DENVER | Jamal Murray can score. The Denver Nuggets desperately needed a scorer.
So this was a slam dunk decision, especially since he slipped down the board.
Denver selected the Kentucky shooting guard with the No. 7 pick in the NBA draft on Thursday night as they try to turn around a franchise that’s missed the playoffs the past three seasons.
The 19-year-old Murray is coming off a freshman season in which he averaged 20 points a game — the highest scoring average for a Wildcats player under coach John Calipari. The 6-foot-4 Murray also had 113 3-pointers, the second-most in NCAA history for a freshman. The only freshman who had more was Steph Curry (122).
“I have ultimate confidence in myself and my abilities,” said Murray, who’s never been to Denver other than to catch a connecting flight. “I’m a competitor and I want to get out there and show what I can do.”
Even more now that he has a chip on his shoulder. He firmly believed he was the best pick in the draft and just happened to fall.
“We were pleasantly surprised (he was there) and certainly that was the guy we really wanted,” general manager Tim Connelly said. “It’s no secret that our shot making was a major concern. This whole process started months and months ago, he’s been a guy we targeted heavily.”
Denver took power forward Juan Hernangomez of Spain at No. 15 and guard/forward Malik Beasley out of Florida State with the 19th pick. In the second round, the team selected French forward Petr Cornelie. The Nuggets sent their final pick — Connecticut forward Daniel Hamilton at No. 56 — to Oklahoma City for cash.
“We weren’t taking positions so much as: Can you shoot? Can you defend? If you can do both, fantastic,” Connelly said. “I think we’ve turned the corner and I think a night like this gets you pretty excited when you add three more, four more, pieces.”
The 6-foot-9 Hernangomez was originally an early candidate heading into the 2015 draft before withdrawing his name from consideration to gain more seasoning with his club team, Movistar Estudiantes. His brother, Willy Hernangomez, was selected in the second round in ’15 and his draft rights are owned by the New York Knicks.
“I have only one word for it, for this team, and that is, ‘Thank you.’ Thank you so much,” Juan Hernangomez said. “I really appreciate it.”
Hernangomez isn’t sure whether the Nuggets want him to join the team this season or remain in Spain. If the decision is up to him, he would like to venture to the Mile High City.
“He has the game to come over,” Connelly said. “It’s a conversation we’ll have with his representatives.”
Beasley averaged 15.6 points in 34 games for the Seminoles. He’s recovering from a stress fracture in his right leg, but should be ready by camp, Beasley said.
“I have no doubt in my mind he is going to be successful and that his best basketball is ahead of him,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said.
The Nuggets are coming off a season in which they finished 33-49 in coach Michael Malone’s first season in charge. They showed signs of improvement behind point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, the seventh overall selection a year ago.
Mudiay may now be paired with Murray to form a prolific backcourt. Although, Connelly made it clear that Gary Harris is the starting two-guard at the moment.
“We’ll be a good team,” Murray responded when asked about Mudiay.
Murray views himself as a “point guard in a two-guard’s body.” But he’s open to playing whatever position the Nuggets ask of him.
“My whole life I played the point, so naturally I think as a point,” Murray said. “Two guard, I get to score more.”
Murray’s strengths are listed like this: Dominant offensive talent who can play both guard positions. Can create space. Has a lethal mid- and long-range jumper. Confident ball handler. Great court vision.
His weakness: Defense. But that should soon change, given that Malone preaches defense above all else.
Still, the Nuggets were searching for another scoring threat and certainly got it in Murray. His 35 points against Florida tied the school scoring record for a freshman. He also had a 3-pointer in every game.
“We’re pretty fired up,” Connelly said.
Associated Press writer Joe Reedy contributed to this story from Tallahassee, Florida.