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Is Trey Murphy III the stretch four that the Sixers need?

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The sharpshooter out of Virginia might be of heavy interest to the Sixers with the 28th overall pick in this year’s draft.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Boston College Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

It’s okay if you’re not a hard core NBA Draft fan. It’s especially understandable if you’re a Philadelphia 76ers fan, as the team holds only the 28th and 50th picks in the upcoming draft, and more importantly, their most pressing issues are ones more likely to be fixed through either free agency or trades.

But there is some merit in investing in the draft. For one thing, I just find it flat out more enjoyable than those other two avenues in team building. Investing in a young athlete, trying to project whether or not they may develop in a way that benefits your franchise’s vision and just envisioning what this brand new NBA player might look like in your favorite team’s jersey is a delightful process in my experience. Second, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey already put on a showcase during the 2020 draft. He selected one immediate contributor (and potentially a VERY high-value player in the future) in Tyrese Maxey, two guys who could be rotational pieces in ‘21 with Isaiah Joe and Paul Reed, and even used a second-rounder attached alongside Josh Richardson to nab Seth Curry on draft night, a heist so bad that Luka Doncic probably contacted the authorities afterward.

And with the Sixers’ season ending in truly catastrophic fashion, it’s now time to #pivottodraftszn, and today it starts with a look at Virginia’s Trey Murphy III.

Who is Trey Murphy?

After starring for his first two seasons at Rice, 6’9” forward Trey Murphy III transferred to ACC powerhouse Virginia for the 2020-21 season. While his lone season of power conference play didn’t rewrite any record books, the athletic stretch four still did enough to keep his name high up in draft circles, as TM3 is projected to be a late first-round or second-round selection this season.

Here is a quick look at his statistical profile from both BartTorvik and Synergy Sports.

On the surface, those numbers are nothing short of excellent. Above the 87th percentile on all of his four major play types, a well-established three-point shooting sample size of 183 makes on 452 attempts over three years, and according to Synergy, a 99th percentile 1.237 points per possession scoring rate in the half court.

However, take a moment and ask yourself why his efficiency is so absurdly great. It’s the same reason why all of his play types scale so heavily toward spot-ups, cuts and transition offense — his offense is usually created for him by others, and it’s not a two-way relationship.

Most of his deep range attempts from this past season came from one of three pre-shot footwork maneuverings: 1) completely stationary as the ball was passed out to him, 2) the standard one-two step into the shot, or 3) my personal favorite, a backpedaling catch-and-shoot that he goes to when sensing an opportunity for an open shot created by a driving teammate (Murphy is No. 25 and the one who shoots in the clips below).

While it’s a bit odd and a technique he relies on too much at times, it’s still a good move on his part and shows good understanding of how to manipulate space. Think of how Danny Green uses his trademark cut to take advantage of an empty strong side corner and his own defender’s attention being drawn elsewhere. It shows a certain feel and understanding of what his accurate shot can do.

However, one might think this shows latent potential for Murphy to be a movement shooter, flying off of pin-downs and Iverson cuts into curling threes that bend NBA defenses past the point of no return. That’s likely not the case in my opinion.

Beyond basically never shooting said swirling movement threes, Murphy is a fairly upright player in almost all facets of his game, particularly on his drives. He lacks an advanced handle, usually struggling to change directions effectively with the ball in his hands. Most bizarrely, he almost always drives left despite being right-handed.

I suspect it’s to make up for his lack of upper body strength as well, using his right shoulder to try shield off on-ball defenders and provide himself a finishing angle toward the rim. See in these clips how even when a drive right is open, he almost always jabs that way to set up a left-handed attack, and can unfortunately be displaced at his gather, resulting in miscues such as turnovers, wild passes, and sloppy finishes.

That’s not to say Murphy has absolutely no self-creation. At 6’9” with mobility and 50-40-90 shooting splits, he can still find his way into some off-the-dribble scoring options. In particular, during a game against Louisville this past season, Virginia ran this set to get him isolation looks from the high post. It starts with a floppy set in the typical movers and blockers offense that UVA runs, only after Murphy sets his usual down screen, he flashes to the elbow with the floor cleared. After the receiving the pass, he’ll pry with a jab series to see what the defense is giving him. Back up too much and he’ll rise up for the middy. Get too close, and often with a height advantage he’ll work his way to the rim.

