Just a few months ago, Jamal Murray was a standout guard in Canada expected to graduate high school in 2016. He's now the hottest prospect eligible for the 2016 NBA draft.
Murray's late rise started in April, when he tore up the Nike Hoop Summit with 30 points in front of dozens of NBA scouts. It led to him reclassifying and accepting an offer to play at Kentucky in the fall.
His resume and image have only continued to strengthen. Despite being more than eight years younger than the average participant, according to Synergy Sports Technology, Murray was recently a force in the Pan American Games, where he averaged 16 points and helped confirm the Summit breakout as legit.
His success at the Games may also end up earning him an invite to play with Canada in the FIBA Americas Championships (August 31 to September 12)—a tournament in which the top two countries qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Though he never jumped out as a big-time athlete or physical specimen—wrinkles that had previously seemed to limit his perceived ceiling and NBA upside—his recent impact against noteworthy competition has just been too convincing.
Murray's most persuasive pitch to scouts: a 22-point stretch during the fourth quarter and overtime that helped sink Team USA on July 24.
"It was one for the ages, especially against the United States, against seasoned pros; some NBA players, some fringe NBA players," Canada's assistant general manager Rowan Barrett told the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker.
At 18 years old, Murray took over with unstoppable playmaking and shotmaking during the game's final 15 minutes. It highlighted the offensive firepower he packs, as well as some eye-opening poise and confidence.
"He always had the ability to compartmentalize big moments. Those moments really never got too big," Murray's coach at Orangeville Prep, Larry Blunt, told Bleacher Report. "Even as a youngster, he just had a maturity that was unbelievable for a young man his age."
"The bigger the stage, the bigger he's performed," said Blunt. "And history repeats itself."
The Scouting Report
Murray compensates for a lack of burst with exceptional ball skills and basketball IQ. At 6'5", he has good size for a 2-guard, along with the handle and off-the-dribble game to create at the point.
Either way, Murray remains a scorer at heart with terrific offensive instincts. He shakes defenders left and right using hesitation and change of speed. And he's awfully crafty in the lane, with the ability to hit floaters and other awkward shots off one foot on the move.
However, it's Murray's perimeter game that separates him and ultimately translates to points in bunches.
He's lethal from outside, both with the stop-and-pop and spot-up jumper from downtown. Murray knocked down 40.7 percent of his threes at the Pan Am Games after sinking three of seven triples at the Nike Hoop Summit.
And though you wouldn't categorize him as a distributor, Murray has strong timing and feel when setting the table for teammates off ball screens and penetration.
"A lot of people don't realize how well he can facilitate and pass," said Blunt. "He averaged almost nine assists a game for us. He can really create and create for others. Because he scores it so well, people are quick to call him a 2-guard."
Murray's versatility should ultimately go a long way for him at Kentucky, where coach John Calipari has run with the philosophy of playing positionless basketball. Chances are Murray will be setting up from all different spots and angles as a freshman.
Fit with Kentucky
With Tyler Ulis returning to the Wildcats' backcourt as a sophomore, and Isaiah Briscoe, another incoming freshman ball-handler, also expected to play, Murray's fit and role with Kentucky should become a talking point early on.
The big question is how well Murray adapts to sharing the rock, and even playing off it.
As Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress points out, "Murray tends to get quiet and somewhat passive when he isn't the focal point of the action."
"He's great with the ball," Blunt said. "He can really, really create and facilitate for others, and he can really score. I think he's best when he has the ball for sure."
Suiting up alongside Ulis and Briscoe will certainly take some adjusting for Murray, who, compared to his days in high school, will have less freedom and fewer opportunities to make things happen and build individual rhythm.
Murray should receive reps this year both managing the offense and working from the wing. And as the season progresses, I'd imagine there will be regular debate over Murray's true position, as well as his NBA potential and draft stock.
NBA Projection and Draft Outlook
"He's a point guard," Blunt said. "He's like a Jason Kidd type. I'd say he's a better shooter than when Kidd came out of high school or college."
While scouts I've reached out to have refrained from pegging Murray as a future NBA star this early in the process, his size, skills, intelligence and production are bound to fuel big-name comparisons throughout the year.
His former coach even believes Murray is actually better suited for the pros than college, where his green light won't be as bright and the floor won't be as open.
"I think his game translates more to the NBA because he can create his own shot, create space and do those things," said Blunt.
With more and more scorers emerging as primary ball-handlers in today's NBA, Murray's dangerous one-on-one attack—which he pads with a willingness to look for teammates—will certainly be coveted by general managers searching for a new lead guard.
He could very well be the first point off the board in what's expected to be a lottery dominated by wings, forwards and bigs. Expect the top-five buzz surrounding Murray to start up early in 2015-16.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.