He’s a player with a pedigree of success. The analytics rave about him, and the coaches who see his demeanor and work ethic aren’t far behind. He could be the “safest” pick in the entire draft class.
And somehow that last thing is held against him. The year is 2020, and we are, of course, talking about Tyrese Haliburton, guard prospect out of Iowa State. Fast forward to the year 2022 and we are having the exact same conversation about Keegan Murray, forward prospect out of Iowa.
There seems to be a three-man race for the fifth pick in the NBA Draft with two of the following guaranteed to be available: Jaden Ivey, Bennedict Mathurin, Keegan Murray.
Plenty of folks salivate over Ivey because of his truly next-level athleticism that would already be among the best the NBA has to offer the moment he steps on the court. There are others who look at the two-way potential of Mathurin, his pretty high-arcing 3-point shot and his tremendous ability in transition and say, “that is the perfect complement to Cade Cunningham.”
I was one of them. I took Mathurin with the fifth pick in the SB Nation mock draft with Murray still on the board.
And then there is Murray. He lapped the competition in productivity on the court in college. Of the top 100 players in Bart Torvik’s NCAA database, Murray is No. 1 in his catch-all points over replacement (PORPAGATU! — what a fun name). In stats that are a little less ... toothsome, he’s No. 1 in overall Box Plus-Minus, Offensive Box Plus-Minus, third in offensive rating, and 14th in overall true shooting percentage.
Murray is the only player in college basketball with at least 50 dunks (67) and more than 100 3-point attempts (166). The dude is a walking bucket.
Let’s go back to Haliburton and some of the concerns people pointed out about him leading up to the draft. From Mike Schmitz, then at ESPN and now a talent evaluator with the Portland Trail Blazers:
As we saw when surrounded by Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green and Reggie Perry on the gold medal Team USA Under-19 squad at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Haliburton comes alive as a facilitator next to elite talent. However, critics point to questions about Haliburton’s ability to create off the dribble, his pull-up jumper and his on-ball defense when he’s not flush with great teammates.
Yes, Haliburton was efficient, a great teammate and a safe bet. But there were questions of his ultimate position and the level of his upside.
Sometimes we get so obsessed with hitting the home-run swing that we can’t see the obvious greatness staring at us right in the face.
In that same Haliburton profile, it’s noted that ESPN’s Kevin Pelton had Haliburton rated second overall behind only Lonzo Ball leading into the draft.
Fast forward again to 2022 and we check in on Pelton again. He has Murray rated third overall behind just Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith Jr.
Here’s what John Hollinger writes about Murray, who he placed 7th on his final big board behind both Ivey (3rd) and Mathurin (5th).
Murray is neither a high-wire athlete nor a knockdown shooter. He’s fine and all — 37.3 percent from 3 and 74.9 percent from the line in two years at Iowa — but it’s his all-around wiles as a scorer that provide his real value.
It’s fair to question how much daylight that part of his game will receive at the NBA level, because he doesn’t create easy separation and isn’t a great distributor.
Ultimately, though, Hollinger ends by noting people might be undervaluing the potential production and effectiveness of Murray:
What I get back to is that we’ve seen this movie before with guys like T.J. Warren and Cedric Ceballos — smooth forwards who lacked top-drawer athleticism but had crazy feel for scoring and finding buckets in the flow of the game. The league undervalues guys like this sometimes because they don’t have an easy box to slide into, but I’m pretty confident Murray can be a rotation forward at worst, and the upside is a 20-point scorer.
A safe pick. “a rotation forward at worst” with the upside of a “20-point scorer.” So my question is, what’s wrong with safe? Why does it need to become a dirty word?
It is perfectly reasonable for NBA GMs to ask the following questions because they are important. Which guy could be an All-NBA player? Who could be on the floor in crunch time of a game 7? Who could be a future All-Star?
But at the same time, that GM must be comfortable with the answer to any of those questions being “nobody.” Because it is when you talk yourself into the 5% chance of someone reaching far beyond not just an expected outcome but to some mythical “ceiling” that doesn’t truly exist that you end up wasting first-round picks on guys who can’t really play and never figure it out.
Sometimes it is best not to outthink yourself. This year that might mean the best pick at No. 5 overall is Keegan Murray. Safe might not sell, but often times it helps you win a lot of basketball games.