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The Final Piece: Jamal Murray

The 2016 NBA Draft might be the best chance for the Philadelphia 76ers to add the last piece to their young nucleus. That final piece of the puzzle could be Kentucky freshman Jamal Murray.

Jamal Murray is arguably the best guard in the 2016 NBA Draft class.
Jamal Murray is arguably the best guard in the 2016 NBA Draft class.
Francois Nel/Getty Images

Fourth in a series.

Regardless of when Jamal Murray decided to end his prep school career, he was already slotted as a high-level pro prospect. But after the 6'5", 201-pound combo guard reclassified in order to join the Class of 2015, scouting departments across the NBA were forced to update their respective Big Boards for the summer of 2016.

Things didn't change much on the collegiate front: Oregon and Kentucky (with whom he ultimately committed) were the clear front-runners for Murray's services, and the Ontario native likely didn't lose too much sleep over the decision. His confidence in his abilities isn't unfounded: After scoring a game-high 30 points (on 12-for-23 shooting) and dishing out six assists in the Nike Hoop Summit in April, it was clear that Murray was ready for the next level of competition.

"I've been asleep at the wheel on Jamal Murray and I've woken up," said 247Sports national recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer during an interview with USA Today shortly after Murray's stellar performance. "This guy is one of the best guards out there."

The Canadian-born Murray actually took part in the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit (10 points, five assists, five rebounds), but he was overshadowed on the World Select team by the presence of one Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay was able to parlay his successful prep career into a brief stint in China, and many observers thought that Murray would do the same. According to his father, Murray turned down a seven-figure offer to play overseas next season.

Instead, he'll spend the 2015-16 campaign playing in Lexington alongside fellow freshman Skal Labissiere, who also had an impressive showing at April's Hoop Summit. But Murray was clearly the game's breakout talent, and the five-star guard received high praise from Team USA head coach Eric Flannery:

"Last year, he played in this game and I think that experience goes a long way. He just seemed to be in control from the beginning... We were blitzing the ball screen as often as we could after the first quarter, meaning we were double teaming and trying to get the ball out of his hands... but he was very strong with the ball, kept attacking the rim. He was without question the difference, probably for four quarters, tonight during the game."

While April's Hoop Summit is largely seen as his coming out party, Murray has played with - and excelled against - high-level talent for quite some time now. Murray was the leading scorer for Team Canada in the 2013 U-16 Americas Championships (17.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.6 APG, 2.4 SPG), and he followed that up with a more-than-respectable showing a month later in the 2013 Nike Global Challenge (10.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.8 APG).

Four months after his first turn at the Nike Hoop Summit, Murray starred for Team Canada in the 2014 FIBA U-17 World Championships (16.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.9 APG). And just last month, Murray added another line to his international resume by leading Canada to a silver medal in the Pan-Am Games (16.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.4 APG). For what it's worth, the 18-year-old Murray was eight years younger than the average player on a Pan-Am Games roster.

None of this should come as much of a surprise: Murray's AAU program (CIA Bounce) produced two No. 1 overall NBA draft picks in consecutive years: Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. Arguably the top-ranked guard in the 2016 draft class, Murray is talented enough to play both backcourt positions thanks to his high basketball IQ as well as his ability knock down both open and contested jumpers.

As Marc Whittington pointed out last week, one of the major knocks on Murray is that he doesn't possess exceptional athleticism. That's not to say that he isn't athletic, but it should be noted that he may have trouble keeping up with some of the quicker and more explosive players in the NBA.

Given his measurables and his skill set, Murray best projects as a point guard on the next level. However, it's not exactly clear how much we'll see him initiate the offense for Kentucky this upcoming season. Sophomore Tyler Ulis is one of the best floor generals in the nation, and 6'3" freshman point guard Isaiah Briscoe is a top-15 recruit in his own right.

Regardless of whether Wildcats' head coach John Calipari goes with a traditional setup, or whether he chooses to roll out a three-guard lineup, rest assured that we'll see plenty of Murray this season and for many years to come.

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