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Did New Orleans Pick the Right Shooting Guard?

Jamal Murray and Buddy Hield are examples of why it’s so hard to judge players coming into the NBA draft, and why we shouldn’t jump to conclusions during rookie seasons

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray will forever be linked. The two guards, each having roller-coaster rookie seasons, went in successive picks in the 2016 NBA draft, Hield sixth to the Pelicans and Murray seventh to the Nuggets. There was much debate, both before and after the draft, about who was the smarter pick, and it’s only intensified through the first half of the 2016–17 season.

Hield shot 45.7 percent from 3 as a senior at Oklahoma, while Murray shot 40.8 percent as a freshman at Kentucky. Both are 6-foot-4, and both left college projected as sharpshooting 2-guards who needed to develop their playmaking and defensive skills. The big differences were their age and experience levels. New Orleans needed shooting, and there were reports going into the draft that the Pellies front office was split on the pair. The Pelicans hoped that Hield, three years Murray’s senior, would be more able to contribute early and provide Anthony Davis with immediate offensive help.

After edging out Murray in the draft, Hield said of his closest competition at New Orleans media day, “Well … I’m a better player than Murray, you stop being crazy.” (Murray wasn’t lacking in self-confidence either, claiming he was “the best player in the draft” after working out for the Celtics.)

Hield’s proclaimed superiority wasn’t so obvious early this season, when his jump shot seemingly abandoned him as soon as he hit the league. Entering December, Hield was shooting just 23.7 percent from 3, whichranked the worst of all 82 players who’d attempted at least four 3-pointers per game. Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry understandably reduced Hield’s playing time.

Fans were in a panic, especially as Murray was lighting it up in Denver. After overcoming an 0-for-17 shooting slump to start the season, the Nuggets rookie was shooting 45 percent from 3 at Thanksgiving. Murray, the younger and supposedly rawer player, looked like the immediate contributor, while Hield’s game had bust written all over it.

And then the roller coaster did its roller-coaster thing. On December 4, playing in Oklahoma City against the Thunder — just 25 minutes from his college campus — Buddy came alive, scoring 16 points and draining four of seven 3s. It was as if he’d forgotten his jumper in his old college dorm room and retrieved it before the game. “Going to Oklahoma. That’s when everything started to turn around for me,” Hield recently told Pelicans.com after winning Rookie of the Month in December. “I feel like when I was down there, playing in that city, staying in that state, I just got revived.”

Since that night in Oklahoma, Hield has boasted the shot that intoxicated scouts and fans in college, hitting 48.4 percent from long range, second among players attempting at least 3.9 3-pointers per game. Over the 23 games since Thanksgiving, Murray shot 23.6 percent from 3, the worst among players shooting at least 3.9 triples per game.

As Hield has risen, Murray has fallen. That’s what rookies do. Already, these two have already lived through the agony and ecstasy of rookie life. Murray won Rookie of the Month for November, Hield for December. They’re figuring out the NBA game, and we’re figuring out their games. A lottery pick who scores 20 points or more six times over the first 16 games of his career could turn out to be Adam Morrison. At this stage, the Hield-vs.-Murray battle is tied.

Both players have always excelled at roaming off-ball to find open areas of the floor, but they’re not one-dimensional shooters who stand in the corner making Dion Waiters Hands to call for the shot when they’re open. In the pros, both Murray’s and Hield’s head coaches use them in creative ways. Here’s how Gentry utilizes Hield as a weapon setting on-ball screens:

Hield speeds through a down screen set by Davis, and then sprints in the direction of Jrue Holiday as if he’s going to set a screen before slipping to the wing for an open 3. This action was popularized last season by teams such as the Warriors and Raptors, who used it to free their sharpshooters. Even if Hield doesn’t develop into a go-to scorer, his ability to sink 3s off unique actions gives him value.

The same goes for Murray, whom Nuggets head coach Mike Malone uses like Kyle Korver Jr., racing him through a maze of screens:

Murray’s feel for reading screens and getting open is extraordinary for a player his age, and it should eventually translate into production. “The shots are going to come,” Malone said last month. “He’s not a good shooter. He’s a great shooter.” Even though Hield is hot and Murray is cold, both players are virtually in the same spot in other areas of their games.

Hield has been better shooting 3s off the dribble since December 4, hitting 10 of 25, but his off-the-bounce numbers inside the arc have been horrific. Hield is shooting only 51.1 percent from the restricted area and 29.1 percent from other 2-point zones. Midrange scoring should never be Hield’s go-to zone, but his lack of production is indicative of how far he needs to go to be more than a specialist.

