The Four Point Guards in the NBA Draft Who Could Rival Dunn and Murray

Posted: 05/27/2016 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

There’s a pretty strong consensus among NBA draftniks that Providence’s Kris Dunn and Kentucky’s Jamal Murray are the two best point guards in the draft. Murray’s more of a combo guard who plays off the ball than a pure point guard, but for the most part I understand where people are coming from. But the attention paid to Dunn and Murray has, in my mind, led to a severe lack of attention towards four other point guards who could rival the top two’s production right off the bat and/or down the line. Unlike Dunn and Murray, these four aren’t necessarily all grouped together even though they all play the same position. The four are Murray’s teammate Tyler Ulis, Dejounte Murray of Washington (Marquese Chriss’s teammate), Demetrius Jackson of Notre Dame, and Wade Baldwin of Vanderbilt. They aren’t all the same age (Jackson’s a junior, Murray’s a freshman, and the other two are sophomores), nor do they all play the same way. But for a team drafting a point guard that is either not in love with Jamal Murray or Dunn or is picking after the top two are gone, these four should definitely be considered. Let’s see how they all shake out.

If you watched Kentucky at all last year, you probably got the impression that Tyler Ulis, and not Jamal Murray, was the best player on the team. That’s because Ulis, the team’s pure point guard, was the best player on the team. He had the sixth best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country at 3.57; he averaged seven assists and just two turnovers per game. He also scored an efficient 17.3 points per game, with 4.8 made free throws per game on 86% shooting. And he was the team’s best defender, using his quick feet and hands and his smarts to take home the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award along with the SEC Player of the Year award. Ironically, Ulis’s most impressive showing of the season might have come in Kentucky’s season-ending loss to Indiana in the NCAA tournament. As Murray was limited to one three point make on nine attempts and Skal Labissiere scored just four points, Ulis outplayed star Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell, pouring in 27 points on 50% shooting. Unfortunately, the rest of the uber-talented Wildcats team scored just 40 points on 38% shooting and Kentucky failed to make the second weekend. But Ulis’s performance put an exclamation mark on what was inarguably a terrific season.

Stats aside, there’s a lot to like about Tyler Ulis. He has to be considered the best pure point guard in the draft, with the basketball IQ and leadership skills to, as Kentucky coach John Calipari said, basically coach their team. His timing, effort, and passing ability should make him one of the safest prospects in the draft. And that’s not even considering that Ulis, unlike most floor generals, knows when to create for himself, too, avoiding “Rajon Rondo Syndrome” (I just made that up). In particular, his solid three point shot, consistent elbow jumper, and terrific floater come to mind. So far, he seems like a pretty perfect prospect. So what’s the problem? There’s only one: his height. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to be a 5’9″, 150 pound NBA player. The height almost certainly means that Ulis will have a lot of trouble doing some pretty vital things. He couldn’t really finish at the basket in college, which means NBA teams will have no trouble stopping his slashes to the rim. And while he was a good college defender, it’s a lot harder to defend Russell Westbrook or Stephen Curry at 5’9″ than it would be at 6’2″. It’s a true testament to Ulis that his only real weakness is something that he can’t control, but it’s a pretty big weakness nonetheless. There’s a reason that there have only been 23 players in the NBA’s history that have been under 5’10”. Those players include Muggsy Bogues and Spud Webb, both of whom are basketball heroes but neither of whom averaged 10 points per game in their NBA careers. Being short in the NBA is hard, but it’s not impossible. Ask Isaiah Thomas, Boston’s best player right now, or Nate Robinson, who won three Slam Dunk Contests and, at least for a while, was a solid player. Ulis will not be of interest to the many teams searching for more lengthy and versatile guards, but that gives other teams a great opportunity to get a valuable contributor at a discount. Ulis might have the lowest ceiling of these four, but he certainly also has the highest floor.

On the opposite end of the height spectrum is Washington’s freshman guard Dejounte Murray. Murray is 6’5″, although at 170 pounds he barely weighs more than Ulis. There are very few ways in which Murray and Ulis are similar aside from the fact that both profile as point guards in the NBA. One of those similarities is the fact that both are very good in fast-paced games. Murray’s Huskies played really fast, and Murray played hard enough to stay on the court for 33.5 minutes per game. Of course, he wasn’t very efficient or good in those minutes, as he shot just 42% from the field, 29% from three, and 66% from the line. He grabbed six rebounds and dished out 4.5 assists per game, but he also turned the ball over 3.2 times per contest. I don’t think he’ll ever be a great offensive player, simply because he just doesn’t seem that explosive to me. Like Ulis (and probably more than the 5’9″ guard), he often resorts to a floater, a sign that he can’t really take it to the hoop. And while he has the length to improve, I don’t really think he’s ever going to be explosive enough to finish at a great rate at the rim. I also don’t think he’ll ever be a great three point shooter, which again limits his offensive potential. What he can be is a good volume scorer, someone who lacks efficiency but can pour in a lot of points. Scoring 15 points per game on 42% shooting isn’t as valuable as scoring 15 on 48% shooting, but it’s valuable nonetheless. But I think he can be even more valuable on the defensive end, where he was solid his freshman year. He has long arms and great instincts, and can probably couple 1.5 steals per game with six boards per game at the next level, a rare combination. Even if he maxes out his defensive potential, he won’t be a true shutdown defender, but he could certainly be an asset on the defensive end. That upside along with his ability to make things happen offensively (albeit inefficiently) should probably make him worthy of a mid-late first round pick. I think it’s also important to note, however, that his shot isn’t Michael Carter-Williams level broken. He was actually pretty decent (not good, but decent) in catch-and-shoot situations, and the reason his percentages look so bad is largely because he had to do so much for a young Washington team. Of course, he’s going to need to improve his defense and his shot. But he’s also only 19, which means a team will be much more likely to ignore his college struggles and attempt to hit a home run by drafting him. Here’s an offensive comparison for Murray: Jamal Crawford, another tall, lanky combo guard. But while Crawford might be Murray’s best-case scenario offensively, he has the potential to do more on the defensive end. On the other hand, he might very well be a completely ineffective player, something Crawford would be if he were just a fraction worse at creating for himself. Here’s a video that pretty much encapsulates Murray’s freshman season in 13 seconds:

