The plan hasn’t changed and everything is trending in the right direction. But just because a recent report indicated Jamal Murray could return in time for the playoffs doesn’t mean he will.
Because on his journey back to the court, after suffering a torn ACL last April that’s caused him to miss 61 games and counting this season, Murray’s operating on his own timeline. Yes, he’s dying to suit up for the Nuggets again and help them once the playoffs tip. But target dates aren’t exactly his style. Not while rehabbing from an injury that’s featured as many good weeks as bad ones.
“I don’t have a specific goal. I’m in no rush,” Murray tells Complex Sports. “I just want to feel normal to be able to go out there.”
Denver can’t wait to have its sharpshooter in the lineup, even though they’ve managed to remain relevant in the West without him (and Michael Porter Jr. for all but nine games). Largely, you can chalk that up to the brilliance of Nikola Jokic, last season’s MVP who improbably is having an even better campaign (statically speaking) this season, steering the Nuggets toward a top six finish in the conference.
Leading the league in PER (32.2, which would be an NBA record) and nearly averaging a triple-double (25.5 PPG, 13.8 RPG, 8.0.APG, 61.3 EFG%), Jokic’s production has been bonkers. And while there are plenty of worthy candidates out there who deserve serious consideration for Most Valuable Player—like Joel Embiid, DeMar DeRozan, Ja Morant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo—ask Murray why Jokic should earn the honor for the second-straight season and the point guard keeps it succinct.
“Because he’s the MVP,” says Murray.
We caught up with him late last week via Zoom to talk about how he is progressing with rehab, precisely why Jokic is—believe it or not—underrated, the advice Klay Thompson offered Murray immediately after the injury, and his favorite game to play with his homies back in his native Canada, Call of Duty.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
I’ll get the annoying question out of the way, that I’m sure you’ve been asked 10,000 times at this point, but when will we finally see you back on the court?
You know what’s funny is I ask that question myself every day. I’m too far to tell. I’m obviously progressing every week. But I have my bad weeks where I can’t do the simple stuff and then I’ll have weeks where I feel like I can jump out of the gym. It’s just getting the stress pain down. Adding tolerance right now and trying to ramp it up. I don’t know. I’m in a good spot, I just don’t know the exact time right now.
But you feel like your return is on the horizon.
I’m trending steadily, yeah. It’s different when you’re in it. You can’t really tell. You don’t really know how much time has passed. But I know I have a couple of months before the playoffs. I’m just trying to gear up as much as I can, and if not, I’ll just sit out. Taking it slowly, not really thinking about the months ahead, just taking it day by day. Months ahead from now I can say I put in the work.
I was trying to think of more non-cliché questions to ask you about the injury but it’s tough. Taking a 30,000-foot view, how much has this entire process sucked?
It’s been tedious. It’s not just me sitting out for a year—it’s the work, the continuous work you’re putting in to get back, or to get back to that level. And you’re always thinking you’re going into the abyss, you’re going into the unknown and you’re just trying to figure it out as you go. And that’s the toughest part. Not knowing when I’m going to come back. Not knowing how I’m going to feel. Not having the reps. Not having the confidence yet to do what I do. It’s just building all that back up right now and that’s been the toughest part up until this point. Now I’m just blessed to be back on the court doing what I can and it’s about feeling better every day.
“I watch some of these people on social media talk like he’s not the MVP and if you actually have played basketball and you’ve watched basketball, he dominates the game without jumping out the gym, without moving the fastest, and he’s just picking defenses apart—he’s being double-teamed every possession—and still averaging a triple-double without his two main scorers out there on the court.”
Did you hit up other guys around the league who have had ACL tears for intel and guidance?
For sure. I hit up a few guys and they hit me up as well. The league showed a lot of love. Guys that have been through it just kind of showed me what I’m walking into and how to deal with certain things. It was just nice to see guys like Dejounte [Murray] and Zach [LaVine] make the All-Star team and coming off years where they tore their ACL. Seeing that and seeing where they’re at and how they’re playing and the level they’re playing at and the confidence they’re playing with gives me a bright spot and hope at the end of the tunnel. But right now, I’m just working on myself.
Is there an individual who gave you a lesson or pointer that’s really stuck with you throughout the process?
Everybody talked to me. It’s hard to name one. I had Zach talk to me. I had Dejounte talk to me. I talked to [Victor] Oladipo. Spencer Dinwiddie. I could go on. But when I first tore it in Golden State, Klay Thompson came into the X-ray room—obviously they couldn’t tell from the X-ray, but that’s where I found out it could be the ACL—and he was just giving me advice on where he’s coming from and how long it’s been since he played and what to look forward to and how he managed it. It was the first day that it happened so I was listening to him, but it didn’t register because I was upset. Now that I look back at it, man, what he said and where he was before he came back, kind of gave me perspective. I’ll get there. I just have to be patient and put the work in now so it’ll show later.
Alright, so switching it up, tell me why Nikola Jokic is the MVP. The stats and numbers he’s putting up are historic. But why does he deserve it again this year?
I watch some of these people on social media talk like he’s not the MVP and if you actually have played basketball and you’ve watched basketball, he dominates the game without jumping out the gym, without moving the fastest, and he’s just picking defenses apart—he’s being double-teamed every possession—and still averaging a triple-double without his two main scorers out there on the court. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but it’s underrated. How much more do you want him [to do]? He has to basically go up and dunk between his legs for you guys to be happy. He does everything that a winning team and a championship team needs and it’s self-explanatory. He’s the Most Valuable Player every time he steps on the court.
What do you appreciate about him most on the court?
I appreciate his will to win. When we’re playing together, he’s unselfish. I pass the ball, he passes it back. He doesn’t care who takes the last shot. He just wants to win. That’s the most fun part. I know it’s incredible, his passing, but we all have one goal in mind, and he leads us with that and he shows that with how much he gets everybody involved, one through 12, whoever steps in the game.
What impresses you most about him away from basketball?
How he’s the same person he is now as he came into the league. Goofy, down to Earth, humble, and at the same time the best player on the court. That means a lot to a team, to us. He’s not the only one winning, he makes us feel like we’re all winning together. He’s never just singling himself out.
And tell me what you have going on with Call of Duty?
Downloaded [the] new Vanguard. Was a little late to it. Figured out some new guns. I like the Owen gun. [I’m] using that a lot lately. Other than that, some pistols. Some knife action. I don’t know if you saw me play with the guys at All the Smoke. Stephen Jackson, used a knife to throw against him. Adding more weapons to the tool kit.
Have you played way more than you would’ve like, the past year or so?
Yeah, I definitely have. I hop on with my homies all the time back home, that’s how we stay in touch. We’ll just hop in a Warzone game. I like the new maps that they came out with. I thought that was pretty cool. I’ve just been exploring, trying to get acclimated to the new map. But other than that, just having fun.
Are you someone that plays with your friends, teammates, or randomly hops into games? What’s your go-to?
I’m a big solo guy. I just like to go there and figure it out myself, move on my own time. Strategize by myself, have no one else to listen to or follow. But at the same time I do like playing with two other people that can carry me as well, know what they’re doing, and allow me to tag along and enjoy the show. But I mix it up.
Are you a trash talker?
When I’m getting kills, yeah, I’m a trash talker. [Laughs.] I haven’t been playing as long [as my friends], but they claim they’re better than me. So when I end up with eight or nine kills and they only have three or four, I tell them to pull their weight.