Trey Murphy has been skyrocketing up draft boards, rising from a largely unknown mid-major transfer from Rice last offseason to #21 overall in ESPN’s latest mock after an impressive junior season with Virginia.
At a glance, it is easy to see why. He shot 92.7% FT and 43.3% from 3 for the Cavs with a lightning quick release, he has excellent wing dimensions at 6’9″ with 7’0″ wingspan, and NBA athleticism with 23 dunks on the season out his total 32 made shots at the rim. He also seems to have good intangibles on top of checking some major boxes for a modern NBA 3 + D role player.
After seeing the success of Cam Johnson and Duncan Robinson, it makes sense why he would be an appetizing target after the high upside lottery picks are off the table.
But he also comes with some frustrating warts which makes him enigmatic. He is extremely skinny, and in spite of his dimensions and athleticism he rebounds like a guard. He also has close to zero ball skills, and is almost a complete non-threat to attack off the dribble.
Now one may say– who care if he creates? You can have your guards create shots for him and he will provide elite spacing gravity to help them out. But it isn’t that simple. In the last 5 possessions of Virginia’s 1 point loss to Duke, he was guarded by Duke’s worst defensive player 6’1″ Jeremy Roach. Virginia didn’t even attempt to attack the possible mismatch once, and they struggled to create offense, scoring only 2 points in the final 5 possessions.
This raises the question– how valuable is his spacing gravity if he cannot even exploit a mismatch by a bad defensive NCAA PG? If his shooting is going to turn games into a 4 on 4 minus the other team’s worst defensive player, that negates much of the value of his shooting ability.
The other concern is that whether he can actually hang defensively in the NBA. He is mobile and active, but Virginia often tries to hide him on the worst opposing offensive player. Which may seem OK since Virginia has historically elite defenses, but this is the first time in 8 years that they had a defense rated lower than #7 in Kenpom as they dropped all the way to #36 overall with more offensive minded personnel.
Murphy seems to have been one of the weaker links, as he rebounds like a guard with pedestrian steal and block rates. He also was prone to lapses in awareness, as he was caught napping for backdoor cuts, including a crucial bucket with Virginia’s season on the line. He moves his feet well defensively, but he was not often tested by quality matchups as Virginia often hid him on weak opponents, but his thin frame makes him prone to getting bullied. If he has to match up with NBA wings, how much does it help to move his feet well if they can push him around at will?
Also he struggled to figure out how to guard a shooter like Buddy Boeheim, often getting blown by out of respect for his shooting ability, even though Boeheim is not known for his first step or creation ability.
Before anybody drafts Murphy in round 1, they need to seriously consider the risk that he is bad at all aspects of the game other than shooting. How sharp can it be to draft a prospect in round 1 who as an NCAA junior often matched up with the opponents’ worst offensive player AND worst defensive player?
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Murphy can’t eventually become a useful NBA player. Let’s compare him to Duncan Robinson and Cam Johnson at similar ages:
They are all very similar, and we definitely cannot rule out Murphy becoming that level of role player. But if there is one signal that enabled Cam and Duncan to make it in the NBA that may preclude Murphy, it’s their relatively significant advantages in assist rate indicating superior ball skills. Even though they are not often asked to create off the dribble, being able to attack closeouts and exploit mismatches is a crucial baseline skill to function in an NBA offense, and there is some clear risk that Murphy is so poor at this that it detracts from all of the positive value his shooting offers.
Both Duncan and Cam stayed for two more years, and Cam continued to improve while Duncan saw a dip in both his rebound and assist rates, as he was relegated to more of a spot up role once Michigan improved their creation in the backcourt. So it is not clear that Robinson is a better prospect than Murphy, as Trey could feasibly catch up to his ball skills in time. But Robinson also went undrafted for good reason, as there was no clear signal that he would be a useful NBA player at the time.
Further, Murphy’s assist rate for mid-major Rice was a paltry 8.5% last season, so he cannot share the excuse that he was surrounded by too much offensive talent to show off his creation ability. He needs to improve, possibly by a significant margin.
Collectively, it’s difficult to make the case that Murphy is on the same level of prospect of Cam Johnson. And even though it worked out, it still can be questioned whether Johnson was an intelligent gamble at #11 overall. He hit his absolute upside and is still just the 7th man for Phoenix, and hardly an integral piece to their playoff run.
