Kentucky Wildcats guard Jamal Murray is a prime example of how a player can quickly arrive on the NBA's radar. Murray's stock went way up this summer when he was the second-leading scorer for Canada at the Pan Am Games on a roster that consisted of mostly current pros.
Murray leapfrogged the other guards in his class, and he's mostly held his ground through the first few months of the college season at Kentucky.
Murray isn't the typical John Calipari guard. He relies more on his jump shot and skill than speed and athleticism. Scouts are impressed by his abilities as a scorer, but there's debate as to which position he'll play in the pros and whether he's athletic enough to thrive in the league.
|Jamal Murray By the Numbers|
|Kentucky athletics and kenpom.com|
Murray's assist-to-turnover numbers are not good, especially for a player who will be asked to play a lot of point guard at the next level. One reason his assist numbers are low, however, is because he mostly plays shooting guard next to Tyler Ulis and is asked to be more of a scorer than a facilitator.
His offensive rating is the second-lowest among point guards listed in DraftExpress.com's first round, but one reason is that Murray is forced to take harder shots in his role than most of the others. The one point guard with a lower offensive rating in that group, the Providence Friars' Kris Dunn, is another high-usage player who is forced to take some difficult shots.
The most intriguing part of Murray's game is his scoring ability. He not only has the skill level to be a scorer at the next level, but he also has extreme confidence in his self and his game and a willingness to be the go-to guy. That was on display this summer in the Pan Am Games playing for the Canadian national team for the first time—he averaged 16.0 points against older competition—and it's been on display at Kentucky from the moment he stepped foot on campus.
|Age||18 (born Feb. 23, 1997)|
|University of Kentucky|
Murray's jumper has been inconsistent at Kentucky thus far, but he does a good job getting his shots in transition or in the flow of the offense and creating for himself when needed. He is comfortable using a ball screen and does a good job setting himself up off the ball to get his looks. He's ambidextrous, which makes him difficult to defend off the bounce and also helps with his ability to finish around the rim.
"He shows some creative ability to finish around the basket, especially since he's not a great athlete," an Eastern Conference scout said. "I think it's important that he's willing to drive and have some physicality with it, which you also saw when he played in international competition, but also able to finish with some creativity using both of his hands and off the glass."
Murray is a solid passer, and again, the ability to use both hands helps him in that department. He's a good entry passer to the post, which some young players struggle with, and he does a solid job moving the ball in the offense.
In transition, Murray seems to have another gear and makes the right play, whether it's finding a teammate or attacking himself.
If Murray ends up playing point guard in the league, which is what most NBA teams would prefer, he has good positional size.
On the defensive side, Murray is a smart defender who plays with good awareness away from the ball. He's not super quick laterally, but he understands how to guard and he gets most of his steals jumping in passing lanes.
Scouts have two concerns with Murray: his streaky jumper and his athleticism.
Murray stock soared after he scored 30 points at the Nike Hoops Summit and then shot 40 percent from distance in the Pan Am Games, but he's been more inconsistent with his shot at Kentucky.
"I don't think he's as good a shooter as people thought after seeing him shoot in the Pan Am Games," the Eastern Conference scout said. "I think it's going to take a little more work than people originally anticipated."
Most players become better shooters in the pros, and the mechanics of his jumper are solid, which makes that less of a concern than his lack of athleticism.
Scouts view Murray as just an average athlete, which is hard to overcome as a point guard in the league. He's not super quick turning the corner, and he could have trouble getting around NBA point guards or keeping them in front on defense.
"He does a lot of things that NBA teams like that help make up for his lack of athleticism; however, that lack of athleticism concerns you and makes you question whether he's going to be elite, which is why a lot of teams will have difficulty looking at him with a top-five pick," a Western Conference scout said. "But as a lottery pick in this draft, I think it's pretty safe."
