When Denver Nuggets open the 2022-23 NBA season in Salt Lake City on Oct. 19, it will have been just over 18 months since star guard Jamal Murray suffered a torn left ACL on a drive to the basket against the Golden State Warriors.
Without Murray for the entirety of the 2021-22 campaign, the Nuggets were eliminated in the first round by the eventual champion Warriors. While external hope bubbled for a possible postseason return, Murray conceded that the conservative approach was ultimately the right path with an eye to the future.
"It was tough, but I just wanted to wait until I was healthy, until I could play the game without thinking about it. I didn't want to be doing both out there, especially in the biggest 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 right, now I can go into the next season with a lot more confidence."
Adding six months to his comeback may not have been ideal, but it has allowed Murray to become further in tune with the mechanics of his movement on return to basketball activities.
"It was challenging, but it got easier. I felt every month I could do something new, strength wise, agility wise, I just saw constant improvement every month. Even now, I'm healthy but I can still see improvement in my game, what I'm comfortable to do and what and how I want to move on the court, it's much more fluid than before."
"Early on, I wasn't able to move at all. I had to figure out what I was going to do in a pick-and-roll, if I have to see the pass earlier, hit a guy a step earlier, not getting to the paint as deep to hit a floater, just little details you study. That's what I've been doing, studying how to land, all of that stuff goes through your mind. It's been interesting, you get to learn more about yourself and more about your game as time goes on."
Aside from the physical progression, the rollercoaster of watching from the sideline proved challenging for an athlete whose sharp rise to stardom had suddenly been halted on a dribble move he had executed thousands of times without incident.
"Every day was different. When we were playing teams that we should beat and it's close or we lose, those ones sucked. If it was just another day of rehab and I'm sore, it was like, 'you guys got it today'," he said with a laugh.
"I got into a routine off the court when I wasn't playing, that was fun. I had never had this time of time off before, so it was nice to get my whole body right and be able to come into the season 100 percent."
"You don't want to be with the team the whole time because it gets to your head sometimes. It was nice to get away and come back and refresh myself. Even through rehab, not just watching basketball. You have to stick with the grind. It's tedious work but if you do it right, it pays off in the end."
Denver head coach Michael Malone has hinted at an early season minute restriction for Murray as he acclimatises back to NBA speed. While Murray has no doubt he can and will return to his pre-injury level of play, he is prepared to acknowledge the road to consistency may endure peaks and troughs along the way.
"I just already accept that I'm going to have a really bad game at some point. That can help my preparation where if something isn't working, I can figure out quickly how to adjust it in the moment. If I'm shooting bad, I have to get to the free-throw line, if I'm playing bad in general, I know I got to play defence.
"I just set myself up for those moments in the game where I know I'm not going to be able to do what I want to do if I'm off a sore day or something. I'm just looking forward to it, I don't overthink when it comes to basketball. If you want to let me shoot, let me shoot, I'm confident in my game like that."
"I feel like I've gotten better in the span I've been out. I may not jump as high right now, but I feel like I pass better, I see the game better, my pace is a little better, I shoot a little more efficiently. I'm just looking to bring all those aspects to my game, just so I can get a feel for how hard guys are going to play again, in front of crowds' adrenaline is running a little different, loose balls are harder to get, stuff like that."
On a broader scale, the Nuggets are expected to make a leap with Murray returning alongside Michael Porter Jr., who managed just nine regular season appearances last year due to continued back issues. In addition to the returning pair, Denver acquired Aaron Gordon in March 2021 via trade, just weeks before Murray's injury adding to a virtually untried core nucleus.
"That's the tough part, knowing how good we are when we're healthy," Murray said. "Being able to go through the whole season would be fun, there would be a lot of expectations, but we still did very well (last season) for a team that was hurt a lot.
"That shows the potential and where we can go with this 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 we'll continue that this season."
Along with Denver, the LA Clippers are pegged for a climb up the standings with the return of Kawhi Leonard. The New Orleans Pelicans are hopeful of a healthy season from Zion Williamson. The Minnesota Timberwolves added Rudy Gobert. The list goes on in a Western Conference squeeze for the postseason.
While the Nuggets appear to sit in a crowded space of franchises optimistic of climbing the standings, Murray is focused on one thing only. A long-awaited healthy season for Denver, believing the rest will take of itself.
"I don't care. I don't care what they've got. I know we have a great team," he quickly responded when asked about the depth in the West.
"We have a great team. Everybody knows what we can do, you've seen the snippets of what we can do when we're all healthy together, so we just look 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."