Jamal Murray shining for John Calipari's Kentucky team
Freshman averaging team-high 17.6 points
The night before Canadian teenager Jamal Murray led the Kentucky Wildcats to their 13th victory of the season, coach John Calipari had the team over to his house.
He handed each player a ticket for Wednesday's record-setting $1.5-billion US Powerball lottery — they each coughed up the $2 ticket price — and then asked them if they knew what the odds were of hitting the jackpot.
"It's 292.2 million to one," Calipari told them. "'That ticket is not a winner. You're not winning with that ticket.
"I then said 'You already own a ticket. YOU. It may be 50/50 that you hit the lottery, or 70/30. But you have to fight, you have to want it. You have the ticket."'
Calipari's lesson wasn't lost on Murray. The 18-year-old freshman from Kitchener, Ont., would go out a night later and lift Kentucky to an 80-74 win over Mississippi State, scoring a game-high 22 points in front of some 23,500 fans — and scouts from more than a dozen NBA teams — at Rupp Arena.
"It made a lot of sense, and it kind of put things into perspective of what I want to do with my career and what direction I want to go," said Murray, whose photo was on the program cover for Tuesday's game.
"I look at my opportunity that I have here, playing at one of the best colleges not just in America but the world, having a chance to come to a new country and show what I have. . . I'm just trying to make the most of my opportunity."
Murray is Canadian basketball's next big thing.
He was one of Canada's best players at last summer's Pan American Games, particularly in a 111-108 semifinal win over the U.S. Scoreless through three quarters, the young player took over in the fourth and overtime, exploding for 22 points.
He's not the most explosive guy but he finds ways to finish . . . all that Steve Nash stuff that the young guys are really studying today- Jonathan Givony, DraftExpress
Three months earlier, he scored 30 points to earn MVP honours at the Nike Hoop Summit, which pits the best high schoolers in the U.S. against their international counterparts. (Murray wore the grey sweatshirt from that event in his post-game interviews Tuesday night.)
His natural scoring ability is one of his biggest strengths.
"He can do it in a lot of different ways," said Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress, which has Murray going ninth on their most recent 2016 mock draft. "Whether he's shooting with his feet set or he's pulling up off the dribble, he just has a knack for knowing how to create space, how to play at different speeds. . . he takes a lot of tough shots but he also makes those.
"He's not the most explosive guy but he finds ways to finish with his skill and with his intelligence, using floaters, and off-balance, off-hand finishes, off the wrong foot. . . all that Steve Nash stuff that the young guys are really studying today."
Murray's college commitments kept him out of the Olympic qualifying tournament, and Givony believes his absence may have cost Canada an Olympic berth.
Murray also possesses an enviable mental strength, honed — according to those who know him best — over the years of working with his dad Roger, a big believer in the mental training of martial arts. Murray meditates before he steps on the floor. He calls it "mental kung fu." He can use it to lower his heart rate during games.
"He's very in touch with the mental side of the game," said Tony McIntyre, a founder of CIA Bounce, the Toronto-based AAU program that boasts such illustrious alumni as Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and his son Tyler Ennis.
"He was always very composed, very confident," McIntyre added. "His training and his workouts are more difficult than any game is going to be for him, and I think he has that confidence that he can do almost what he wants when he wants. He's got that takeover capability that takeover players have."
Murray is averaging a team-high 17.6 points a game, tied for fifth best in the conference. He's shooting 43 per cent and 38 per cent from three-point range, but has averaged nearly 50 per cent from behind the arc over his last six games. He drilled five threes in Tuesday's win.
Calipari said they've been working on Murray's three-point shooting.
"He didn't know he was open if a guy was in the lane running at him. He thought 'Well I couldn't get it off,"' the coach said. "So now we're doing drills for our guards where there are guys running at you from the lane, but you're open at the three. Get it off. If you can't get that shot off, you can't play basketball, you're really not a basketball player."
Murray, who's now the highest scorer (282 points) through 16 games in the Calipari era at Kentucky, chose that school over Oregon, Michigan, Michigan State, Maryland, NC State and Indiana.
Rather than head south to finish high school, Murray attended the Athlete Institute Basketball Academy in Orangeville, Ont., home to the Orangeville Prep team. McIntyre is the school's director of basketball operations.
Then he joined the steady stream of Canadians who have held starring roles in big-time NCAA programs.
"The players that came before have performed well, and have done a great job of representing not only our program but our country," said McIntyre, whose older son Dylan is a senior at the University of Oregon. "A lot of these U.S. schools see the value in a Canadian kid, and a lot of the kids coming out of here are pretty high profile now."
The Canadian men, meanwhile, have another shot at qualifying for Rio in a last-chance tournament this summer. Murray may be tied up with NBA duties, but could be available for the Olympics in August, should Canada qualify.