October 22, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

Welcome Taine Murray

Sometime in the wee hours of the US night this past weekend, those dark, quiet hours after Saturday had ended but before Sunday had yet begun, an Instagram post went up from the other side of the globe. It announced the pledge of Taine Murray, a 6’5” guard from New Zealand, to join UVA as a member of the 2021 recruiting class.

“Another international player?” you say. Correct. Murray will be the second Kiwi that Bennett has coached at UVA (Jack Salt being the first from 2014 to 2019), and continues a trend of international flair on our roster that has also boasted Kody Stattmann (Australia), Francisco Caffaro (Argentina), Tomas Woldetensae and Francesco Badocchi (Italy), Marial Shayok (Canada), and Mamadi Diakite (Guinea) since Bennett arrived. Tony also coached a few international players at Washington State as well, including current NBA big man Aron Baynes (Australia).

This was an interesting recruitment to watch unfold as UVA had not been long-linked to Murray. Granted, international recruitments are always lightly reported, and as recently as this past spring Murray wasn’t divulging who was recruiting him. But the general consensus was that when UVA really dived in with both feet, they were the party-crasher. Stanford and Maryland had both been on him for a long time, and both felt like they had a strong foot in the door. Maryland was giving him the option to come in this winter and spend the spring semester redshirting and working on acclimating to the US game before debuting next year; Virginia didn’t have a spare scholarship to do the same.

But ultimately, Murray picked Virginia over his other two finalists the Cardinal and Terrapins, and he reportedly also boasted offers from other high major programs like Purdue, Creighton, and Cal. UVA has deep ties to the New Zealand community; Tony Bennett played and coached there after he left the NBA, he brought Thomas Abercrombie to Washington State in 2007 and Jack Salt to UVA in 2014, and he’s recently hired New Zealand hoops legend Kirk Penney to be a part of the UVA basketball staff. At this stage it’s unclear which if any of these factors helped UVA in the recruitment, but it will probably come out in time.

So what is UVA getting in Murray?

The Player

Taine is a 6’4” or 6’5” (depending on the source) wing. You may occasionally see some speculate he could run some point, refer to him as a combo guard, but I’m not going there yet. If he did run any point on some of his past teams, it was probably only because he was so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the competition he could get away with it, akin to the stud HS football athlete who plays quarterback purely because he’s so advantageously gifted you want the ball in his hand every play, even if he doesn’t project as a QB in college.

No, Murray is a scorer, 110%. He’s just at home as a shooter coming off screens as he is playing downhill and attacking the rim. It’s to be determined how effective he is at the rim against ACC-level shot-blockers, but he’s got good size and length so there’s potential.

The comps being thrown around for Murray include former Hoo / current Brooklyn Net Joe Harris and Iowa State alum / current Toronto Raptor Matt Thomas. Both were pure wings with good size, excellent shooting strokes, an underrated downhill game, and a fantastic work ethic and hustle to compensate for being not-quite-as-athletic as some of the NBA talent they were defending.

As such, we’re calling him a 2/3, or a G/F, for the purposes of slotting. He’s got plus length, I’ve seen his wingspan referred to as around 6’9” which is going to let him guard at least 1-3, maybe 1-4 against smaller teams. He’s not going to be a lockdown defender, but if he works hard he’ll be a competent one who fights through screens, uses his length effectively, and plays his role in the Pack Line’s collective effectiveness.

In our offensive systems, he’s probably not going to be a big Pick-And-Roll guy, either as the ball handler or the roller, but with his shooting stroke and IQ he’ll be fine as the off-ball option in those actions for catch-and-shoot opportunities (much as Kyle Guy was used during the 2019 title run), and in a Sides offense he’ll thrive coming off pindowns.

Now let’s talk about readiness…

The International Factor

There’s always concern with an international prospect regarding how well or how quickly their game is going to translate to the US level of competition. Some of our international players (Diakite, Badocchi, Shayok) had the opportunity to prep at a US high school first. Woldetensae honed his game at the US junior college level. Caffaro attended the NBA Global Academy.

Stattmann and Salt, however, came straight from the high school level in their countries, only having some limited exposure to international competition (FIBA, Basketball Without Borders) to play against anything even close to D-1 talent, and frankly it showed for both.

