This story is over 5 years old.


Kentucky's Tough Draw Could Help Elevate Jamal Murray's Draft Stock

Jamal Murray, the most dangerous freshman scorer in the tournament, is a threat to push his way into the conversation as high as No. 3 come draft night.
Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the SEC Tournament Championship on the line Sunday, Jamal Murray faced up Admon Gilder and pulled up for a 3-pointer with five seconds left on the shot clock in overtime. As has come to be expected from the Kitchener, Ontario, native this season, it fell.

And as has quickly become tradition for the 19-year-old, he reached into his quiver on his way back on defence and fired off an arrow. The Blue Arrow, as he's come to be known, had just extended Kentucky's lead over Texas A&M to six with 16 seconds to play, effectively clinching the conference final. It was Murray's third 3-pointer on a somewhat cold shooting night, where defensive specialist Alex Caruso valiantly fought around an endless array of screens to at least make life difficult for the sharpshooter.


READ MORE: The VICE Sports Viewer's Guide To The 2016 NCAA Tournament

Even against an elite defender, Murray's would-be off-night produced 17 points on 14 field-goal attempts, the latest salvo in a months-long war Murray's been waging on his detractors. It was his franchise-record 34th consecutive game with a triple—he's yet to be shut out from long range—and, most notably from a historical perspective, pushed him to 110 threes on the season, just 12 shy of Steph Curry's NCAA freshman record. Murray's chasing Curry with an even better 3-point percentage (42.1 to 40.8) and, at his current pace, would best the reigning NBA MVP's mark some time late in an Elite Eight game two weeks from now.

If Murray can help lead the Wildcats that far, that is.

Even as SEC tournament champions, Kentucky only drew a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, while Texas A&M landed a three-seed. At 26-8, Kentucky didn't do quite enough to impress the committee and avoid a Sweet Sixteen matchup with a top seed, even as the No. 7 team by KenPom rankings. If the Wildcats can avoid getting upset, they'll meet the No. 2 overall seed in the entire tournament, North Carolina.

It's not the greatest of draws from a team perspective, but if Murray has designs on continuing to build momentum ahead of the NBA draft this summer, maybe a tough path is the best outcome for his stock.

He's already leading the best pace- and opponent-adjusted offence in college basketball as the team's top scorer, averaging 20.1 points per game. He's also the team's biggest outside shooting threat, an important part of Kentucky's offensive strategy given that Murray spends a lot of time off the ball alongside the surging Tyler Ulis (an uptick in Ulis' own play was, not coincidentally, a factor in Murray's recent stretch of 12 consecutive 20-point games).


Even lifting Kentucky that high, Murray's struggled to fight his way back into the top five on draft boards. Due to concerns over his eventual NBA position, his limited defensive upside, and some early difficulty operating in Kentucky's cramped spacing, Murray was at risk of sliding out of the top ten despite possessing obvious top-five talent. As of Sunday, ESPN's Chad Ford and CBS' Sam Vecenie ranked him as the No. 6 prospect, with DraftExpress placing him one spot lower at No. 7. In terms of mock draft position, he ranged from fourth to seventh.

Those creating the rankings put in a great deal of work to do so, and they, like NBA scouts and executives, aren't going to be swung by one or two performances in the NCAA Tournament. Still, March is when college legends are made and résumés are solidified, and Murray has a very real opportunity to be the catalyst (or co-catalyst) on what may be an under-seeded sleeping giant.

There isn't a more dangerous freshman scorer in the tournament. —Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Stony Brook is no easy task in the Round of 64, and there may be little Murray can do about Jameel Warney's battle with Kentucky's deep frontcourt. The Wildcats will need Murray's scoring to help keep up if Warney goes off, though, and the Seawolves did a decent, if unremarkable job limiting the 3-pointer this season. From there, Kentucky would likely draw Indiana, a bit of a plodding but highly effective offence, one that relies heavily on the triple. If the Hoosiers go high-variance in strategy, Murray is essentially Kentucky's only answer outside of reserve forward Derek Willis. Even if Indiana lost, Chattanooga does a great job grinding down the pace and held opponents to 33-percent shooting from beyond the arc.


And if Kentucky makes it through those tests, the Tar Heels and their top-20 adjusted defence would be waiting. UNC was friendly against the long ball but has several long defenders it can throw at Murray, and knocking off a No. 1 seed could really affirm Murray's ability to carry an offence as the competition ramps up.

Some of Murray's primary competition inside the top ten, meanwhile, will be absent in the tournament. He probably doesn't have a shot to unseat Brandon Ingram and Ben Simmons (watching from home) at the top, but fellow potential top-five picks Dragan Bender (Europe) and Henry Ellenson (failed to qualify) won't have a similar opportunity to impress scouts. Plenty of eyes will be on Oklahoma's Buddy Hield, one of the few players who can claim a better shooting résumé than Murray, while Jaylen Brown will also have a lot on the line. And for those NBA executives who think Murray may be able to play some point, Murray landing in the same half of the same region as Providence guard Kris Dunn—the top natural one in the draft—is a fortunate coincidence. The draft seems incredibly fluid three months out, so while small-sample aberrations won't fool anyone, a strong performance will carry weight at the margins.

With all of that potential proving ground also comes the opportunity to flounder, and if Murray struggles, he could find himself back closer to ten than five on boards. But his affinity for meditation and king fu will help him deal with the mounting pressure, and his preternatural shooting ability hasn't shown prone to a slump yet. He's the most dangerous freshman scorer in the tournament, one of the four or five most dangerous shooters in the country, and a threat to push his way into the conversation as high as No. 3 come draft night.


Consider Murray No. 6 or 7 with a bullet. Or an arrow.

Other Canadians to watch in the NCAA Tournament

Kyle Wiltjer is leading the charge for Gonzaga. Expect lots of 3-balls from him. —Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There are 21 Canadians across 17 different rosters in the tournament, including Murray's own teammate Mychal Mulder. Here are the other big names to keep an eye on once things get underway Thursday.

Dillon Brooks, Oregon—The Ducks earned a one-seed in the West region, and Brooks' scoring was a major reason why. He may be more of a draft prospect for 2017, but at 16.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists per game, and a jump shot—his 33.1-percent mark from outside doesn't do justice—the 6-foot-6 sophomore could pull his timeline ahead with a big two weeks. Teammate Chris Boucher of Montreal is also chipping in with a healthy 12.1 points and 7.6 rebounds. Dylan Ennis, unfortunately, is out for the season.

Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga—A former Wildcat himself, the 6-foot-10 stretch four leads the Bulldogs with 20.7 points per game and has knocked down 42.4 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He and frontcourt mate Domantas Sabonis have a tough path as a No. 11 seed, but the talent to be a moderately trendy upset pick.

Stefan Jankovic, Hawaii—Taking up the mantle of Carl English with the Rainbow Warriors, the 6-foot-11 Jankovic is averaging 15.7 points and 6.6 rebounds while canning 39.5 percent of his triples—is Canada loaded with 3-point shooting talent, or what? Hawaii drew a 13-seed after winning the Big West and gets California in the opening round.

Dyshawn Pierre, Dayton—The Final Four host drew a seven-seed and a tough matchup opposite Syracuse, giving the Whitby-born Pierre a chance to shine in one of the opening round's most interesting games. The senior is averaging 13 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on the year.