Canada is producing a lot of high-quality ballers these days. From Tristan Thompson to Andrew Wiggins, the country is turning into a hotbed for some of the game’s brightest stars.
The most recent Canadian sensation is Jamal Murray, a talented combo guard scheduled to suit up for the Kentucky Wildcats in the fall. Murray was a late commit for Coach John Calipari’s ‘Cats because he re-classified (from 2016 to 2015) later on in the process. He was Calipari’s radar for a while, however, so it was not a shock Murray chose to play at Kentucky.
Murray’s ascension was heightened after scoring 30 points and dishing out 5 dimes v. Team USA at the Nike Hoop Summit in April. Battling double teams throughout the game, he was a tenacious attacker and dropped home triples to open up his game. He absolutely took over down the stretch and led his squad, World Select, to a 103-101 victory.
The Hoop Summit was just the beginning of what’s to come:
Murray could easily follow other UK freshman wings like Archie Goodwin, James Young & Devin Booker as a one and done player. Similar to them, he would be one of the youngest players (turns 19 in February) in the draft if he declares for 2016. But unlike his predecessors, Murray is more of a natural shot creator and scorer who is able to take command of the offense.
During the Pan American games this week, Murray paraded his instinctive nature to create for others while remaining a strong threat to score the ball. It helps that fellow Canadian Steve Nash (& Team Canada contributor) gave him some advice as well since the former MVP was one of the smartest players in terms of knowing exactly when to pick his spots.
Following his impressive showing v. Argentina, Nash heaped praise upon him:
“He’s got a tremendous amount of ability. He’s got a very bright future. It’s very exciting for our program. But it’s also exciting for me as a point guard — to see a young player come through with that much ability is very fun and exciting.” (Sportsnet.ca)
With Kentucky, he should see equal time playing both with and without the ball. Coach Cal could form a fun lineup with Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe & Murray. It’s a speedy lineup but Murray will need to both hold his own at SF on defense, an area which he needs to improve, while making sound decisions playing off ball (coming off of screens hard, making right reads to slash or go backdoor).
At this stage, he’s much more comfortable controlling the pace and making things happen with the ball in his hands, like most other top HS prospects. For UK to reach its championship potential, Murray will need to adjust to a less dominating style (has to initiate the offense faster) and focus on the little things.
At the 2 or even 3, he should benefit playing off a speedy guard like Ulis and a nice playmaker like Briscoe. Their constant penetration will open up necessary space for Murray to launch his beautiful-looking jumper with a lot less pressure. And if the play breaks down, he is more than capable of isolating and getting his own shot.
The funny part about it is, Murray’s basketball IQ is high enough that he doesn’t force shots too often. He’s a rare breed in that sense…an 18-year old who knows it’s better not to force the issue although he is talented enough to take over? Not to make a foolish comparison but guys like Nick Young, Gerald Green and JR Smith still haven’t figured this out!
So even though he is a competent isolation threat, it is not a common fixture of his game. In the Pan-American games, Murray demonstrated his ability to finish around the cup and dropped home plenty of jumpers when the defense was lax. There’s a strong possibility Murray can form an unstoppable 1-2 punch with top recruit, Skal Labissiere. Skal is an excellent shooter in his own right and features a high release that is difficult to defend.
Once Coach Cal figures out where to place Murray in the lineup, his impact will be tremendous. Despite all of the talent they lost to the NBA, UK still returns a few game-changers: Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, and Ulis.
Murray will be one of the more surprising freshman additions in terms of overall production. Since he is skilled enough to slot into the lead guard spot, Coach Cal could have him in the starting five down the stretch of the season.
By harnessing the moxie and fearless shot-making that got him to this point, Murray might evolve into the unlikely UnderDOG that pushes the ‘Cats to glory.