This is a part of our NBA Draft Prospect Review series where we evaluate the top players of the 2022 NBA Draft by reviewing every shot, assist, turnover, steal and rebound during their most recent collegiate season. Every writer was given access to game footage and asked to deliver their takeaways about the player in whatever manner they saw fit.
It feels like the luck ran out for the Detroit Pistons.
After winning the NBA Draft Lottery last year and earning the right to select Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 overall pick, there was a renewed sense of excitement leading into this year’s lottery. Collectively, we thought, “They finally did it last year, why can’t it happen again?”
Because good things don’t come in twos for the Pistons.
Detroit dropped two spots to No. 5 and the focus shifted from which of Jabari Smith Jr., Chet Holmgren or Paolo Banchero fits best to what the hell do we do now? Keegan Murray is the other big man in this draft.
He was the best of this bunch in college last season, but he’s the one fans have the most questions about leading up to the June draft. Here’s a deep dive into what makes Murray one of the most interesting players in this draft.
HE IS WHAT THE OLD HEADS CALL A “PROFESSIONAL” SCORER
Murray’s numbers tell the story.
He’s a walking bucket, averaging 23.5 points per game on 55/40/75 shooting splits this past season for the Hawkeyes. Yes, we’ve seen guys at Iowa (see: Garza, Luka) put up big numbers in Fran McCaffery’s system... but Murray is different.
He’s not big and lumbering like Garza. There’s no comparison other than the fact that both filled it up at Iowa. Murray has great instincts offensively and knows how to get where he needs to be on the court.
When you watch him, he’s rarely out of position.
When he gets the ball down low, he does so in his spots.
When he catches it beyond the arc, he’s ready to shoot.
That’s basketball IQ, and that awareness plays into his ability to take advantage of what defenses give him.
There wasn’t a time this season where Murray wasn’t the opponents’ sole focus defensively.
He wasn’t perfect in an early season clunker against Iowa State (4-of-17 shooting) nor was he during a stretch of three losses in four games in January (15.7 points per game on 19-of-54 shooting), but Murray was as steady as they come the rest of the way.
A big reason for that is his versatility. Whether it’s a guard or an undersized big, he’s a mismatch against smaller defenders. He finds ways to get the ball in his spots near the rim, a skill that could come in handy as defenses switch on screen and rolls between he and Cade Cunningham.
When Murray scores, he does it with purpose. His athleticism is questioned by some, but he’s not some stiff. He has touch around the basket and is bouncy enough to get up and finish above the rim with authority.
He’s a lob threat whose athleticism is more functional than explosive.
That helps in drawing fouls which, combined with his crafty ability down low, allows him to slide through openings to find good looks at the rim. When he’s near the rim, he’s rarely out of control, a credit to his body control and improve strength and conditioning. He doesn’t dance. He doesn’t over dribble much, he just attacks when he’s got the ball.
It’s not really a “skill” thing, but Murray also plays hard. He’s always the first guy down the court because he runs hard. His motor is always running and he’s not afraid to grab a rebound and push the ball up court. For some guys, that isn’t a good thing. For Murray, it is.
But that brings us to some of the cons that come with his offensive excellence.
Murray is an OK ball handler for a big, but he’s not creative with the ball in that way. He gets caught on the baseline with his head down a lot. Sometimes, that’s due to his teammates ball watching, but other times he dribbles right into double teams. The ball handling is good when he’s attacking decisively, but it drops off when he’s probing and looking to create something other than a shot for himself.
He needs to get better creating from the high-post, too. He struggles a lot on mid-range jumpers, not because he can’t hit the shots, but because his shot selection can be very poor when he has the ball in that area.
For better or worse, Murray is not born in the mold of Carmelo Anthony with the jab, jab, pump fake, jab, pull-up jumper arsenal. His shot chart tells a similar story:
I think those midrange struggles are also a bit of Murray rushing when he has the ball. He knows he’s getting defensive attention from 360 degrees at that point, so he hurries to get shots up. The same issues show up in his passing. He’s capable of making good reads and finding guys, but he doesn’t always make those plays from the mid/low post.
Again, Iowa did a lot of watching when Murray got the ball. Every member of the Pistons except Hamidou Diallo can be guilty of that, too. Murray doesn’t waste time when he gets the ball. He won’t be able to attack constantly at the next level, so improving his secondary reads is needed.
NOT THE BEST, BUT FAR FROM THE WORST
When I started digging into Murray, I expected his defense to be a disaster. I figured he would be slow and unable to keep up with bigger and more athletic players.
However, I was pleasantly surprised with what he showed this season.
He’s not the quickest defender, but he’s smart. He knows where to be. While his 1.9 blocks per game stand out, he’s not a help-side demon like Chet Holmgren. He moves well enough that he gets a hand on shots when defenders are going to the rim. That won’t be as easy with more athletic opponents in the NBA, but Murray knows how to make shots difficult.
His length is... fine. He’s 6-foot-8 with a reported 6-foot-11 wingspan. That’s not really the Troy Weaver archetype, but I think he plays smart enough that it’s enough to help him on the defensive end.
