Kentucky has unleashed Jamal Murray. The 6'5 freshman guard is on a tear in SEC play, averaging 22.4 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of 59. He's scored 21 or more points in his last nine games and has quickly developed into one of the country's most dangerous volume three-point shooters.
In 17 conference games, Murray is hitting more than 44 percent of the 8.5 threes he attempts per game. Now he's rocketing up mock drafts, to the point where he's projected to go as high as No. 4. His surge is the main reason the Wildcats found their footing after a disappointing start.
Murray's season changed with a simple coaching adjustment. With the emergence of Tyler Ulis at point guard, John Calipari has deployed Murray as an off-ball weapon rather than an on-ball creator. Murray now runs through mazes of screens, causing nightmares for opposing college defenses and daydreams of a brighter future for NBA teams.
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's early struggles revealed that he's not quick enough to handle primary ball-handling duties at the next level. Murray has good vision and he's crafty, but he's too slow to turn the corner as a playmaker. That's OK, though, because his destiny is as a pure sharpshooter that's featured using screens.
Murray scored 33 points on 12-of-20 shooting against Vanderbilt while being defended by potential first-rounder Wade Baldwin. A bulk of Murray's points came off the ball, like the clip below. Murray uses a v-cut to give himself just enough space to get his shot off.
Murray should make defenders tremble when they see a screen coming. He's advanced at making the right shoot/pass read and savvy at creating space with his hips. This makes him lethal in catch-and-shoot situations
On that play, Murray caught the ball away from the basket, with Baldwin quickly closing in around the screen. It's really hard to get a clean look off in this situation. But in a flash, Murray aligned himself with the rim anyway, allowing himself to launch from deep.
Murray might not have the speed necessary to score in isolation situations, but he is very good driving against closeouts. That means his game is more diverse than a strict shooting specialist's.
On that play, Kentucky got the defense scrambling and Murray took advantage by driving to the rim. His stop-and-pop jumper is smooth and he also possesses a soft floater that'll be important for him, since athleticism and length could hinder him near the rim. At just 19 years old, his off-ball intelligence is special, especially when coupled with his flamethrower stroke.
The question for Murray is the same as most players: How can an NBA team accentuate his strengths while minimizing his one glaring weakness?
For all of Murray's gifts, his athletic limitations make him a leaky defender at the most athletic position in the NBA. Murray expends energy on defense, so it's not like he doesn't try. But his lateral quickness leaves a lot to be desired.
Kentucky hides Murray on inferior scorers, but he still gets exposed at times. He must defend elite athletes on a nightly basis at the next level, so he needs to develop better fundamentals. It'll be harder to hide him, since he lacks the speed to stay in front of shifty point guards and the body to handle longer shooting guards.
Despite his shooting prowess, Murray doesn't necessarily project as a starter because of his lack of athleticism and lateral quickness. He's better off as a sixth man that feasts on bench units. If he starts, he will be best suited for a team with a lockdown defensive point guard, someone like Patrick Beverley, Ricky Rubio or Kyle Lowry. That way, he can space the floor, play off the point guard's playmaking and have his defensive shortcomings alleviated.
Murray is one of college basketball's most exciting scorers, but his outlook in the NBA will largely depend on his team's situation. If he's drafted by a team that can maximize his floor-spacing sharpshooting and cover him on defense, they'll have a true weapon.
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