Each week throughout March Madness, DIME is profiling draft prospects from each region of the NCAA Tournament who we deem most intriguing. There’s no real rubric for this exercise. We’ll be be highlighting surefire top-five picks, run-of-the-mill first-rounders, and even guys who may not hear their name called at Barclays Center on June 23. There’s just one rule: Only players still participating in the Tournament will be considered. Read our installments on Duke’s Brandon Ingram and Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham here.
March, needless to say, can make a prospect’s draft stock. The pressure of do-or-die basketball on the country’s biggest stage can ruin it, too. But NBA franchises will be carefully monitoring the next three weeks’ developments regardless, altering draft boards in accordance with what scouts, general managers, and even the viewing public sees — which could dramatically alter their futures in the process.
The NCAA Tournament is about winning, first and foremost. And not only will the following prospect wield a heavy hand when it comes to his current team’s fortunes, but perhaps those of his first professional one, as well.
The Player: Jamal Murray, 6-foot-5 freshman guard for the University of Kentucky.
The Present: Murray averages 20.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game. He shoots 45.6 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from beyond the arch (on a whopping 7.7 attempts per game), and 78.8 percent from the free throw line. He was named First Team All-SEC and SEC All-Freshman Team this season.
The Future: Draftniks knew all about Murray long before he established himself as college basketball’s premier off guard with the Wildcats. The previously little-known Canadian turned heads at Nike Hoops Summit last April with a polished 30-point performance, then further raised his NBA profile a few months later by emerging as his national team’s most dynamic guard at the Pan-American Games – and going absolutely wild in crunch time to beat a low-level American squad in the tournament’s semifinals.
Those performances portended Murray’s immediate superstardom at Kentucky and a high-lottery selection come June, but the former didn’t quite materialize. He struggled shooting the ball out of the gate and failed to consistently flash the playmaking instincts he showed with Team Canada – which was absent Andrew Wiggins, Corey Joseph, and other top-tier talents, by the way – in July.
Yet freshmen, believe it or not, tend to improve as the season wears on. Murray averaged 22.4 points per game with a scorching 62.1 true shooting percentage for the Wildcats during conference play overall, and has been even more dominant over the past six weeks. If the season had begun in February, Murray would have a legitimate case for National Player of the Year – and perhaps have emerged as the consensus third-best NCAA prospect in the 2016 draft.
Not that relative struggles over the first half of his lone collegiate season negatively affected his stock too much, of course. The league has never valued dribble penetration and long-range shooting like it does now, and Murray offers a supreme blend of both attributes like no other player in this year’s draft class.
He’s an effortless shooter from all over the floor coming off screens or spotting up, and he has an advanced, patient handle that allows him to easily blow by defenders who are more concerned with his jumper. Murray finishes like a seasoned NBA veteran when he gets to the paint, too, utilizing a beautiful floater and overall craft to shoot 63.8 percent at the rim.