Murray has struggled with high turnover numbers at Kentucky, and a lot of those come from trying to do too much. He's prone to over-penetrating, taking the ball too far into traffic and forcing drives sometimes when there's not an opening. But those are correctable mistakes with good coaching.
NBA Player Comparisons
- O.J. Mayo
Mayo is an inch taller, but the scouting report is similar. Both guards are volume/streaky shooters and get by on skill more than athleticism. Mayo is not super explosive around the rim, but he's a good ball-handler and has always been able to hunt shots to varying degrees of success. His shooting numbers in his one season at Southern Cal (44.2 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from deep) are similar to Murray's at UK.
- Chauncey Billups
"He's got a little bit of Chauncey Billups to his game," the Western Conference scout said. "He's a combo guard, but I don't mean that in a bad way. He can shoot. He likes big moments. Not the quickest guy but he can handle and pass. Chauncey was probably more athletic than he was at the same time, but when he went on in his career, he wasn't the most athletic guy and didn't depend on his athleticism. Murray is going to have to be that way too.
"They're both big guards (Billups is 6'3") who sort of play both spots, and I think the same way Billups established himself as a point guard, I think Murray will eventually establish himself as a point guard and be a tough floor leader for his team."
Eventually becoming a Billups type would be the best-case scenario, but like Billups, it could take some time for whoever drafts him to figure out how to use him—Billups played on five teams over his first six seasons in the league before settling in with the Detroit Pistons.
"With guys like this who can play both guard spots, sometimes there's some confusion what to do with them," the Western Conference scout said. "I think that if you look at him as a point guard like some people do, it might be more difficult to get him on the floor right away because he doesn't have the speed and athleticism, but he can make shots and that's really important."
Similar to Billups, Murray is physically strong and seems to understand how to use his body to make up some for his lack of athleticism. Billups got the nickname Mr. Big Shot because he was always willing to have the ball in pressurized situations, not to mention he was a great shot-maker, and Murray has that confidence and coolness to him.
He meditates and his father's focus as he was growing up, as told to B/R's Jason King, was to make Murray strong mentally. That could come in handy if it takes a few years for his NBA team to figure out how to properly use him.
"If he ends up not being a point guard, it's scary for teams that he could end up being a little like Randy Foye," the Western Conference scout said. "Foye has had a good career and had the ability to contribute to a lot of teams but was never a difference-maker and was a little smaller than you wanted him (Foye is also 6'4") and even though he could make shots at a pretty high level, he didn't do it at a level that allowed him to make up for his other shortcomings. Like Randy, he's not the utmost athletic and he's a little bit stocky."
While scouts put varying degrees of importance on a player's performance in the NCAA Tournament, with the eyes of the nation on March Madness, playing well or poorly in the most important games of the season can certainly sway one's opinions. Some players like the UConn Huskies' Shabazz Napier have used the tournament as a springboard to rise up draft boards in recent years.
The Wildcats aren't looking like a Final Four contender right now, but the same could have been said two years ago when Calipari took a No. 8 seed to the championship game. UK has been to four of the last five Final Fours, and while this roster doesn't look equipped to go on a March run, don't count out Cal.
If a tourney run were to take place, it's likely Murray would be a big part of it. Murray and Ulis are the best two players on UK's roster and much of the team's success is tied to theirs. Murray has also already proven he can catch fire in a tourney setting, as he did for Canada this past summer. If he could put together a similar run in the NCAA tournament, Murray could end up climbing draft boards.
"He might get drafted a little higher in this draft than he would in a normal draft because it's not a strong draft," the Western Conference scout said.
That's why Murray is close to a sure thing to come out this year. He's put up numbers at Kentucky as a freshman, which usually leads to a one-and-done scenario, and the 2017 draft is expected to be much deeper. Look for Murray to go somewhere in the middle of the lottery—in the eight to 12 range—to a team that is either looking for a starting point guard—the New Orleans Pelicans or Sacramento Kings could be candidates—or a team looking for perimeter scoring off the bench.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.