When the Denver Nuggets open the 2022-23 NBA season in Salt Lake City on October 19, it will be just over 18 months since star guard Jamal Murray tore his left cruciate ligament while driving to the basket against the Golden State Warriors .
Without Murray for the entire 2021-22 season, the Nuggets were eliminated in the first round by the eventual Champion Warriors. While hopes of a potential post-season return simmered on the outside, Murray conceded that ultimately, looking ahead, the conservative approach was the way to go.
“It was tough but I just wanted to wait until I’m healthy, until I can play the game without thinking about it. I didn’t want to do both out there, especially during the busiest time of the year for basketball. ‘ he told ESPN during a trip to Australia.
“It was smart of me to miss the playoffs and get my knee fixed, now I can go into next season with a lot more confidence.”
Extending his comeback by six months might not have been ideal, but it has allowed Murray to become more attuned to the mechanics of his movement when returning to basketball activity.
“It was a challenge, but it got easier. I felt like I could do something new each month in terms of strength and flexibility, I just saw constant improvement each month. Even now I’m healthy but I can still see improvements in my game, what I’m comfortable with and what and how I want to move on the pitch, it’s much more fluid than before.
“In the beginning I couldn’t move at all. I had to figure out what I would do in a pick and roll if I need to see the pass earlier, need to hit a guy a step earlier, not get so deep in the paint you hit a swimmer, you’re just studying small details. I did that, studied how to land, all those things go through your head. It’s been interesting, you learn more about yourself and, over time, your game.”
Aside from the physical advances, the roller-coaster ride of watching from the sidelines proved a challenge for an athlete whose meteoric rise to stardom had been suddenly halted by a dribbling move he’d executed thousands of times without incident.
“Every day was different. When we played against teams we were supposed to beat and it was close or we lost, they sucked. When it was just another day of rehab and I was in pain, it was like, ‘You made it today,'” he said, laughing.
“I got into a routine off the pitch when I wasn’t playing, that was fun. I’d never had that time off before, so it was nice to get my whole body in order and get into the 100th season too can percent.”
“You don’t want to be with the team all the time because sometimes it goes to your head. It was nice to get away and come back and refresh myself. Even through rehab, not just watching basketball. It’s tedious work, but if you do it right, it pays off in the end.”
Denver head coach Michael Malone has hinted at a minute limit for Murray early in the season as he gets used to NBA speed again. While Murray has no doubt he can and will return to his pre-injury level of play, he is willing to acknowledge that the road to consistency can weather ups and downs along the way.
“I just accept that at some point I’m going to have a really bad game. This can help my preparation where I can quickly figure out how to adjust at the moment if something isn’t working. When I’m shooting badly, I have to get to the free-throw line. If I play badly in general, I know I have to defend.
“I just prepare for those moments in the game where I know that if I’m having a bad day or something, I won’t be able to do what I want to do. I’m just looking forward to it, I don’t think too much when it comes to basketball. If you want to let me shoot, let me shoot, I’m so confident in my game.”
“I feel like I’ve gotten better in the amount of time I’ve been out. I might not be jumping that high now, but I feel like I’m passing better, I see the game better, my pace is a little bit better, I’m shooting, I’m just trying to bring all those aspects into my game just so I can get a feel get how hard the guys are going to play again, there’s something different going on in front of the adrenaline of the spectators, loose balls are harder to come by, stuff like that.”
More broadly, the Nuggets are expected to take a leap if Murray returns alongside Michael Porter Jr., who only made nine regular-season appearances last year due to an ongoing back problem. In addition to the returning pair, Denver acquired Aaron Gordon via trade in March 2021, just weeks before Murray’s injury, which contributed to a virtually untried core core.
“That’s the hard part, knowing how good we are when we’re healthy,” Murray said. “It would be fun to go through the whole season, there would be a lot of expectations, but we still did very well (last season) for a team that was very injured.
“That shows the potential and where we can go with who we have. It was just really good to see the team fight every night and figure it out, good or bad. We learned from our losses and will continue to do so this season.”
Along with Denver, the LA Clippers are poised for a rise in the standings with the return of Kawhi Leonard. The New Orleans Pelicans hope Zion Williamson has a healthy season. The Minnesota Timberwolves added Rudy Gobert. The list goes on in a Western Conference squeeze for the postseason.
While the Nuggets seem to be sitting in a crowded room of franchises optimistic about climbing the standings, Murray is focused on just one thing. A long-awaited healthy season for Denver, hoping the rest will take care of itself.
“I don’t care. I don’t care what they have. I know we have a great team,” he was quick to reply when asked about the depth in the West.
“We have a great team. Everyone knows what we can do, you’ve seen the snippets of what we can do if we’re all healthy together, so we’re just looking forward to that. We don’t care what the Suns have and what the Lakers have, we just want to be healthy so we can do what we set out to do.”