Jamal Murray looks like a star. The Kentucky freshman is the latest in a long line of one-and-dones for John Calipari that stretches all the way back to Dajuan Wagner, who left for the NBA after Calipari expressed so much faith in his NBA ability that he revoked Wagner’s scholarship at the University of Memphis in 2002. At Kentucky, Murray averaged 20 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.2 assists a game on 45.4 percent shooting, including 40.8 percent from 3 on nearly eight attempts per game. Cal is never shy about selling his own players, and he has said that Murray was “the safe no. 1” in the draft, and that he would lead all rookies in scoring.
He may be right. Assuming the reports are correct, Ben Simmons will go no. 1 and join a crowded Sixers frontcourt without the requisite perimeter shooting around him. Brandon Ingram, who will most likely be selected by the Lakers at no. 2, will have to share the ball with D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle. It’s possible Murray winds up in a situation where he can score more than Simmons, Ingram, or any other rookie. We know Murray can get buckets. But what else is he going to do for his team?
When his shot isn’t falling, Murray struggles to make an impact. His college career ended with a performance that acted as a scathing indictment of his future. In his final game as a Wildcat, a 73–67 loss to Indiana in the NCAA tournament, Murray scored 16 points on 7-for-18 shooting. He was tested by Indiana’s waves of long, athletic defenders who stayed in his jersey as soon as he crossed half court. Murray was unable to create space for his shot, going 1-for-9 from 3. He had more offensive fouls (three) than free throw attempts (two), as he repeatedly tried to push off on defenders, only to wind up forcing up a number of contested off-the-dribble jumpers.
At 6-foot-4, 207 pounds, with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, Murray is somewhat undersized for an NBA shooting guard, and he doesn’t have the speed or athleticism you would expect from a highly touted Kentucky recruit. On the spectrum of past Calipari guards, he’s more Andrew Harrison than John Wall. He’s not blowing by defenders off the dribble or finishing over shot blockers at the rim in the NBA. His lack of physical advantages could muddy his star potential at the next level. You can’t always get by on guile.
Watch Murray’s film and you will see him repeatedly struggle to stay in front of quicker players on defense. Most elite scorers struggle on the other side of the ball early in their careers. The difference is Murray lacks the physical tools to make too much of an improvement. J.J. Redick is the gold standard for shooting guards of Murray’s ilk. Redick turned himself into a respectable defender in the NBA, but he’s more of an outlier than the realistic expectation. Players with that specific physical profile rarely become solid defenders, just like how career 25 percent 3-point shooters rarely become marksmen the way Kawhi Leonard has. Redick and Leonard’s trajectories convey hope, but reality often hews to standards set by players like Kevin Martin.
Murray has excellent size at the 1, which would be great if he showed any ability to run an offense. Despite coming into his freshman year touted as a combo guard, he finished the season with an assist-to-turnover ratio in the red, and had a lower assist percentage than Buddy Hield, a true shooting guard who took more than 27 percent of Oklahoma’s total field goal attempts and had one of the highest usage rates in the nation. With Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe largely manning the point guard spot for Kentucky, Murray wasn’t exactly called upon to be a lead facilitator, but he rarely offered glimpses of those skills during the season.
The lack of diversity in Murray’s game means his margin for error is very small. James Harden gets knocked for being selfish, but he averaged 7.5 assists this season and 4.2 assists in his last season at Arizona State. When his shot isn’t falling, Harden can distribute the ball and create shots for others, which frees up room for him to score as the game progresses. Murray is a great shooter, but there will be nights when his shot is off. If he’s not doing anything else, he’s going to wind up on the bench. And that might be his ideal role — playing against second units.
Murray was in the perfect situation to showcase his skills in college. The only other double-digit scorers at Kentucky were a pass-first point guard (Tyler Ulis) and an inconsistent combo forward (Alex Poythress). The Wildcats needed Murray to take 15 shots a game, and he was happy to oblige. The question is how he would have looked on a team with a more balanced scoring load. Guys who don’t score the ball at a high rate often get pegged as role players, but scoring is just as much a role as anything else. Part of projecting players to the next level is looking at what roles they can fill on an NBA team, and the most common role in the NBA for scorers who don’t pass or defend is sixth man.
Murray’s scoring made him one of the best college players in the country, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s one of the best pro prospects in this year’s draft. A more well-rounded player, without Murray’s defined strengths or pronounced weaknesses, can have a bigger impact in the NBA. Look at Toronto’s Norman Powell or Miami’s Josh Richardson. While neither was capable of carrying an NCAA offense the way Murray could, they are superior athletes who thrived in smaller roles as defensive stoppers and secondary scorers as NBA rookies.
One guy in this class with that type of profile is Vanderbilt sophomore Wade Baldwin IV. He struggled at times to shoulder the massive offensive load he had to carry, but he has all the tools to carve out a long NBA career as a supplemental player. At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Baldwin is an elite athlete with preposterous physical dimensions. He’s an NCAA PG who could guard three perimeter positions at the next level, as well as switch screens and match up with much bigger players. He wasn’t the same type of scorer as Murray, but he averaged 5.2 assists and 2.8 turnovers a game and he shot 40.6 percent on 3s.
A big part of Calipari’s pitch for Murray is that it doesn’t matter whether or not he’s a point guard or a shooting guard in a positionless NBA. However, just because positions don’t exist, that doesn’t mean positional requirements disappear. Murray and Baldwin are about the same size, but their polar opposite skill sets mean that Murray would need a team built around him while Baldwin could thrive in almost any situation. That’s something to keep in mind for every team that is considering taking Murray in the top 5.