I have no qualms falling in love with every single Canadian who enters the NBA. From Andrew Wiggins to Oshae Brissett and everyone in between. There are more Canadians in the league now than ever before (22) and the flood shows no signs of slowing down. In the 2019 Draft NBA teams selected a record six Canadians with 3 going undrafted and joining teams later on. Brandon Clarke is a lock for the all-rookie first team, R.J. Barrett is the toast of New York (god that’s sad), Luguentz Dort was holding James Harden to 30.5% when guarding him, and Jamal Murray is hotter than a summer seatbelt.
It’s that last one that I want to talk about in particular. Born in Kitchener Ontario (about an hour west of Toronto), and appropriately nicknamed “The Blue Arrow” for his piercing scoring style, Jamal Murray has been a big-time player for the Nuggets for a few years now, but not until this summer did he truly blossom into a star.
In the first round against the Jazz, Murray averaged 31 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists, all while shooting 55% from the field, and 53% from 3pt. This offensive explosion from Murray peaked in games 4, 5, and 6, where in a historic duel with Donovan Mitchell, Murray dropped 50, 42, and 50.
The reason I say Murray is the first Torontonian star is because he truly plays like one of us.
Let me explain. Our city has had a handful of NBA players, some good ones too. Andrew Wiggins was a rookie of the year, Tristan Thompson was a starter on the champion ‘16 Cavs, and Jamaal Magloire was an all-star in 2004. All of that is awesome, I love those guys, they’re great, but Murray is the first Torontonian to fully embrace his city and make it part of his game.
Many of the great sports cities spark specific personalities amongst their native players. L.A. is cool and smooth, New York is loud and gritty, Boston is loud and feisty, Philly is loud and loud, etc. Guys from New York play like New Yorkers, guys from Philadelphia play like Philadelphians, you get it.
Now, I don’t think we’ve been able to peg Toronto as a basketball personality until now, but Jamal Murray embodies the city’s game perfectly. He isn’t loud, he isn’t really that tough, but Jamal Murray has a nasty streak. He has no problem playing mean, playing dirty, and telling you about it. He’s not gonna punch you in the face, but he might whack you in the balls as he runs past. The man has no problems taking the biggest shot in the game or talking smack when he makes a good move, not because he’s petty, but because he needs to show everyone how good he truly is.
“We were always the underdogs, we always had our own little energy.” Said Murray, speaking on Toronto ball players in an interview with VICE Sports.
No other Canadian NBA player was so fully in tune with the culture of his city. Even the great Steve Nash was a soccer and hockey player before he found basketball. He grew up in a time and place that didn’t really have a basketball identity. Murray did.
Because of the melting pot of culture Toronto is, the city plays basketball with a mix of American and Euro influence. Combining the athleticism of the States with the tricks and turns of the international game to make a delicious smoothie of craftiness and explosion. That’s Murray. He’s a Torontonian who plays like a Torontonian, and he’s shown time and again how much the city and its team means to him.
Growing up a Raptors fan, Murray often talks about how playing in Scotiabank Arena gives him a boost on the floor.
In an interview with Ryan Wolstat of The Chronicle Herald: “Only when I play (in Toronto). Here (in Denver), it’s just another home game for me. But when I go there the energy is definitely different.”
And the numbers back that up. Against Toronto, Jamal’s career points per 36 minutes average rises from 19 to 20, despite Toronto’s defensive metrics suggesting he should be closer to 17.
It is true our Raptors have often had trouble with players like Murray. Lowry and VanVleet are great guarding multiple positions, but against athletic combo-guards who’re quicker and bigger than they are, they have been known to struggle (think Russell Westbrook, or Jaylen Brown). Murray fits this description with his 6’4 frame and sneaky athleticism, so while it’s fun to root for him, it’s less fun when he drops 30 on your head.
Murray has always played better on the Raptors floor, but for a minute this year there were rumours that he might be on that floor more often.
In late April, Bleacher Report suggested the Raptors may be interested in swapping Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby for Jamal Murry and Jerami Grant. The key component of this trade being that both teams were at a “crossroads” so to speak. The Raptors because of Lowry’s age (34), and the Nuggets because Murray had just signed a five-year $170-million extension that to that point he had yet to live up to.
It’s hard to imagine that trade happening now, but it did make Raptors fans’ ears prick up.
Murray’s rise as the face of Canadian hoops has been one of the feel-good stories of this playoffs, but he knows it isn’t all laughs. The main message of the NBA this year has been the fight for racial justice. Players have been pushing hard to forward the message of equality for months now, but in the post-game interview after game 6, Murray gave Toronto and the NBA another angle on the fight for justice. Speaking to NBA TV’s Jared Greenberg with power and emotion in his voice, Murray addressed the issues that plague both countries via the shoes he had on, adorned with the faces of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“Cause it’s not just in America, it happens everywhere. For us coming together in the NBA, it doesn’t just take one meeting, it takes a few meetings, it takes phone calls, it takes resistance, and it’s not going to take one night. We’ve been trying to fight for 40 years, but these shoes give me life. Even though these people are gone, they give me life, they help me find strength to keep fighting in this world.”
When we consider the criteria for an NBA star, it all starts and ends on the court. But when we think about the players who are most remembered, LeBron, Jordan, Kobe, Wade, Bill Russell, they’re remembered not just because of how they played, but how they resonated with the league and the fans. Jamal Murray has a long way to go if he wants to be mentioned in the same breath as those guys, but when we see him drop 50 playoff points to stave off elimination, then turn around and give the most powerful interview of these wild past three months, it’s clear that Murray resonates. He resonates with all NBA fans, but especially with us, because when he speaks, it comes from the place we speak from, when he plays, he plays the way we play, and he does so spectacularly. America has hundreds of special athletes to play for them, fight for them, and move them. Toronto has Jamal Murray, and we’re proud of it.