Murray, however, is taking another path altogether. He’s playing professionally as an amateur (meaning he’s playing in the pro ranks, but not taking a paycheck to preserve his amateur status). Last year, at just 17 years old, he played on the Southern Huskies in the New Zealand National Basketball League (NZNBL, not to be confused with Australia’s NBL, which we’ll talk about next). It’s not an elite international pro league, made up primarily of aspiring Kiwi’s mixed with some international veterans without top-level pro ceilings. Hoo fans may be familiar with this as Isaiah Wilkins played the 2018-19 season for the league’s Canterbury Rams, winning the league’s DPOY honors and scoring 11.3 ppg in his one year there.

So for context, a 24 year old Hoo alum who was a starter on an ACC Championship team scored 11.3 ppg in that league. A year later, Murray at just 17, would score 17.8 ppg in that same league against the same level of competition.

His stats tell a tale. On high volume, he shot 45% from 3 (remember, he’s be shooting 3’s all along from the international distance, whereas US players have only been adjusting for the last year). Despite being the youngest player in a lineup featuring guys in their 20’s and 30’s, Murray led the team in minutes and was second in scoring, behind only Sacramento State PG Izayah Mauriohooho Le’Afa. His stats were pedestrian in non-scoring metrics, not excelling in his assist, steal, or rebounding totals, though he was described as a willing hustle guy.

Here are his highlights from his season in the NZNBL:

This coming year, UVA fans will hopefully get to watch Murray as he levels up to join the New Zealand Breakers as one of their designated developmental players in the National Basketball League of Australia (the higher-level NBL). The NBL has skyrocketed in notoriety in recent years as it’s become the preferred landing spot for some of the US game’s best prospects looking for a non-college route before going pro. Most recently project 2020 Lottery Pick Lamelo Ball scored 17 ppg in the league for the Illawarra Hawks. I don’t expect Murray to dominate the older players in the NBL the way he did in the NZNBL, it’s a significant jump up in competition level. But if he can carve out any sort of consistent role, it’s going to speak volumes. The NBL’s level of competition is actually pretty comparable to NCAA Division 1, and even if he’s just there to scrimmage the vets in practice, it’s going to be an incredible learning experience.

So back to his readiness timeline in the ACC.

Ordinarily an international player needs two years to soak at the highest levels of US college ball before you really want to lean on them. This is just as true at Virginia as it is at peers like Gonzaga or Kansas, schools that have excelled by being patient with international stars. For Taine, I’m going to be a little bullish for two reasons.

One is the NBL experience we already talked about, a level of competition much more challenging than anything most (non-Canadian) international players face, to say nothing of also getting pro-level strength and conditioning coaching. The other is that Murray is older, already 18 and will be 19 long before he arrives in Charlottesville next summer. As such I doubt we need to wait two years for him to make much of an impact.

With that said, don’t go betting on him to be instant impact either. Offensively I think he can probably hold his own, at least in a limited reserve capacity, early on. But defensively I see his first year being a learning year. I doubt a redshirt is in order at this stage. But all the same I think the speed of guys he’s asked to defend, to say nothing of mastering his Pack Line help responsibilities, keeps his first year minutes lower. And that’s okay, because we’ll likely already field a roster deep with wings that can buy him that first year, with Kody Stattmann, Casey Morsell, Carson McCorkle, and Jabri Abdur-Rahim possibly all returning at the 2 and 3 spots (and that doesn’t even consider PG Reece Beekman playing some 2 alongside Kihei Clark).

Most likely I think Murray’s breakout comes his second year, the 2022-23 season, when Stattmann and Clark have graduated (meaning Reece is spending all his time at the 1), and there’s the additional possibility Abdur-Rahim has played himself into NBA early-entry discussion. There might still be some “rookie” moments there early in his sophomore year, but come tournament time, whether starting or off the bench, Murray’s going to be a perfect option to give us a number of strong seasons at the wing.

