to apply for the Disabled Player Exception, which could help them land a replacement player, Danny Ainge told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.

President of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the Globe on Friday the club is applying for the Disabled Player Exception, which would provide the Celtics $8.4 million to pursue a player to fill Hayward’s roster spot.

“We’re in the process of doing that,’’ Ainge said. “We have a while to do that. There’s no urgency, but we will apply for that.”

There are limits to what that money can get the Celtics. The money is the same as the mid-level exception, the Celtics can go over the cap to use it, and the player can be obtained via free agency or trade. However, the player must be in the last year of his contract.

It gives the Celtics options. It also does not mean Hayward cannot return, it only means NBA-approved doctors determined he is not likely to return before a mid-June deadline.