There isn’t a lot of tape on him switching in the pick and roll. That’s going to be the biggest test for him in the NBA. He’s a mismatch in this respect offensively, but is he quick enough (or strong enough?) to handle those switched matchups?
Think about it this way: The Pistons and Hornets are battling next season. Miles Bridges sets a screen for LaMelo Ball, forcing Killian Hayes to switch onto Bridges and Murray to handle Ball on a switch at the top of the key. Does Ball have Murray on skates, blowing by him for a bucket? Is Murray forced to give up too much space, resulting in an open triple?
Those are situations that college basketball, unfortunately, does not shine much light on. Murray played at around 215 pounds this year and has always been skinny dating back to high school. With a professional training regimen and diet, does his next team look to bulk him up to better handle NBA power forwards or does is the goal to work on his agility so he can better hang with guards on switches?
It’ll be interesting to see what direction that goes. You want twitchy athletes who are switchable. Murray is an athlete, but is he athletic enough in that way?
The other thing that really sticks out to me is rebounding. It’s always been the most translatable skill from college to the NBA. Murray has a nose for the ball as a defensive rebounder. He’s not as good on the offensive glass, but that may be a byproduct of playing away from the basket.
I’m confident Murray will help you as a rebounder right away... which is an area the Pistons were dreadful in last season.
IS HE TOO OLD AT 21 YEARS OLD?
What’s the main criticism you hear about Murray? His age.
While he just wrapped up his sophomore season at Iowa, he spent a post-grad year playing in Florida after graduating high school — he’ll be 21 years old come draft night. They say age is just a number, and I tend to agree. But... that gives a lot of fans pause.
I’m not sure it really should worry you all that much.
I’ve dug back to 2005 — the first year of the league’s one-and-done rule — to look at every top-10 pick who, on draft night, was 21 or older. There have been 15 guys who fit that bill, and 13 of them went on to have objectively successful careers:
This is not a bad list to be on.
You’ve got two bums in Jordan Hill and Willie Cauley-Stein then guys like Raymond Felton, Corey Brewer and Terrence Ross who were low-end starters/role players on playoff teams.
Then, among the remaining nine, we have high-end starters in Mikal Bridges and Victor Oladipo or franchise pillars like Brandon Roy, CJ McCollum, Kemba Walker, Deron Williams, Al Horford, Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry.
I’m not saying Murray is the next Al Horford, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he had that kind of impact once it’s all said and done. The point is, age is a factor but it should not serve as an automatic disqualification for prospects.
HE’S A SAFE PICK, BUT ONE WITH ROOM TO GROW
Murray is going to be a polarizing player over the next few weeks.
Some will champion his selection because they see him as a safe bet. Others will kick and scream about drafting him because they see a low-ceiling player who put up inflated stats against a down Big Ten.
I’m not sure where I fall on that spectrum.
Do I think Murray ever matures into a superstar player? No. However, I don’t see him failing at this level, either. I think he’s a starter from Day 1, the kind of hybrid forward who can carry the load for stretches but will be even better when a defense’s sole focus isn’t on him.
After carrying such a heavy load last season, having a high-level playmaker like Cunningham would make Murray’s adjustment to the NBA so much easier.
This isn’t a playing-style comparison, but the Murray situation reminds me of Tyrese Haliburton two years ago. Obviously, they’re entirely different players at different positions, but both were viewed through the same lens of older guys with high floors and low ceilings.
Both are high character and hard working players, but it’s hard to shake the stigma of not being a shiny one-and-done prospect with impressive athletic measurables.
Folks worried that Haliburton couldn’t carry what he did at Iowa State over to the NBA against bigger and better competition. They, including Troy Weaver, were wrong. Through two seasons, Haliburton has become one of the league’s young darlings.
I see things working out similarly for Murray. He’s ready to contribute today.
The big question is how much better can he get? Watching video on him over the past few weeks, I’ve had a number of player comparisons come to mind. Sometimes, he looks like Pascal Siakam with legit 3-point range. Other times, I see a less springy John Collins.
And, honestly, there have been times where he’s crafty like Danillo Galinari.
That’s a wide variance, I know, but it goes to show that the floor is high for Murray. He’s going to help your team win. He’s going to be a good locker room guy.
There is a sense of urgency with this pick. Detroit is improving. They have their future star in Cade. Now, they need another. Falling in the draft has heightened the fanbases desperation for that second star.
That man (probably) isn’t coming in free agency and they don’t have the future picks to trade for him, so it has to come from the draft. I don’t know if Murray is going to be the Robin to Cade’s Batman, but if he’s available at No. 5, I think Troy Weaver will think long and hard about drafting him.
Murray isn’t a guy who gets played off the floor in the playoffs. He’s got the chops to battle in big lineups and slide to center and spread the floor as a small-ball five in doses.
The Pistons aren’t going to get one of the Big 3 in Jabari, Chet or Paolo but, sitting at No. 5, it’s possible they get the next-best thing in Keegan.