Defensive potential, lack of explosiveness, long arms. Sounds about right.

In a lot of ways, I think Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin may be a better version of Murray right now. The fact that he’s better may come from his extra year in college, but I think it also may be a harbinger of things to come at the next level. I prefer Baldwin to Murray for a number of reasons. Body-wise, he’s an inch shorter (6’4″) but, more importantly, has a 6’11″+ wingspan, two inches longer than Murray’s. He’s also considerably stronger than Murray at this moment, although that could change as Murray gets older. I would say that, among the four point guards I’m writing about today, Baldwin has by far the most defensive upside. He’s already a terrific defender, with quick feet and the ability to close out on jump shooters, fight through screens, and cover a lot of ground. When you don’t need to be taught those things, it becomes a lot easier to become a shutdown defender, something I think Baldwin can definitely be.

Baldwin also has more offensive polish than Murray, simply because he can actually shoot. Baldwin shot 41% from beyond the arc last year and 80% from the line on nearly six attempts per contest. He also grabbed more assists and committed fewer turnovers than his Washington counterpart. Unfortunately, his lack of explosiveness is very similar to Murray’s in that it hinders his ability to finish at the rim when he’s tightly guarded. He also lacks Murray’s offensive creativity and is much worse at creating for himself off the dribble. So I guess I’d say that Murray and Baldwin are basically equal prospects on the offensive end. Murray has higher offensive upside thanks to his Jamal Crawford-esque ability to hit tough shots, but Baldwin is better right now with his better decision-making and superior shooting. But it’s really on the defensive end that Baldwin separates himself from Murray, who could be a good defender but right now basically relies only on his length to wreak havoc on that end of the ball. Point guards who can shoot, create for others, and defend don’t grow on trees. Even if Baldwin never develops his offensive game, he’ll be able to do those three things. That’s why I’m puzzled as to why Baldwin hasn’t been getting that much love, at least publicly. The most-viewed youtube video about him is of coach Kevin Stallings cursing at him. That video has about 35,000 views. Tyler Ulis’s top video has about a million views. That doesn’t mean anything, but it’s interesting. Of course, when you consider that Ulis went to Kentucky and Baldwin to Vanderbilt, it’s not that surprising, but then Dejounte Murray also has a video that’s generated 500,000 views, so maybe this is just a Wade Baldwin thing.

Demetrius Jackson wasn’t as good in college as Ulis and isn’t as tall or long as either Murray or Baldwin, but he may well be the best prospect of the four. He’s certainly the most athletic, with a 43.5 inch max vertical, tremendous explosiveness, and great quickness. Although he’s only 6’1″ or 6’2″, I don’t think he’ll have the trouble finishing at the hoop that any of the other three will due to his athleticism and quick first step. And while his three point shooting fell from 43% to 33% last year, that was largely because he was the focal point of Notre Dame’s defense. The fact that he was not as effective without Jerian Grant in the backcourt with him is not at all surprising, nor do I really think it’s something to be worried about going forward. All too often, people overrate shifts like Jackson’s from beyond the arc, forgetting about circumstances that will vanish at the next level, when Jackson will have more space to get shots off. At 45% from the field, Jackson is actually the most efficient shooter from the field of the four. Ulis scored more on roughly the same number of shots, but that’s because he got to the line more frequently. The lack of free throw attempts for Jackson (just four per game) is slightly concerning, but I’m not too worried, as Jackson did show the ability to draw fouls down the stretch of big games. That’s another feather in Jackson’s cap: his performance in close games this season. Against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, Jackson was ineffective throughout but came up clutch when the team needed him. He hit a layup to bring the Fighting Irish within one with 19 seconds left, then quickly got a steal and gave Notre Dame the lead five seconds later. Then, with the Fighting Irish up three with a few seconds left and needing another stop, Jackson got another steal and drained two free throws. I’ve linked to an article with video of the two steals. The Fighting Irish lost in the Elite Eight to a stronger North Carolina team, but Jackson scored 26 points on 16 shots in that game.

He certainly isn’t the passer that Ulis is, but Jackson’s 2.14 assist-to-turnover ratio is better than Murray’s and Baldwin’s. He’s not a natural floor general, with only decent court vision and just a year as the lone point guard under his belt, a legitimate concern. And while he possesses solid defensive potential, he wasn’t consistent in college. But defensive inconsistency is very common in college, and Jackson seems very much to be the best prospect if you want a near-definite contributor who also has the potential to be a solid starter. Ulis has a higher floor, but he also doesn’t really have that potential to be a good starter.

Ranking of the four:
Jackson
Baldwin
Ulis
Murray

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