Jamal Murray, the 19-year-old Canadian who stayed home to play high school basketball before leaving for one impressive winter of college hoops at the powerhouse University of Kentucky, was picked No. 7 in the NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night.
Murray’s chief attribute beyond his ability to score is confidence. “I’m the best player in the draft,” he said earlier in June. But Murray’s also been criticized as one-dimensional and a defensive liability.
He bolsters a team that already has some young guards, led by 20-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay. Denver has been mired near the bottom of the Western Conference for the past three seasons, after a decade-long run of playoff seasons.
Murray is the 14th Canadian drafted into the NBA in the past six years, and the seventh to go in the lottery – the first 14 picks. But unlike top picks who came before him, such as NBA champion Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 4 in 2011) and Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves (No. 1 in 2014), Murray took a different route to the NBA. Instead of attending a prep school in the United States for his final years of high school, seeking out stronger competition on the court, Murray played for Orangeville Prep at the Athlete Institute Basketball Academy north of Toronto. Murray’s leap to the NBA may become a demarcation point, after which more top teenagers stay in Canada until they graduate.
The prep school path became especially prominent for Canadian prospects after Thompson and Cory Joseph took that route and later became first-round NBA picks.
Staying home didn’t hinder Murray. He still played in the same elite all-star games that others had before him. In 2015, he was named MVP of the Nike Hoop Summit, before he was recruited by Kentucky, a perennial producer of NBA talent.
At Athlete Institute – founded in 2010 by Jesse Tipping – the focus is basketball complemented by off-court work such as strength and conditioning and nutrition. Murray is the first alumnus to reach the NBA.
“We treat them like they’re professional athletes before they’re professional athletes,” Tipping said.
Thon Maker, born in the Sudan, was the second Athlete Institute alumnus drafted Thursday night, at No. 10 by the Milwaukee Bucks. The 7-foot-1 player, considered the biggest mystery in the draft, had eschewed college. Going 10th was a big surprise, much higher than expected – it was reported that Milwaukee had long been intrigued by Maker’s longer-term potential.
Murray is the second Canadian high schooler to be picked in the NBA lottery. The first was Kelly Olynyk of Kamloops, B.C., who the Boston Celtics chose at No. 13 in 2013.
Before Athlete Institute began to flourish, the best producers of teenage basketball talent in the Toronto region were the clubs. Grassroots and CIA Bounce would play U.S. teams in the summer. Athlete Institute, where CIA Bounce co-founder Tony McIntyre is director of operations, is also building up the sport in general. It led the creation of the BioSteel All Canadian Game in 2015, aiming to rival events such as the Nike Hoop Summit. Athlete Institute also helped start the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association last year, a new elite level for high school teams in the province.
Murray’s success may begin a trend, but many of Canada’s best young players still go south for a year or two prior to college. R.J. Barrett – son of Canada Basketball executive Rowan Barrett – and Simi Shittu are arguably the country’s best two teenage prospects, and both attend Montverde Academy in Florida.
Still, change percolates. Former Montverde Academy player Howard Washington will play at Athlete Institute next season. This unusual U.S.-to-Canada move was a path first forged by Maker.