Zen and the Art of Making the Perfect Player: Meet Kentucky's Jamal Murray

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagNovember 16, 2015

Nov 6, 2015; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Jamal Murray (23) dribbles the ball against Kentucky State Thorobreds forward Ivan Hooker (24) in the second half at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated Kentucky State 111-58. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

LEXINGTON, Ky. — He'd traveled more than 600 miles, crossed the Canadian border and sat through a high school workout in an Ontario gym. Now, finally, it was time for Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne to shake the hand of the recruit he'd been so anxious to meet.

Or so he thought.

As Payne rose from his seat in the Orangeville Prep bleachers and began to approach Jamal Murray, the star guard's father stepped in and told Payne he'd need to wait a little longer.

"I'm sorry," Roger Murray said, "but Jamal needs time to meditate."

Sure enough, Payne turned his head and saw the top teenage player in Canada sitting alone on the hardwood in a corner of the gym. His eyes were closed, his mind clearly in deep thought. It's a ritual Jamal Murray says he practices both before and after every workout—and every game.

"Mental kung fu," he calls it.

"Sometimes I'm reflecting on a practice and things I could've done better," Murray says. "Other times I'm visualizing things that will happen in a game. Having that time to myself is important. It's a big part of who I am as a player."

No one can argue with the results.

Murray—who signed with Kentucky in June after reclassifying to the class of 2015—is projected to be a top-10 pick in next summer's NBA draft, thanks, in part, to a string of banner performances last spring and summer.

In April he was named MVP of the Nike Hoop Summit following a 30-point effort in the World Team's 103-101 victory over Team USA. Two months later, in the Pan American Games, Murray led Team Canada to a 111-108 win over Team USA by scoring all 22 of his points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Entering what will likely be his only season in college, Murray has arguably been the top performer—both in practices and in scrimmages—for a Kentucky team with realistic hopes of a third straight berth in the Final Four.

"Not only is Murray the top point guard prospect in the draft," ESPN's draft analyst Chad Ford wrote, "he might be the best player in college basketball."

Such lofty praise doesn't surprise Rowan Barrett, the assistant general manager of Canada Basketball who discovered Murray four years ago.

"He's a heat-seeking missile," Barrett said. "He's talented, yes. But there's something special inside of him."

That, more than anything, is what shapes the narrative surrounding Murray. Even more interesting than his talent and accomplishments is the path he took to achieve them.

By the time he was six years old—while most kids his age were obsessed with Star Wars figures, Legos and video games—Murray was competing in basketball leagues against 10-year-olds. To ensure he remained focused on basketball growing up, Murray's father had the family's cable television disconnected.

The advent of social media didn't distract Murray as he grew older. In fact, before his arrival at Kentucky over the summer, Murray didn't even have a cell phone. Instead of hanging out with friends at the mall as a teenager, Murray spent his free time in the gym. Last summer his father said he made 270 consecutive free throws.

Jamal Murray's late-game offensive heroics led Canada past the U.S. and to an eventual second-place finish at the Pan Am Games this year.
Jamal Murray's late-game offensive heroics led Canada past the U.S. and to an eventual second-place finish at the Pan Am Games this year.Julio Cortez/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Even now, it's not uncommon to find Murray shooting alone, late into the night, on Kentucky's practice court.

"You've got to understand…this kid is different now," Payne says. "This entire situation is different. It's not just a kid saying, 'I want to be a good basketball player.' His whole approach is unique and interesting and cerebral.

"It's something we've never seen."

As much as Jamal Murray grew up idolizing NBA stars Vince Carter and Michael Jordan, the biggest influence on his playing style was a person who likely never touched a basketball: Bruce Lee.

The seeds were planted decades before Jamal was even born.   

Roger Murray estimates he was about seven years old when he became enamored with Lee, a famous martial artist who starred in a series of movies in the early 1970s. More than his kicks and chops, Roger was impressed with the way the 5'7" Lee never backed down from his much-larger combatants—how he never showed fear. The more he watched Lee, the more curious Roger became.

"I wanted to know more about how he got so strong mentally," Roger said. "No matter who was standing in front of him, he was never afraid."

Roger began reading books on kung fu and learning about the mentality one must develop to practice it successfully. Eventually he began using the techniques on his own and vowed that, if he ever had a son, he'd train him to think the same way.

Years later, Roger made good on his promise.

UNCREDITED/Associated Press

Before he ever reached high school, Jamal had been taught by his dad how to draw strength from kung fu. He says he began a routine of showering before every game to "refresh his body" then finding a quiet space in the locker room to meditate and visualize things that would happen over the next few hours on the court.

The ritual, which he still practices today, has such a calming effect that Murray says it lowers his in-game heart rate to 34 beats per minute. A normal, resting heart rate is about 40-60 beats per minute, according the American Heart Association. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Murray's most impressive trait is his ability to stay calm and even-keeled during the most intense moments of a game.