But that bugaboo bad handle shows once again during this contest. Take a look at this next play as Murphy jabs right, drives left, but then a strong side stunt forces him to pick up his dribble a beat early and pass out, ultimately wasting valuable shot clock time for his team’s offense in which they were not able to create an advantage.

It really is impossible to understate the importance of ball handling when it comes to a player’s development and overall utility. In his fantastic piece on the art and science of feel in this sport, Evan Zaucha rates it as the hardest of the eight core skills in basketball to develop. Draft guru and development mastermind PD Web called it perhaps the most important skill in the future of prospect development, an avenue whose importance might outweigh all the others, during one of his brilliant “Let’s Watch Film” twitch streams.

Think about how Trae Young destroyed the Sixers in round two. Now that you’ve rinsed that vomit out of your mouth, ask yourself which skill of Young’s gave Philly the most issues. Some might say his shooting, others his precise passing reads that he can execute no matter the obstacle. Those are both fair answers, but I’d wager his unbelievably tight handle is what first opens up so many of those passes that can dissect a defense.

Young can move his on-ball defenders wherever he wants with his slippery dribble moves, running them into screens so he can penetrate the shell of a defense. It helped him further inside the arc, where he can maneuver into whatever crevice he wants, further opening up holes that he can exploit. It’s all derived from the handle, the ability to get where you want, when you want in a half court setting.

Murphy’s lack of handle limits his self-creation, which in turn limits his creation for others and thus makes him a less versatile and dynamic offensive player. That doesn’t mean he’s completely devoid of flashes. This hang dribble and dead leg stop three is absolutely nasty in his nature, leveraging the threat of his athleticism heading toward the rim to create space for the shot.

But even there the limitations are still present. The crossovers result in what is still a very tough shot rather than an easier look at the rim during which Murphy has created a power play for the offense with a blow-by. Unless that type of shot shows up a good number of times in the profile, the jumper self-creation feels more like just a random blip in the radar than anything else. It’s not scaling toward consistent creation at the next level.

With Murphy being neither a post-up threat due his lack of strength (only two attempts all season, per synergy), nor an off-screen, shooting rover due to the set and squared nature of his shot, his off-ball role sans being a floor spacer can be tricky. However, he has quelled a portion of this concern with some explosive backdoor cutting. In the following clips against Louisville, TM3 takes advantage of the defender trying to cheat the dribble hand-off by clearing out the strong side corner and ramming home the basketball. In the second play, he backdoors twice in the possession after Kihei Clark had knifed into the paint, giving the diminutive point guard a great release valve with the shot clock winding down.

Murphy’s shot forces defenders to play closer to him, and with his quick-twitch speed at 6’9”, all he needs is one slip-up to accelerate to the rim on an open cut. It’s perfect for him because it does not require him to dribble the basketball or make a tough decision. He’s in part creating the scoring opportunity, but it still keeps him inside the box of what he’s best at — finishing the play after a teammate gets inside and passes the ball.

Regardless, these cuts, in addition to his skill for backpedalling relocations, display a spatial understanding of the floor that portends well to playing off of scoring threats in the NBA (i.e. Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris). Now I would worry that his off-ball scoring somewhat requires a great passer to be in hand, and for years the Sixers have been one of the worst passing teams in the league. With a Ben Simmons trade potentially imminent, that facet could worsen depending on the return from a deal.

Switching to the defensive end of the floor, most would watch Murphy slide around the court with his 7-foot wingspan and assume he’s a versatile, switch-capable big at the NBA level. There’s some truth in that. TM3 is pretty agile for a guy who measured over 6’9” in shoes, and by keeping his arms up and active, he can close off driving guards somewhat with regularity.

While Virginia has always been a good team defensive team under Tony Bennett, their personnel this past year wasn’t exactly imposing on that end of the floor. Jay Huff is not a cement-for-feet type center, but he’s a plodder in comparison to Murphy. Sam Hauser might get drafted because he hit 41.7 percent of his threes on good volume, not for his defense. Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman are fine, but standing at 5’9” and 6’3”, respectively, their overall impact was limited.

