From mentoring a teenaged Anthony Davis at the Olympics, to secretly working out with Gordon Hayward, to texting Isaiah Thomas tips based on his game tape, Kobe Bryant was always there to help basketball’s next generation if they wanted it. The late Lakers legend was also happy to assist the young players taking over the franchise he led for 20 years, giving Kyle Kuzma tips both on and off the court.
The latest player to reveal they got some advice from Kobe? According to the excellently named Harrison Wind of The DNVR, it was Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, who sought out Bryant during the 2019 offseason for help with one specific element of his game:
Three months before Murray stepped inside Bryant’s Southern California basketball incubator, the Portland Trail Blazers outlasted the Nuggets in a hard-fought seven-game series. A series in which Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and most-memorably Rodney Hood exploited one of Murray’s most significant flaws: his defense.
So Murray got stronger and added muscle. At the Mamba Academy, he asked Bryant, a five-time NBA Champion and nine-time First Team All-Defense selection, how to improve his post defense. Murray then arrived back in Denver last fall, determined to re-write the narrative on his defensive flaws. He did just that in the playoffs this past season, a stretch which Michael Malone continually refers to as the best defense of his franchise point guard’s career.
The numbers bear out Malone’s conclusion. After a 2019 postseason that saw the players Murray defended shoot 2.6% better than their average when Murray was guarding them within six feet of the rim, Murray held players to 8.5% worse shooting than their averages from the same area during the 2020 playoffs, a swing of just over 11%. Clippers players trying to shoot over Murray near the basket fared even worse, shooting 13.2% lower than their average within 6 feet of the rim when Murray was guarding them.
So while Denver’s magical, comeback-filled playoff run can’t be solely chalked up to the tips Murray got from Bryant, it certainly doesn’t appear to have hurt, especially when you consider that Lakers fans should be well aware of how often teams tried to hunt Murray on defense due to his smaller frame, as well as how admirably he fought when LeBron James attempted to do so at times. His awareness that he needed to improve there — and his decision to seek out Bryant to help him do it — portends well for his future in the league as he continues to grow, as recognizing and trying to address weaknesses is one of the most important things a young player can do.
On the Kobe front, this is just a reminder of what the basketball world lost with his tragic passing nearly a year ago. Bryant was as avid a student of the game, someone who was tired of the media focus on narratives and wanted more coverage to be just about basketball, and wanted to teach the next generation of players and fans to love the little things as much as he did. The game lost one of its greatest appreciators and champions, and personally and basketball-wise, we’re all going to be worse off for it for a long time. At least until other players step up to fill the void, to take on Bryant’s never-ending fight to keep pushing the game forward.
But on a happier note, this is also a reason to celebrate, and a reminder that Bryant will never really be gone. His influence on the game is all around us, if you know where to look. It’s there in Murray’s post defense, in Davis’ quest to become a multi-faceted and versatile scorer from every level of the court, in Jayson Tatum’s flair for attacking offensively, and so many other places. You just have to know where to look, and nearly a year after Bryant was lost, we can all appreciate Murray giving us one more place to see where he still is here.