"When you meditate," Murray says, "you go deeper into your thinking and explore parts of your mind that you never would've explored.

"When you're calm, you're more focused and you make better choices. The game is moving fast, but to you it still seems slow."

Murray's former mentors say they've never encountered an athlete who takes such an intellectual approach to the game.

"He reminds me of (former NBA coach) Phil Jackson—a Zen master on the court," says Tony McIntyre, who coached Murray's AAU team, the CIA Bounce. "The whole time he's playing, he's in a different zone—a different place than anyone else."

As much as he depends on the mental aspect of his game, the 6'4" Murray wouldn't have flourished into one of North America's top players without years of work on the court, too. And just like with kung fu, Roger Murray deserves most of the credit for his son's development.

Before he ever reached kindergarten in Kitchener, Ontario, Jamal was being put through dribbling exercises, footwork drills and shooting sessions under the watchful eye of his father.

"I stopped my life for this kid," Roger Murray chuckles.

When Roger went to the local gym to play pickup ball with his friends, Jamal joined in. Playing against 10-year-olds at age six, Dad figured, would seem easy after competing against grown men.

John Calipari sees Murray as a player who defies an easy categorization, noting that the freshman can play any position.
John Calipari sees Murray as a player who defies an easy categorization, noting that the freshman can play any position.James Crisp/Associated Press

Instead of focusing on one position, Roger taught Jamal the intricacies of all five. They'd spend months working on the footwork and post moves of power forwards and centers before honing the inside-out game of a small forward. Then came the shooting stations to hone his scoring prowess on the wing and, months later, the dribbling drills that would help him as a point guard.

"He's a positionless player," Kentucky coach John Calipari says. "We can use him anywhere on the court."

Murray's versatility didn't surface by accident. It was all part of a plan—one that saw his mother, Sylvia, guiding his academic studies while Roger took care of the on-court lessons.

At the direction of his father, Jamal would often play entire games without taking a single shot, instead focusing on notching a double-figure total in assists. Other times he was only allowed to attempt field goals with his left hand, which eventually helped him become ambidextrous.

When they weren't in the gym, Jamal and his father were on the track working on sprints to increase his speed. Roger also said he put Jamal through exercises, such as push-ups in the snow, to increase his pain tolerance. He declined to elaborate further.

"I don't want to give away all of my secrets," Roger says. "The whole idea was to get him to block out what he was feeling—that it was only temporary. Some kids get hit or cut and immediately think it's worse than it is. I tried to show him that pain is something we all go through, that it's a part of life. If you don't get freaked out by it, you can get past it."

So focused on basketball and his studies was Jamal that he didn't have time for much of a social life. His dad subscribed to cable a few times during the winter so he and his son could watch basketball games, but he eventually discontinued the service for good. Murray never had a cell phone throughout high school—only an iPod he rarely used. The only reason he joined Twitter was to discredit the impersonators who had started accounts pretending to be him.

"I didn't let him hang out with kids at the mall, either," Roger says. "Kids waste so much time these days. They cheat themselves. I wanted everything he did to have a purpose."

Murray's willingness to defend, along with his varied skills, immediately caught the attention of Canada's national team.
Murray's willingness to defend, along with his varied skills, immediately caught the attention of Canada's national team.Harry How/Getty Images

Murray's hard work in grade school began to pay off when he was 15. It was then that Barrett, the Canada Basketball assistant GM, received a call from a friend urging him to drive to Falstaff Community Centre in Ontario to watch a kid he'd never heard of compete in a pickup game.

There—in the same gym where former Canadian stars such as Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Dwight Powell and Nik Stauskas used to train—Barrett's jaw dropped as he watched a player who may someday be better than all of them.

"(Murray) was diving on the floor for loose balls," Barrett says. "He was in passing lanes. He was rebounding on both ends, and he was scoring on layups and and-1's and threes and off of one leg. Defensively, he was up in guys' (jerseys).

"His motor and competitiveness were off the charts. The things that are hard to quantify…he had those things inside of him."

Murray immediately began training with Canada Basketball and, within a year, he was starring in  international competitions. As a 16-year-old, he had 24 points and seven rebounds in the Jordan Brand International game and also averaged 17.4 points for Team Canada in the U16 FIBA Americas.

"The big games, the big moments, seem to ignite him," Barrett says. "There's a switch there. That's when you see his teeth."

As big of a factor as he was on the court, Murray also set an example in other ways. When Barrett tried to hold him out of a practice because of a mild ankle sprain, Murray asked if he could at least put on his jersey and watch from the sideline. Barrett agreed, and then Murray capitalized by sneaking into a drill while his coaches were at the other end of the court.

Another time, coaches became concerned with their player's workload—they were practicing twice a day for two hours—while training for the U16 FIBA Americas.

