'His best years are ahead of him:' Why analysts believe Keegan Murray could become a first-round NBA talent
Nearly two weeks ago, Iowa basketball saw its first players taken in the NBA Draft since 2015.
The wait for the next one won't be nearly as long.
Multiple draft experts and analysts have tabbed sophomore forward Keegan Murray as Iowa's next NBA player, with a higher ceiling than Hawkeye greats Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp — both second-round selections on July 29.
"Keegan had a limited role on last year's team for obvious reasons," CBS Sports college basketball columnist Gary Parrish said. "But he did enough in that time to get on NBA radars despite being ranked outside of the Top 300 coming out of high school. And it's because he looks like the type of player that is very useful in that league."
In April, ESPN draft analyst Jonathan Givony projected him as a late first round pick. One month later, Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo published a piece that ranked Murray as one of the 10 best NBA Draft prospects returning to college in 2021-22.
Most recently, The Athletic posted its 2022 mock draft on Saturday and had Murray listed as its No. 19 pick.
"With Joe Wieskamp, Luka Garza and C.J. Fredrick all gone," Sam Vecenie wrote, "I anticipate Murray stepping into an enormous role at Iowa and breaking out in a big way."
Murray isn't focused on the NBA this summer, but having his name in the conversation is a huge confidence booster.
"Obviously it's a good feeling to be on a mock draft," Murray said. "But it's just a mock draft. Next year's a huge point for me and continuing to build my confidence and skillset. Obviously that builds confidence in yourself to be mentioned with those great athletes."
Due to Iowa's depth and experience last year, Murray wasn't a featured player but he was a star reserve. He was an All-Big Ten freshman selection and led the team in bench scoring (7.8 points) and rebounds (5.5 rebounds) per game in conference play.
Overall, he was one of only five players nationally and the only bench player to record 200+ points, 35+ blocks, 25+ steals, and 15+ three-pointers.
Today's NBA is about position versatility, especially on the defensive end. Players who cannot guard multiple positions are played off the court or taken advantage of regularly.
Murray's athleticism, combined with his 6-foot-9, 220 pound frame, fits the NBA game, analysts told Hawk Central.
"He can be — and is — an excellent defender because he can guard multiple positions," ESPN's Jay Bilas said. "He is athletic, long and alert. He plays really hard and runs the floor so he's going to get extra possessions for you. He can switch onto a smaller defender and also guard in the post."
Where Murray can solidify his first round grade and move up on draft boards is improving on offense, in particular his perimeter shooting. He shot 50% from the field and 75.5% from the free throw line but only 29% from three-point range.
At this point, his three-point shooting percentage isn't a red flag. According to Bilas and Parrish, the shooting mechanics are solid and his free throw shooting suggests he'll become a better shooter from deep.
"My understanding is he's a better shooter than his percentages show," Parrish said. "He shot 75% from the free throw line. … Any coach or evaluator will tell you somebody who can shoot from the free throw line, there's reason to believe they can become a good shooter from the three-point line."
If he becomes a threat from deep, the ability to play both ends of the court will make Murray fly up draft boards. If not, well, there's lots of examples of tall shooters who struggle to defend and don't end up being drafted.
Parrish pointed to Duke product Matthew Hurt as an example of a long shooter who went unselected in the draft because of defensive questions.
"There's a place for him in the NBA, but that's not nearly as valuable as a guy who can guard multiple positions and can shoot it," Parrish said. "In fact, if you could only have one or the other in the NBA you'd probably want the guy who can switch and guard multiple positions over the guy who can't do that but is an awesome shooter."
Should Murray enter the 2022 NBA draft he'll be one of the oldest sophomores at 21 years old. That he is an old sophomore will be factored in, according to Parrish.
Murray's trajectory isn't as linear as what fans have seen from most potential NBA first-rounders. He was not highly ranked coming out of his high school and prep career.
But despite the atypical path, Murray is set up to possibly become Iowa's first first-rounder talent since Ricky Davis in 1998.
"It's kind of an old-school development," Bilas said. "It's not on a fast track. He's going to have a very good career long-term, because he has a lot of tools but he needs to keep developing as a player.
"I think people will relate him to how it used to be: Come in and be a role player as a freshman and really blossom after that. His best years are ahead of him, that's for sure."
Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org