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Leistikow: With more NBA Draft buzz, Keegan Murray is face of Hawkeyes' summer program


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While there will eventually be some familiar names on the 2021-22 Iowa basketball team, it’ll certainly feel like a new era for the program as summer activities begin for the Hawkeyes this week.

None of last year’s starting five will be on the floor for Friday's first practice: national player of the year Luka Garza is off to his pro career; all-Big Ten wing Joe Wieskamp is exploring the NBA Draft process; shooting guard CJ Fredrick has transferred to Kentucky; and veteran guards Jordan Bohannon (head injury from a May 24 bar altercation) and Connor McCaffery (two hip surgeries) are in recovery mode. Also, top reserve Jack Nunge has transferred to Xavier.

There’s new blood arriving in big-man transfer Filip Rebraca and recent high school graduates Riley Mulvey and Payton Sandfort.

Yet of all the offseason drama already involving Hawkeye hoops, perhaps there is no more surprising buzz than the fact that rising sophomore forward Keegan Murray continues to get attention as an NBA prospect. 

ESPN draft analyst Jonathan Givony raised eyebrows in late April when his too-early 2022 draft had Murray (who has grown to 6-foot-9, 223 pounds) going to the Los Angeles Lakers with the No. 23 overall pick. On Tuesday — the morning after the NBA’s early-entry deadline — Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo published a piece that ranked Murray as one of the 10 best NBA Draft prospects returning to school.

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Even though the under-recruited product of Cedar Rapids had a solid rookie campaign, his per-game averages of 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds — with a season-high of 14 points — didn’t seem to scream NBA first-rounder.

But the NBA is a league that covets youth and traits, often banking on projection before on-court production. If insiders like Givony and Woo are writing about Murray already, there is legit buzz around him.

"Gifted with impressive mobility and shot blocking instincts," Woo wrote, "Murray is well-suited for the NBA as a roving, defensive-minded forward who impacts games with his length, can switch ball screens, and cover ground and space that most players can’t. Given how useful that skill set is when covering for a center like Garza, Murray was probably deserving of more minutes as a 20-year-old freshman."

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There’s a lot to unpack there, but the main takeaways are that Murray has quietly grabbed NBA scouts’ attention while Garza and Wieskamp got the majority of individual accolades over the winter; and given the departing/injured pieces, the unassuming Murray could be the face of the 2021-22 Hawkeyes.

This all seems to be surfacing so suddenly. So, I spent some time Tuesday refreshing myself on Murray’s freshman season.

Murray posted a plus-30 rating in a Jan. 7 road rout at Maryland. (Plus-minus evaluates the team score advantage when that player is on the court.) No Hawkeye had a higher rating in any Big Ten game last season. Murray had 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting with five rebounds vs. the Terps.

Voted to the coaches’ all-Big Ten freshman team, Murray was the only reserve nationally last season to amass 200 points, 35 blocks, 25 steals and 15 3-pointers. That is a testament to his length, defense and scoring ability.

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In the seven games that Murray played at least 22 minutes (usually when a starter was injured), he averaged 9.9 points and 7.4 rebounds. That is a window into what he can do with extended court time. If he plays 30-plus minutes a game next season, Murray could project to a 15-and-10 guy.

Murray was unfazed in big moments. He made two clutch free throws in the final seconds to grab a big win at Rutgers; his 3-point play off a put-back with 2:16 to go and two late free throws helped Iowa rally for a regular-season ending win vs. Wisconsin. His best game of the year might’ve been in the NCAA Tournament opener vs. Grand Canyon — 13 points, seven rebounds, four blocks and three assists in 25 minutes.

Murray’s biggest shortcoming was his outside game. He was given the green light to shoot 3-pointers by coach Fran McCaffery but only connected on 29.6% from distance. Word is, he and brother Kris (the identical-twin Hawkeyes recently returned from a training stint in San Francisco) have been lighting it up this offseason. How Keegan Murray performs as an outside shooter this season could determine whether he’s still on first-round NBA boards by this time next year.

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Woo’s on-point analysis of Murray continued.

"Murray’s individual offense is still a work in progress, and he was never really showcased last season," he wrote, "but he’s a smart cutter, the ball doesn’t stick in his hands, and his shot isn’t bad. He may not be much of a creator for others, but he plays within his means, rarely forces a bad shot, and generally made the most of the opportunities he got in a Garza-centric offense. … He should be on the first-round radar going into the fall, with his development as a scorer determining how quickly he advances up NBA draft boards."

McCaffery is known for being able to showcase his best players, as he’s done with guys like Jarrod Uthoff, Peter Jok, Tyler Cook and Garza. Perhaps Murray is next in line, sooner than most of us expected.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.