By BENJAMIN SCHODOWSKI
With the NBA draft just two weeks away, Coach John Calipari is performing his annual practice of building up his draft-declared players, most notably Jamal Murray this week. Cal went on ESPNU’s College Basketball podcast and stated that Murray is the “safe No. 1 pick.”
I did a small breakdown of Murray’s draft prospects a few weeks ago, but in this entry I’m going to tackle this main question: is Murray truly the “safest” pick in this draft? And how should teams weigh the prospects of a “safe” pick versus a “highest upside” pick when evaluating Murray against another top prospect, such as Ben Simmons? Let’s evaluate these questions in reference to the team with the top overall pick, the Philadelphia 76ers.
As many have noted, Murray is arguably the best pure shooter in this draft. While hitting 41 percent of his 3-point attempts last season, the only other shooter in this draft that can compare to this level would be Buddy Hield of Oklahoma. With the NBA rules favoring spacing at every angle these days, I can see clearly why people other than Cal may feel that he is the “safest” pick in this draft.
When you look at the importance of players that can shoot off-dribble (Stephen Curry) or have the ability to roll off screens with deadly accuracy (Klay Thompson), Murray is by far an elite prospect in this regard. According to Draft Express, Murray was 42 of 75 (56%) shooting off picks this season, which would put him in the upper echelon of NBA players if he replicates that rate during his pro career.
A few other notes that favor him being the “safest” pick for specifically the 76ers: they absolutely need backcourt help. There is a dearth of great shooting guards throughout the league, as after Klay Thompson ,C.J. McCollum and James Harden, it becomes a struggle to find young elite pure shooting guards. The 76ers have arguably the worst backcourt situation, and Murray would upgrade both spots, regardless of where he would see the most minutes.
Now for the argument against Murray being the No. 1 overall pick, we start with a familiar name: Ben Simmons. I believe that Simmons is “highest upside” guy in this draft, with only his demeanor being a factor that could hold him back in the NBA. There are more than a few scouts who look at Simmons and think about one name in particular: Derrick Coleman. Coleman was the top overall pick in the 1990 draft, and the only thing that held him back from being one of the more memorable NBA players was his lack of work ethic. I’ve heard similar criticism with Simmons, but I don’t feel it holds such merit.
It’s not everyday that you are able to find an athlete who is almost 6’10” and has a handle that rivals some best ballhandlers currently in the league. The only obvious minus with him, basketball-wise, has been criticism about his lack of shooting range. This is fixable issue considering his overall talent level, assuming he puts in the time to correct it. I believe that for the 76ers, “highest upside” will win the day over “safest,” and Simmons will be the clear #1 pick.
Look for the 76ers to make a strong play to draft Murray at #3 overall though, potentially getting that pick in a possible trade with the Boston Celtics. If I were a betting man. I’d be willing to gamble that Simmons and Murray will go from being SEC rivals to NBA teammates within a matter of days. Time to wait and see.