This should be an easy bucket or a drawn foul against center Robin Lopez, but Hield gets his shot swatted away. Lopez is a perfectly competent defender, but Hield’s first step is slow, as if he’s wearing weights on his ankles.

Murray has similar issues once he gets into the interior. He is scoring only 0.55 points per possession in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy, largely due to his difficulties creating separation with his dribble and releasing a clean jumper.

The Pelicans and Nuggets would probably be satisfied if Hield or Murray were to develop into a J.J. Redick–style 2-guard, but they took them sixth and seventh to be something more than that. Developing advanced ballhandling moves is ultimately the key for these rookies to be more than specialists. Both of them have good natural touch and sound passing instincts, but they’ll need to develop more dynamic moves — a step-back jumper, quicker crossovers, or creative at-rim finishes. Neither player is an elite athlete laterally or vertically, so they need to find other ways to score.

Defensively, Murray has a clear edge despite being so much younger. Murray has not been good on defense, but he’s playing hard by fighting through screens and staying attentive off the ball. Malone has consistently praised Murray for his “energy” on defense, citing that as a reason he’ll “be a special player for many, many years.” The coach has to be encouraged by plays like this:

Watch Murray on the bottom left corner of the screen battling against Shabazz Muhammad, who has about 15 pounds and 2 inches on his young defender, and then eventually swatting away the entry pass.

Hield has 11 fewer blocks and steals than Murray, despite playing 64 more minutes. In fact, of the 208 players to log at least 700 minutes this season, only four players have fewer blocks and steals than Hield (Richard Jefferson, Tony Parker, Doug McDermott, and Arron Afflalo). The advanced stats are ugly for Hield. Opponents are scoring 1.16 points per possession when defended by him, according to Synergy Sports, which is near the bottom of the barrel for all NBA players. According to SportVU tracking data, opponents are shooting 8.6 percentage points higher when defended by Hield than they do on average.

Hield has his moments defending on-ball, but the same off-ball lapses that plagued him with the Sooners remain in the NBA. The Pelicans have the league’s seventh-best defensive rating, so for now they’ve been able to get by despite Hield’s struggles, but no matter how productive he can become on offense, he’ll need to make strides on defense just like Redick did to become the stellar two-way player he is today.

That’ll require time. Even though Hield is a 23-year-old rookie, age shouldn’t have necessarily been an indicator that he was ready to immediately contribute. Hield took three collegiate seasons to even pop up on the draft radar as a second-round-level prospect, and it wasn’t until his senior season that he became a lottery talent, so it’s plausible that Hield’s NBA development will require the same patience.

The possibility of a long development process is just one of the reasons draft evaluators questioned New Orleans’s decision to take Hield over Murray. Neither player is ahead of the other in terms of skill level, but Murray’s youth theoretically gives him higher upside since he’s far ahead of where Hield was at Murray’s age. But it’s unfair to knock the Pellies for their choice. They have their cornerstone in The Brow and they want to get back into the playoffs as soon as possible to keep him satisfied. They put a premium on Hield’s experience, thinking he’d be able to help faster, and it’s still possible that he will.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets seem content to compile assets and take their time figuring out what they have, which might explain why Hield probably wouldn’t have been as appealing to them as other prospects. (Hield is older than Gary Harris, who was drafted in 2014!) The Pelicans came into this season with the playoffs as a goal, so when Hield was on a short leash when he was struggling, Murray was allowed to keep playing regular minutes despite his mistakes. The irony, of course, is the Nuggets are currently a half game better than the Pelicans (though the Pels are a half point better in point differential). Those differing franchise ambitions also explain why Murray has gotten more diverse opportunities, like being a pick-and-roll ball handler, while Hield spends the majority of his time spotting up.

We won’t know for years whether the Pelicans made the right choice selecting Hield over Murray. Both of them will experience ups and downs as they develop.

The changing sentiments toward these two is instructive. We are too quick to judge young players. Jabari Parker was pegged as a floor-suffocating forward and now he’s shooting 42.1 percent on a high volume of 3s. Austin Rivers looked like an absolute dud, then turned his career around with the Clippers. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope looked like a journeyman, and now he’s geared for a big payday as a valued 3-and-D wing. Kemba Walker was labeled a good-not-great point guard, but now he’s a potential All-Star. The examples are endless.

Growth isn’t linear, especially for NBA rookies. Hield and Murray are just the two latest examples of how we must let the story write itself before we make all-encompassing judgments about their fates as pros.