Duncan Robinson’s level of goodness seems more clearly attainable for Murphy, and even then it’s worth questioning how good exactly that may be. Robinson looked like an UDFA steal last season making an otherworldly 44.6% from 3, this season after dropping to an ordinary level of elite at 40.8%, it is not clear that he is more than an ordinary rotation player.
And without many examples of similar one dimensional shooters making themselves useful NBA players, there is the substantial risk that Murphy is outright busts like everybody imagined Duncan Robinson would.
If we say Murphy’s range of outcomes is likely somewhere on the scale of bust to being a role player on the level of a one of a kind UDFA, is that really worth investing a first round pick?
Who is the real stretch 4 sleeper?
It is interesting that a mid-major transfer is getting first round hype, while there is a similar prospect projected to late in round 2 at #55 who was a former 5* recruit: Matthew Hurt.
Hurt’s stock suffers because of his limited physical tools, as he is below average in quickness and athleticism, and measured with a wingspan equal to his height at 6’9.5″. He also has a doughy physique with 15.2% body fat, and physically does not look the part of NBA player. But him and Trey have some strong similarities in statistical output:
Hurt’s big advantage here are competent rebounding and a semblance of offensive creation ability. His offense off the dribble is largely based on mid-range pullups and turnarounds, which is not the most exciting offense. But he nevertheless shot a higher 2P% than Murphy (63.9% vs 62%) on approximately double the 2PA, and has shown he can at least do something to punish the opponent if they try to hide an undersized guard on him.
Murphy is no doubt the better shooter. Hurt has the higher career 3P% (42.1 vs 40.1) but Murphy has a better 3PA/100 (12.3 vs 9.3) and FT% (81.9 vs 73.7) as well as a quicker release. But if Hurt is a bigger threat to attack off the dribble, and can sustain a similar efficiency on higher usage, it is difficult to argue that he is not the superior offensive prospect collectively.
Defensively, Hurt’s lack of physical tools could make him a major liability and keep him off the NBA court. But he is a better rebounder than Murphy, less liable to get pushed around, and is also a higher IQ defensive player as he has better awareness and understands how to position himself to contain penetration better. He definitely won’t be a good defensive player, but he has some chance of becoming passable on that end.
If we are comparing the two defensively, it’s fuzzy and unclear who will be better between Hurt or Murphy. Both guys have a range of unplayably bad to passable. Perhaps it is right to give Murphy the edge based on his 2.5″ better length and athleticism and mobility, as he could close the gap on Hurt’s defensive IQ but Hurt is always going to be limited physically. It stands to reason he has more outs to land on the passable side of the spectrum.
But it’s difficult to make Murphy any more than a slight fave to be better on defense with all of his warts, whereas Hurt’s case to be offensively superior is a bit more clear.
Ultimately it is fairly close between the two. Both guys have a shot of becoming useful rotation players, and neither guy is going to be a star. But it is difficult to make a clear case for Murphy being the better prospect, so why expend a first round pick on him if Hurt can be had in mid-late round 2 or possibly even UDFA?
It’s great to land a Duncan Robinson out of nowhere, and Murphy is live to be just as good. But it seems like an unnecessarily risky proposition to use a first rounder on him when Duncan himself was UDFA and we have shooting prospects like Hurt and Joe Wieskamp (#54 ESPN) projected in the late 2nd this year.
UPDATE— After typing this out, it’s tough to be convinced that Murphy is really good or bad. These are all decent reasons to be skeptical, but it is difficult to compare him to a negative example to offset the Duncan Robinson and Cam Johnson comps.
The fact of the matter is that guys who are 6’9″, elite at shooting, and not slow as molasses are exceptionally difficult to find. Perhaps that is the right intersection of strengths, and having a good defensive IQ or being able to beat NCAA defenses off the dribble or rebound at the high major level are all trivial relative to the rare intersection of strengths.
Ultimately there is no reason to have any conviction that Murphy is not a 1st round prospect, and I ended up ranking him significantly above Hurt on my final big board. I was tempted to delete this article because I didn’t agree with my own conclusion after taking a few days to digest it all, but I have never deleted anything from the site and there are still valid reasons to be cautious in valuing Murphy, regardless of whether he hits his upside or not.