Roster and Recruiting Impacts

2021 Recruiting

Murray is UVA’s first commitment in the 2021 class. That class started with three scholarships to work with, those being vacated next summer by the graduating Jay Huff, Sam Hauser, and Tomas Woldetensae, meaning that as of now Murray slots into a roster featuring 10 returning players, with also a pair of vacant scholarships remaining for his class:

In this roster matrix, we see the depth talked about earlier at every perimeter position. Murray may not make much instant impact, but he doesn’t need to. Guard recruiting for 2021 was always about either (a) taking a high-upside player for long term depth purposes or (b) taking someone way too good to say no to. Murray was (a).

Trevor Keels is (b), a five star Northern Virginia future pro who is down to a short list of Duke, Villanova, and Virginia. Keels is college ready in every sense: a pro-ready physique, a deadeye shooter, a bully playing downhill, a tenacious defender. His recruitment has been impossible to decipher all year (kudos to him for staying low profile about it all while everyone else turns things into a circus!) but he’s clearly been Tony Bennett’s Plan A since last year. There will be a temptation to read into Murray’s commitment that UVA is moving on from Keels or that now there’s not room for both or that this was preemptive because Keels is likely going elsewhere. I can’t promise all of those things aren’t true; I’m not in the room with the right people to know. But until we know otherwise, we have to still assume Keels is too good not to take. The scholarships are there, Keels would be every bit good enough to crash the depth chart even as deep as it is, and we’d be thrilled that we don’t have to see him terrorizing the ACC in a Duke uniform. Keels is still a major priority and we’ll be watching intently whenever he commits, likely not too far away since just last week he announcing his Final 3.

There’s also still room in the 2021 class for a forward or center, as maybe this was always the biggest need in the 2021 cohort. Caffaro and Shedrick are true 5’s (I know there will be some debate Shedrick could play the 4, but I argue we’re 10-20 years too late for that, he’s a 5 all the way in today’s smaller spread-out game). But I’m not sure you want either McKoy or Murphy, our 3/4-type forwards in the 2021-22 season, playing down as a small-ball center. I just don’t think its going to be in either’s game. So I like the 2021-22 class being used to take what I’m calling a “5-capable forward.” Someone who can be the “third 5” from a defensive standpoint if maybe one of the bigs gets hurt or if we want to tactically go for a true “small” 5-out lineup. Trey Kaufman is the name to know here, as the Indiana native has the versatility to play 3-5 and recently included UVA in his Final 5 along with Purdue, UNC, Indiana State, and presumptive favorite Indiana. He visited UVA and UNC over Labor Day weekend and probably decides before too long. The other 4/5 recruit to know is Richmond-based center Efton Reid, though little has been heard on that one in a while. If Kaufman doesn’t choose UVA, it’s just as likely a 4/5 need isn’t addressed until the spring, maybe with a transfer.

2022 Recruiting

It’s about time to talk about 2022 class recruiting as well. Virginia has yet to formally offer any rising HS juniors (publicly, at least), but has developed relationships with a number of players in that class. The rub is that Virginia wanted to get additional clarity on its 2021 recruiting class before finalizing Bennett’s needs from the 2022 class, and with Murray’s commitment, we’re almost there. By the end of this month, possibly both Trevor Keels and Trey Kafuman will have made their choices, and whether that choice us UVA or not, either way Bennett has the additional clarity he needs to truly dive in to his ‘22 recruiting. The only position at this stage I’m 99% confident to say we’ll be targeting heavily in that class is point guard, someone to inherit Kihei Clark’s scholarship and slot in alongside Reece Beekman at the position. For every other slot in the backcourt or frontcourt, well, let’s wait and see what Keels and Kaufman decide, then we’ll talk.

Summary

The bottom line is that this is another “rich get richer” win for Bennett. Murray is a high-upside perimeter player who is going to arrive after having developed in the highly competitive NBL and then has the luxury of getting a phase-in season behind an experienced corps of guards and wings before he ultimately spends a few years terrorizing the ACC as Bennett’s newest sharpshooting weapon. After taking a trio of four-star perimeter players in the 2020 class (Beekman, McCorkle, and Abdur-Rahim), Bennett adds another to kick-start 2021. It’s turning into a sustained pipeline of talented guards, with likely more on the way as well, and at the end of the day it’s guard play that wins championships. No reason to doubt that Murray will be a part of even more Final Four chasing in Charlottesville.

So, how about we finish with some more highlights, this time from his high school season last year:

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