NEW YORK – When John Calipari thinks of Jamal Murray’s lone season at the University of Kentucky, two stories stand out. Both of them speak to a mentality that should serve Murray well Thursday night when he’s drafted into the NBA, where the stakes are high and long-range shooting is at a premium.
First, the meditation. Before one early season game, Calipari walked into the Wildcats’ team meeting room at Rupp Arena and found Murray sitting alone in the dark.
“I say, ‘What are you doing?’ He says, ‘I’m meditating.’ I said, ‘Well, go use my office so I can get the board up,’ ” the UK coach remembered this week with a laugh. “So that became his routine. He would go into my office, turn the light out. I’d give him his time, I’d put up the board as I prepared for the game, and then I would either knock on the door or he would come out and say, ‘I’m done.’ ”
Then, most games, Murray would calmly drop 20-plus points and a flurry of 3-pointers on helpless opponents. He was a stone-cold assassin, even adopting a bow-and-arrow celebration to match his mentality, on the way to scoring more points and hitting more threes than any freshman in school history.
The Canadian-born Murray learned how to center himself from his father, Roger, who long ago fell in love with martial arts and the power of channeling one’s thoughts and energy. Not long after he learned to walk, Jamal had a basketball in his hand and Dad in his ear whispering wisdom about the importance of focus.
“He knows a lot about mental toughness,” Murray said of his father. “He’s translated that to me. Just clear your thoughts, clear your thinking, go into a blank space and relax.”
Then let it fly. From near, far, balanced or not, out of his right hand or left. In addition to the power of meditation, Murray learned to put a basketball through the hoop from nearly every conceivable angle.
That’s where Calipari’s second story comes in.
“What a great story if you want to know what he is and how he plays and how his mind works,” the coach teases. “He came in on a drive, lefty, tried to avoid the defender, got kind of tripped and was falling down, and when he was about four feet from the floor, flipped it with his left hand – and the ball went in. I looked at him and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘You think that’s a good shot?’ (He said), ‘Yeah, I knew it was going in.’
“So there’s not a shot that he doesn’t think he can make.”
Sound familiar? Two-time MVP and Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry plays that way. Coincidentally, that’s who Calipari compares Murray to while making the unpopular argument that UK’s sharpshooter, not LSU’s Ben Simmons or Duke’s Brandon Ingram, is the safest bet for the No. 1 overall pick.
He won’t go that high, although most analysts do expect Murray to land anywhere from third to eighth in the draft.
“If we would’ve advanced a couple games, he would have broken Steph Curry’s (NCAA freshman) 3-point record,” Calipari said — Murray hit 113, Curry 122. “He also became one of the most efficient scorers that I’ve coached. Now think about that statement of who I’ve coached.”
Calipari, who has produced four No. 1 overall picks, including last season’s NBA Rookie of the Year, Karl Towns, went on to make another bold prediction: Murray will lead all NBA rookies in scoring next season.
You can probably guess Murray’s reaction to what some might consider undue pressure on a young guy.
“I like that,” he said. “In high school, I was the leading scorer. In college, I was the leading freshman scorer. So I don’t see why I couldn’t be in the NBA.”
Murray, who starred on the Canadian national team against grown men last summer, described his approach to this next challenge as “ultimate confidence.” Some have questions about his defense and athleticism at the next level, but after dropping 30-plus three times last season and stringing together 12 consecutive 20-point games at Kentucky, Murray just shrugs.
“I can’t wait to prove people wrong,” he said. “Of course I believe I’m the best player (in the draft). I’ve put so much work into this game and I know my abilities, know the scenarios I’m going against. I’m confident in myself that I don’t see anybody else being better than me.
“I get that from my dad and my parents being confident in me and in themselves. It’s been a journey, and I wouldn’t have been here without being confident.”
Calipari might be the only person as sure of Murray’s skills as Jamal and Roger. UK’s coach warns any NBA team hesitant to pull the trigger that he tried to tell many of them last year Devin Booker would be the best shooter in the 2015 draft.
Booker went 13th overall and merely became the fourth-youngest player in NBA history to score 1,000 points – behind LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
“And now all of a sudden I’ve got a Jamal Murray, whose release is kind of similar to Steph,” Calipari said. “I’m sold on him.”
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.
- UK’s Skal Labissiere ready to change his family’s lives on NBA draft night
- Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis undeterred by doubters, injury rumors ahead of NBA draft
- NBA Draft | Kentucky’s Calipari expects urge to ‘throw up’ Thursday night
- Kentucky’s Alex Poythress hopes to see NBA draft dream revived Thursday night
- The Kyle Tucker Show: Talking Kentucky’s NBA Draft prospects