Murray's near-obsession with practice, and busy playing schedule, prompted his father to force him to take a short break after he committed to Kentucky.
Murray's near-obsession with practice, and busy playing schedule, prompted his father to force him to take a short break after he committed to Kentucky.Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

"Jamal was shooting in between sessions, and guys were following his lead," Barrett says. "We were worried about fatigue, so we told our staff to literally take away everyone's shoes and hide them. That way we could get them off their feet."

Later that day, though, coaches spotted Murray in the gym during off-hours.

He was shooting barefoot.

"He's got the heart of a lion," Barrett says. "He doesn't need anyone to push him."

Originally a member of the class of 2016, Murray decided to reclassify following his 30-point outburst in the Nike Hoop Summit last spring. It was then, shortly before the Pan Am Games and Jamal's commitment to Kentucky, that Roger Murray, fearing burnout, decided his son had earned some time off.

For more than a month, Jamal Murray rarely played basketball.

"After a few weeks he was like, 'Dad, it feels like I retired,' " Roger says. "He was eager to get back on the court. But I think he needed that break."

Especially since, for the foreseeable future, it'd be the last one he'd get to take.

When Jamal Murray walked into Kentucky's basketball facility for the first time in August, he hadn't even seen his dorm room or stopped by the coaching offices.

Instead, Murray's introduction to Wildcats basketball involved being picked up at the Lexington airport and driven straight to a media training session with his new teammates, some of whom he'd never met.

"I guess that was fitting," says Murray, relaxing on a leather couch in Kentucky's players' lounge last month. "That's what you sign up for when you come here. Basketball is a job now."

Murray may have been well-known in Canada, but never has he dealt with the type of spotlight he'll encounter with the most-scrutinized program in America.

Hundreds of local and national media members dissect the Wildcats' every move, students ask players for pictures as they walk to class and autograph hounds lurk outside the basketball dorm.

Approximately 80 NBA scouts were on hand in October for an open practice televised live on ESPNU. Later that month more than 15,000 fans flocked to Rupp Arena just to watch Kentucky scrimmage.

With Murray, Kentucky is certain to be a frequent destination for NBA scouts this season.
With Murray, Kentucky is certain to be a frequent destination for NBA scouts this season.Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Murray insists he isn't affected by the constant glare and hectic schedule that can often be overwhelming for an 18-year-old freshman.

"I don't mind the workload at all," he says. "I don't feel any stress whatsoever."

That has to be comforting to Calipari, who will depend heavily on Murray to help guide a unit that lost all five starters from last year's Final Four squad.

The Wildcats may elect to go with a three-man backcourt featuring Murray, sophomore Tyler Ulis (who many felt was the team's best point guard last season despite coming off the bench) and freshman Isaiah Briscoe, a McDonald's All-American. If the three players remain unselfish and develop a strong chemistry, Kentucky will have America's top guard trio.

Murray has blended in nicely thus far, scoring 19 points and adding eight assists in a season-opening win for a team that enters the season ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. Game 2 saw him struggle from the field but still add five rebounds and two assists in a blowout Kentucky victory over NJIT.

"He really doesn't have a weakness," Payne said. "He's worked hard to develop as a player, but some of his gifts are a blessing. They're God-given.

"He has instincts that are natural and really, really unique. He doesn't get rattled or panicked or sped up. He's able to digest things and figure out things naturally. Sometimes I don't think he knows how he's doing it."

Mental kung fu, perhaps?

"Hey," Payne says, "whatever works."

Before Kentucky's official workouts began last month, it wasn't uncommon for staff members to call Wildcats players in the evening and urge them to head to the practice gym for a workout. Often, they'd discover Murray was already there, hoisting shot after shot deep into the night as tunes by J. Cole and Busta Rhymes played over the sound system.

Murray scored 19 points, handed out eight assists, grabbed three rebounds and made three steals in his Kentucky debut vs. Albany Friday night.
Murray scored 19 points, handed out eight assists, grabbed three rebounds and made three steals in his Kentucky debut vs. Albany Friday night.Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Payne says Murray's individual sessions can become unorthodox. He'll make 20 straight free throws with his right hand and then force himself to make 20 in a row with his left. Or he'll swish 50 consecutive mid-range jumpers and then challenge himself to connect on 10 straight fading away off one foot.

"Some things are so easy for him that he gets bored with it," Payne says. "Instead of playing against an opponent, he's playing against himself."

Roger Murray appreciates the praise for his son, but it doesn't surprise him. He directed Jamal's path and monitored his training for years—all in preparation for this moment.

"He's way better than anyone realizes," Roger says. "I have confidence that my son can do things no one else is doing."

Still, as excited as they are about what lies ahead, Kentucky's coaches still have one question about Murray.

How will he handle adversity?

All his life, he's been the most dominant player on his team, the best prospect on the court. But how will Murray react during those rare times when things don't go his way?

"It'll be good for him to hit the wall a little bit at some point," Payne says. "It builds character. I'm curious to see how he responds. I mean…that's how great players are measured."

Payne pauses.

"Jamal has a chance to be more than a great player," he says. "He has a chance to be special."

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.