Canadian men's basketball team suffers big blow as Jamal Murray suffers torn ACL

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Jamal Murray's dreams of a long post-season run and an appearance for Canada in the Tokyo Olympics were dashed Monday night when he planted awkwardly on his left knee.

The Nuggets guard from Kitchener, Ont., is out indefinitely with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, a big blow not only to Denver but Canada's men's team in its quest for an Olympic berth.

"Obviously our mind and our thoughts are with Jamal and his family right now," said Rowan Barrett, general manager of Canada's men's program. "But Jamal is a fighter, and my hope for him is that he'll come back even stronger and even better than before.

"If there's somebody that you would bet on to be able to do that, it would definitely be him."

The Nuggets announced details of the injury to their star guard from Kitchener, Ont., less than 24 hours after Murray hurt his knee in the final minute of Denver's 116-107 loss to Golden State on Monday.

With 50 seconds left in the game, the 24-year-old drove through the lane and made a move to the rim. Television replays show his left knee buckling when he planted.

Murray grabbed his knee writhing in pain on the floor for several minutes. A wheelchair was brought onto the court, but the Canadian waved it off, and was instead helped off the court to the locker room.

Barrett hadn't been watching the Nuggets game, but his phone began lighting up with text messages from people who had. The messages continued through the evening and into Tuesday morning.

"And obviously, we're looking at it on replay and obviously you hope for the best, but when you see (it was a non-contact injury), and he goes down, and he's grabbing it like that, then the lack of pressure walking off the floor," Barrett said.

Murray is averaging 21.2 points, 4.8 assists and four rebounds a game this season for the Nuggets, who are fourth in the Western Conference standings.

Canada must win its last-chance qualifying tournament June 29 to July 4 in Victoria to clinch a berth in the Tokyo Olympics. Canada's women's team has already qualified.

Murray won't simply be missed for his play on the floor. Barrett said Murray has grown into a team leader since he propelled Canada to a silver medal at the Pan American Games in Toronto in 2015, when he was just 18.

"On our last (Canadian team) call, Jamal was very vocal. He was telling jokes, he was keeping the levity there with the group and everything," Barrett said. "He has a great spirit to him, anybody who knows him knows he just lights up the room, he's loved by his teammates, and he's a warrior."

Murray was one of the first NBA players to express a desire to play for Canada in the qualifying tournament, which had been scheduled for last summer before COVID-19 forced the postponement of the Olympics by a year.

Barrett said he preferred not to speculate about the team's guard prospects now. But Canada has some depth at the position with Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, veteran Cory Joseph (Detroit Pistons), plus Europe-based players like Kevin Pangos and Phil Scrubb.

Murray became a bona fide superstar for his performance inside the NBA bubble in Florida last summer, averaging 26.5 points and 6.6 assists to push the Nuggets past Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers before they were eliminated by LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals.

The fight against racial injustice was a major theme of the NBA bubble, and Murray was vocal on that front. During one Zoom availability with the media, he left his shoes alone on a chair and walked away. One bore the image of Breonna Taylor, the other of George Floyd, two high-profile victims in police killings of Black people.

"I just wanted it to resonate with you guys," Murray said, when he finally rejoined his shoes in the interview area. "How long was that (his sneakers on the chair)? Two minutes? One of the persons on my shoes had a knee on their neck for eight."

Murray has set several scoring records in his young career. His 48-point performance against Boston back in 2018 — when he was just 21 — was the most points scored by a Canadian in a regular- season game. He scored a career-high 50 points this season against Cleveland, becoming the first player in NBA history to reach that mark without a single free-throw attempt.

The No. 7 pick out of Kentucky in the 2016 draft now has three career 50-point games, including two in the playoffs.

In 2019, Murray signed a five-year contract extension with Denver worth US$170 million, the richest contract for a Canadian NBA player in history.

Most athletes take between nine months and a year to return from torn anterior cruciate ligament injuries. Golden State's Klay Thompson, who tore his ACL in the NBA Finals against Toronto in 2019, sat out all of the 2019-20 NBA season.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press