I've long been a skeptic of Jamal Murray. It's been a frustrating season to follow the draft when you lack confidence in Murray, because it makes the drop off in talent after the top two picks look pretty dire. Over the past few weeks, however, he's seen his strong play shoot him up draft boards for reactionary writers (here's looking at you, Chad Ford!). After a rocky start to the season that saw Kentucky drop out of the Top 25 for the first time in two years, Murray has managed to put together a hot few weeks, averaging 25 points per 40 minutes on 61% TS during conference play.
With the Sixers in desperate need of help on the wings and in the backcourt, Murray's emergence as a legitimate prospect serves as a boon for this draft. Let's take a look at what has powered his renaissance in the second half of the season.
The 2-Guard Realization
The biggest problem to start the year for Murray was that he was miscast as a combo-guard and point guard. After displaying an apparent acuity for pick and roll intricacies with Team Canada last summer, Murray was rewarded with large amounts of ballhandling responsibility to start the season. It didn't go well for him.
Murray began the season with an assist-to-turnover ratio well below 1, coughing up the ball 18 times on 12 assists in the month of December. As a point guard, he wasn't athletic enough to turn the corner against defenders, he didn't have the handle to create separation, and he didn't have the vision to set up his teammates. I spent the first portion of the year comparing him to noted non-point guard point guards, such as Brandon Knight, but noting that Murray lacked the athleticism that Knight enjoyed.
If LAL pick becomes Jamal Murray, Sixers' essentially get Brandon Knight without certainty of success translating: pic.twitter.com/QIU8jhzv0O— Marc Whittington (@MWhittington13) December 2, 2015
Murray's nadir came against Louisville, where their pressing defense completely overwhelmed him, and he looked more like a player destined for Europe than a lottery prospect.
J Murray completely overmatched by Lville's size + quickness-- he cant create anything. 0/5 2PA 1 ast 7 TOs. Anybody still think he's lotto?— Dean Demakis (@deanondraft) December 26, 2015
That all changed when Coach Cal ended the point guard experiment and handed the keys of the team over to Tyler Ulis. Murray went from a primary creation role, in which his athletic deficiencies were emphasized, to an off-ball shooting role, in which all he had to do was add the exclamation point to the end of Tyler Ulis opuses. Watch the highlights from his 35 point outing against Florida in early February-- almost every one of his baskets is a catch-and-shoot attempt in which he doesn't need to create on-ball separation from the defense.
Murray's likely offensive role going forward in the NBA is going to be as a shooter curling around screens and weaving around the court, in the vein of JJ Redick, Kyle Korver, or Klay Thompson. Murray has a quick release and gets his feet set very quickly, making it easy for him to get his shot off with very little separation.
Murray's excellent mechanics start even before he makes the catch. He's terrific at sensing open space, and his footwork allows him to easily transition into his shot no matter the quality of the pass. That allows him to be used all over the court and in different play types. His release point is a little low, but his compact mechanics allow him to get the ball off in a flash.
Murray is also advanced at creating that separation, using strong V-cuts and curling around screens. As we've seen at Kentucky, it can make him a formidable offensive weapon.
The Defense Problem
Of course, shooting is not the only component teams want from their wings. Unfortunately, Murray is distinctly of the 3-and-no-D strain of wing, falling woefully short of providing adequate defense in his freshman year at Kentucky.
To be honest, Murray is one of the worst on-ball defenders I've seen. He has a poor stance and slow foot speed, which means that it takes very little for opposing ball handlers to drive by him. It doesn't even require a juke or a directional change to beat Murray of the dribble, straight-line drives normally do the trick just fine.
Murray compounds this issue by lacking in on-court awareness and by dying on every screen that he encounters. He doesn't fight over the top of screens so much as give up as soon as he notices them. It often results in haphazard, forced switches, putting his bigger, slower teammates at a noted disadvantage against the ball handlers he should be guarding. This is a really bad habit, given the number of pick and rolls and off-ball screens most NBA offenses use in their regular sets. So far, Murray looks to be Nik Stauskas-level bad on D, but without the height and length of his fellow Canadian. Here's Murray comically jumping around, falling for every ball fake, and lacking the understanding to see which player he should switch onto:
The Do-Nothing Problem
My other issue with Murray's profile is that he provides almost no positive attributes outside of his shooting. His assist rate was startlingly low for a player masquerading as a point guard at the beginning of the season, but the reality is that he's not even a strong passer by the lowered standards of wing players.
This isn't a terrible assist rate, but it's also unimpressive for a player who started the year at point guard and still gets most of the backup PG minutes whenever Ulis has to leave the game. Combined with his below average .87 assist-to-turnover ratio, it's fair to doubt that he'll ever become more than a complementary scorer.
Out of 17 wing prospects that I compared to each other, Murray also placed below average to very poor in rebounds, steals and blocks, and defensive box plus-minus. And the stat that most cements Murray's inability to thrive as a primary scorer might be his free throw rate, which, at .261, placed him 15th out of 17 prospects. In short, he doesn't get to the rim enough to put real pressure on defenses, he doesn't pass well enough to improve his teammates, and he doesn't get enough rebounds, blocks, or steals to impact the team's bottom line through the little things.
Murray's shooting is an important skill to bring to the table, but if he's playing on your team, he'll also take quite a few things off of it, requiring teammates at other positions to compensate for his shortcomings.
The Devin Booker Precedent
If a lot of this sounds familiar, that's because it is. Last year, I derided Devin Booker's prospective NBA chances, pointing out that, while he was a top-notch shooter, he brought almost nothing else to the table. It was a similar case to Murray, in which I concluded:
As the finals just showed, if you can't bring anything to the table other than shooting, you're really just taking things off.
Naturally, Booker turned around and proved me completely wrong to start this season, shouldering far more responsibility as a 19-year-old in the toughest league in the world than he had as a freshman at Kentucky, and succeeding while doing it!
Clearly, I was wrong about Booker, and he appears to be the lone bright spot in an otherwise disastrous season for the Suns. But I think his situation differs from Murray's because of one main distinction-- Calipari tried to give Murray a bigger role in the offense and had to reduce it, while Booker was never granted the same opportunity that Murray has had. Booker played on a talent-rich team with so many NBA prospects that Cal committed to a hockey-like shift system to accommodate them all. Between the Harrison twins, Ulis, Towns, and Cauley-Stein, there weren't enough touches to give Booker any bigger role than the shooting floor spacer.
In other words, Booker didn't lack a well-rounded game because he couldn't contribute outside of shooting, but because he wasn't given the opportunity to.
With Murray, the situation is the opposite. He failed Cal's two-point guard experiment and has only increased his efficacy after being given fewer on-ball responsibilities. That suggests that, contrary to Booker, he is unlikely to flourish under an increased workload at the next level.
That leaves Murray an outstanding shooter, providing little value in other aspects of the game. While it's entirely possible that good coaching and hard work on his part can help him to overcome his weaknesses, it's also possible that it's someone who doesn't turn into a positive player.