(First posted at Upside & Motor)
Jamal Murray is averaging 20 points per 40 minutes over the first couple of months of the season – the sort of production that might be enough to cement him as a top 10 pick in this year’s draft.
Murray acted as a shot creator at the Nike Hoop Summit and with the Canadian National Team at the Pan American Games but has been deployed mostly as an off-ball scorer in Lexington. That’s because of Tyler Ulis’s presence, a point guard who monopolizes possession of the ball and initiates the offense the vast majority of the time he is in the game.
Ulis has been Kentucky’s best player this season, but Murray has been its most irreplaceable. The Wildcats lack shooting and have relied on Murray to obtain whatever little floor spacing they can get. He has hit 34 three-point shots in his 436 minutes, while the rest of the team combined has hit 38 in their 2,164 minutes. The only other plus-shooter in the rotation is Derek Willis but John Calipari has only played him 12 minutes per game.
His shot making has been his best attribute this season and is probably what will get him paid in the pros. He’s proven able to not only hit shots spotting up on the weak-side but also shooting on the move – sprinting around a series of screens, setting his feet in a pinch and pulling the trigger. His mechanics are clean and his release is quick enough that he can get his shot off comfortably. Often getting the ball from Ulis in good spots, Murray has hit 38.2% of his 89 three-point shots, assisted on 85.3% of those.
The results haven’t been as great off the bounce, though. He was able to make pull-ups at the Pan American Games, including from three-point range. But the combination of lengthier and more athletic defenders in the college game and the offensive ecosystem around him has limited his effectiveness on such instances.
Murray is not an explosive player off the dribble but can create separation in isolation with his ability to go side-to-side and change speeds.
The issue is that opponents have been able to play up and press him because they are able to pack the lane in front of him. Most of the time the Wildcats have two post men without shooting range in the game, so the opponent can also have its two big men close to the basket. Isaiah Briscoe’s, Tyler Ulis’s and Charles Matthew’s defenders can lay off them too and clog up driving lanes.
Often, a potential drive to the basket is taken off the table completely. It drives me insane when TV announcers ignore this and complain that Kentucky doesn’t drive the ball enough. Murray has had to take some bad late-clock looks and his efficiency is really down as a result. According to hoop-math, he has hit just 27.5% of his 51 two-point jump-shots.
With opponents consistently able to have four off-ball defenders have at least one foot inside the lane when he is on the ball, Murray has had a tough time getting to the middle against a set defense. UCLA and Ohio State, specifically, walled off dribble penetration extremely well.
Murray has, however, been very good getting to the basket when he is able to attack off a live dribble. Whenever Kentucky has managed to move the defense side to side, it has created opportunities for Murray to get by a defender off balance and get into the middle of the lane. The simple action of having Ulis and Briscoe running dribble drives a little faster, with more urgency, for a handful of possessions made a difference to free him up in the second half against Arizona State.
Murray lacks explosiveness to attack length at the rim and finish with power – leading to a so-so free throw rate. But he has nice touch finishing around the basket with his right hand (which he prefers using even when jumping out of his right foot) and a floater to finish over size in the in-between area, converting 61% of his 41 shots at the rim so far this season.
Murray has shown to be a wise ball-handler at times, protecting the ball in traffic, but he deals with a lot of arms trying to strip him the ball when he’s on the move. He is turning the ball over almost four times per 40 minutes, as a result – a high mark for someone who is not one of those pass-first point-guards who look to force the issue on every play.
Not to imply that he’s averse to passing. Murray has, in fact, proven to be a willing passer on the move, exhibiting a good feel for taking advantage of a collapsing defense and assisting on 15.8% of Kentucky’s scores in his 436 minutes – which is a decent mark when you consider his role on the team as more of a finisher of possessions than a creator for others.
Murray is a so-so defender at this point of his development. He lacks the sort of athleticism required to be an impact defender but I think he has shown enough to prove he can avoid becoming a liability on that end.
He gets on his stance, guards with his arms up and has lower body strength in his 207-pound frame to contain dribble penetration through contact.
The game against Duke was kind of a nice snapshot of what he can and can’t bring to the table, but also where he can reasonably be expected to improve. Murray guarded Brandon Ingram – taller, more athletic – for a chunk of that game and bothered him with his strength advantage. He lacked the length to contest Ingram’s shot effectively, though.
Then he picked up Derryck Thornton at the point of attack for a couple of possessions and exhibited lateral quickness to stay in front of him in isolation. But struggled to navigate over ball-screens and recover quickly, getting bailed out by his big men’s ability to cut off dribble penetration in space.
Murray doesn’t bring anything to the table making plays in the passing lanes and crashing inside to help protect the rim or finish possessions in the defensive glass, though. According to basketball-reference, he has the worst defensive rating on the team among rotation players.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara