What Fruits They Bear

Jamal Murray, relatable (Courtesy ESPN)

On Tuesday night, we received the first-ever NBA Game 7 that occurred in the month of September. The series had been a showcase for two of the league’s premier young teams, the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, and specifically for those teams’ respective young guards, Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell.

Two teams, of the same juggernaut division in the same juggernaut conference, sporting a guard apiece of the modern vintage, but with a distinctly timeless flair: they are Murray and Mitchell, players who would’ve been wildly successful in any era of the NBA but are coming into their own now, in an exceedingly strange 2020. This first round series, an instant and all-time classic, certainly had the flavor of, if not necessarily “kingmaking,” then a long-awaited debutant ball. Each of them revealed parts of themselves and their respective games that are almost certain to shock and amaze for years to come.

So, as with everything showing any kind of promise under the microscope of popular opinion, we ask: Where do they go now?

Inversely a year apart in both birth and draft class, eventually attending college in the same state for rival schools – Murray was born over five months later, but drafted a year earlier, a product of John Calipari’s one-and-done factory at the University of Kentucky, while the Westchester County, New York-bred Mitchell[1] plied his trade at Louisville for two years – the two lottery picks arrived with the vanishing hope that eternally evades small market teams desperate for a draft pick, whom the team can control for the ensuing 4-7 years.

Both guards were All-Rookie, with Mitchell first team and Murray second team. Mitchell was an All-Star this (this?) season. Murray’s first appearance is soon to follow. In their own ways, they’ve been going back and forth separately for as long as they’ve been in the league; the first round series between their teams was just the most prominent clash they have thus far had, a shared coming out party.

Mitchell had games of 57, 30, 20, 51, 30, 44 and 22; Murray followed with 36, 14, 12, 50, 42, 50 and 17. Basically, unless you were at Game 3, you could count on one of them to score 30, and on three instances, at least one of them was going for 40. Both far exceeded their career averages in several categories.

(Stats courtesy basketball-reference.com)

Under the duress of great anticipation, neither had an especially impressive Game 7, with Mitchell a photo-negative version of his regular season self and Murray only seeming to gain steam in the final five minutes. They were both visibly trying to will their teams to victory, and they were both visibly exhausted.

When the circus ending of Game 7 ended with a Mike Conley shot that went halfway down before rimming out, Mitchell fell to the floor, the Jazz having lost by a tantalizingly close 80-78. Who would pick him up but Murray, who had been openly appreciative of his counterpart’s exploits throughout the series.

One of the more fascinating questions coming out of both this series and the bubble concerns the further development of these two gentlemen, breakout stars and shining lights of the NBA’s future. They represent the best shot at anything like “parity,” that particular hope, should they be considered among the building blocks of their respective franchises (the obvious nods going to Nikola Jokić for Denver and Rudy Gobert for Utah as their long-term counterparts).

After signing an extension estimated to be in the $170 million range, Jamal Murray’s contract runs through 2024-’25. After some concern over not signing an extension before entering the bubble, Donovan Mitchell is expected to sign a similar contract with the Jazz in October. They appear to be geared to battle for years to come.

While Murray heads toward the expected buzzsaw that is the Los Angeles Clippers – he admirably if incapably gunning his heart out in what turned out to be a Clippers 120-97 Game 1 win – Mitchell is left to mull next season, and the uneasy but effective partnership he has fostered with Gobert. An uncertainly long offseason awaits, in both cases.

When Scott Van Pelt informed Murray he would be playing the Clippers Thursday night, Murray delivered one of the most relatable pieces of broadcasted reaction I have ever seen from a professional athlete: “We play Thursday? …bummer.”

[1] Mitchell grew up – and, by all accounts, remains – a huge New York Mets fan, as his dad was an executive with the team. This is more than enough reason to gratuitously shout out Tom Seaver, the three-time Cy Young Award winner and 1969 World Series champion who passed away on August 31st. Here’s to The Franchise, the foremost figure of the #nice Mets.


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