That leaves Murphy, who did everything from playing the small ball five role to guarding quick-twitch attackers such as Bubba Parham (5’11”), Naheim Alleyne (6’4”), and Samuell Williamson (6’6”) from the opening tip of several ACC contests. Virginia lacked athletic and large perimeter defense, so Murphy picked up the burden and defended some of their opponents’ most endangering threats.

He’s not a hounding, Ben Simmons-like weapon, nor is he a master of screen navigation like Matisse Thybulle. No one of his height really can be. But as far one can expect a tall, stretch four to dodge screens and stay attached to his man, Murphy is rather good at this aspect. Watch here how he manages to not get gashed on the staggered pin-down and is in decent position when his man receives the pass.

Of course, his one teammate overreacted, stepping too far forward and setting off a sequence that resulted in a score for UNC, but regardless this was good work from TM3.

While many problems plagued the Sixers’ bench during the 2021 season, one of my greatest qualms with it was the lack of size outside of Dwight Howard. Often the second-tallest player in the all-bench unit was 6’5” Matisse Thybulle, and that lack of size created some unfavorable matchups, such as George Hill being forced to guard the 6’10” Danilo Gallinari during their second round defeat.

If not ‘Tisse, Mike Scott was the Sixers’ nominal four off the bench, and his decline into being somewhat unplayable toward the end of the season ruined his value, costing the Sixers their one true stretch big option. Thus, drafting Murphy could be seen as replacing and fixing that “Mike Scott role” that had assisted the team during the 2019 and 2020 seasons.

See in the next two clips just how much that added size can help, as in the first play he plays a near 2-on-1 well by jumping back at the right time, and in the second play he’s able to nab a steal playing the free safety role on the weak side.

He’s far from flawless as a defender, with one particular struggle being his defense against roving shooters. That’s not atypical for a tall forward like himself, but it would be nice to see more off-ball awareness from him when guys with profiles such as Corey Kispert are slipping ball screens and working for threes through use of flares.

Like, yeah, this... this is a problem.

Murphy’s lack of upper body strength also can create problems when he’s defending players of a similar size who are skilled enough to drive and attack the interior. Akin to John Collins at times during the Sixers-Hawks series, he tries to compensate by being very handsy on-ball, sticking both his arms into the sides of his man to try and slow down the drive. While it’s better to show physicality and a desire to stop one’s man even at a disadvantage, it’s a habit that might get him in dubious foul trouble at the next level.

Conclusion

The range of where Trey Murphy III could go in the draft is fairly wide, as it is for almost any player in this year’s class past the fantastic four that headline this year’s cycle. A pick as early as 20 or as late as 40 are all within the range of possibility, though due to his combination of size and shooting, I’d sooner bet on a selection in the first round.

His pitch as a plug-and-play forward, who at 21 years old can likely step onto an NBA court without compromising a team’s offense or defense is an appealing one. If the Sixers take him at 28, I’d very quickly talk myself into him being the heir to Mike Scott, a shooting savior for the bench units Doc Rivers will likely trot out once again next year. Heck, both of them went to Virginia just to complete the association.

However, if a few more dynamic options who could offer needed assets such as movement shooting and off the dribble creation equity are available, I think they should be the pick over Murphy. There could always be some latent potential deep below, but his track record of expanding outside his role isn’t sufficient for me to say it should be an anything more than a cross-your-fingers-and-hope situation.

Otherwise, Murphy is offering what projects to be above average defense (though given his lack of upper body strength, he’s probably not ready for spot center minutes) and very trustworthy shooting ability on open looks. Good enough to put him a rotation, but after that I don’t see a great pathway for further development.

But to end on the positive note, Trey can really shoot that thing and he is always ready to pull, no matter how deep or how quick he has to get it off. Enjoy this last clip of Murphy letting it rip from deep and just imagine what it might look like in a uniform Sixers.

Enjoy, my friends. It’s #draftszn and we’re gonna need a lot of prospects and previews to help get that wretched second round taste out of our mouths.