Jamal Murray is the latest in a growing list of Canadian players who once kicked around Air Canada Centre as wide-eyed kids. They dreamed of the day they’d step on the floor in an NBA jersey.
That day came Monday for Murray.
The 19-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., who starred for the University of Kentucky last season, made his first trip to the ACC with the Denver Nuggets, and spent part of the morning gathering tickets.
“I’m already asking for tickets” Murray said, with a grin. “It’s going to be a big event for me and my family.”
“Triple,” he said, with a laugh. “Something like that. High school teammates, coaches, family, friends. It’s a lot of people.”
Canada had 11 players on NBA opening-night rosters, the most of any country outside the United States. They represent a generation of young men who grew up on a steady diet of the sport thanks largely to the Raptors.
“It just goes to show you the growth of Canada Basketball, how well we’ve been doing here, developing the youth and just continuing to grow and get better,” said Raptors guard Cory Joseph. “And more guys will come to the NBA, and I’ll have more little point guards like Jamal trying to take my spot. And I’ll be the old fella.”
Joseph remembers his first game on the ACC floor. He was with the San Antonio Spurs, and coach Gregg Popovich gave him a couple of minutes of playing time.
“I went hard for those minutes though,” Joseph said. “It’s a little emotional. As a kid you dream to be that guy out there, sitting on the bench, playing on the court, whatever. And then when you actually get there …”
Despite his young age, Murray was one of Canada’s most impressive players at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto and then went on to have a record-setting season at Kentucky.
The step up to the NBA, though, is a big one. Fighting for minutes on a Nuggets team that’s deep at the guard position is an adjustment.
“It’s not like you get to come in [off the bench] and know you’re going to have a rhythm after playing a lot of minutes,” Murray said. “So you have to be ready to knock down shots coming off the bench, staying warm on the bench. When you go out there you’ve just got to make sure you limit your mistakes and just always be ready because you might not be out there for a long time.”
Nuggets coach Mike Malone, whose father Brendan was the Raptors’ first-ever head coach, likes what he’s seen of the young Canadian he calls a “work in progress.”
“Jamal’s best days are ahead of him. We love him and we believe in him,” Malone said. “I told him ‘Your biggest challenge this year is going to be from a physicality standpoint and a defensive standpoint.’ Can you guard your position every night? There’s where he’s going to have the most growth this year.
“Offensively he’s versatile, that’s why we loved him. He can play off the ball, he can play with the ball. He’s improving, he’s getting stronger and he’s learning the NBA, which is a crash course for a kid that’s 19 years old.”
Malone recalled Denver’s preseason game in Oklahoma City, when Murray couldn’t “buy a shot.”
“He turned a shot down after that and I said ‘Don’t do that. I don’t care if you miss 10 in a row. Keep shooting the ball, you are a shooter. We believe in you and we picked you for a reason, so I want him to go out there and play with that kind of confidence.’ He has that, and he’s not scared of the moment.”
Murray has credited his meditation, a practice he learned through his father Roger, with his calm on-court demeanour.
He’s living alone in Denver, which he said he likes.
“Just get my meditation in and kind of relax myself and have time for myself,” Murray said.
“I should probably start joining him,” Malone said. “I could use a little meditation to calm myself down.”
The hectic travel schedule though is tough.
“To come off the plane and play, leave again, come off the plane and play, I think that’s something I have to get used to,” Murray said. “It’s just a lot of demand, especially as a rookie, getting [to the gym] early and all that.”
The Nuggets play in Minnesota on Friday and Murray said he was excited to face fellow Canadian Andrew Wiggins.
Joseph said there’s a sense of community between the Canadians in the league.
“It’s like a family, and you feel proud when you know somebody out there doing well.”Report Typo/Error