TORONTO — You only get one chance to make a first impression, and Jamal Murray is taking it head on.
The 18-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., made his senior national team debut on Tuesday night, taking the rare leap from playing against his high school-aged peers to playing with and against men in the space of just a few months.
The kid did all right, earning praise from none other than men’s senior national team general manager Steve Nash after Murray logged 21 minutes in Canada’s comfortable 105-88 win over the Dominican Republic in their opening contest at the Pan Am Games.
The wave of Canadian basketball talent seems never-ending and Murray is the latest next big thing. In the space of a year he’s gone from an intriguing prospect to an almost certain lottery pick should he declare for the NBA draft in 2016 and now the 6-foot-5 point guard is pushing to make the national team roster for August’s Olympic qualifying event in Mexico City under the watchful eye of the best floor general Canada has ever had.
“I’m just starting to get to know him,” Nash said. “I’ve watched him quite a bit. He’s got a tremendous amount of ability. He’s got a very bright future. It’s very exciting for our program. But it’s also exciting for me as a point guard — to see a young player come through with that much ability is very fun and exciting.”
Murray checked in midway through the first quarter becoming one of just a handful of players to make their senior debuts before they played university basketball and never looked out of place.
His first basket was on a smart back cut. He had a dunk in transition, found Anthony Bennett for a dunk in the half-court and took the ball hard into some big bodies to score the basket and draw a foul later in the game.
His performance was notable in a way because he didn’t stand out. Canada was the better team against the Dominican Republic and they played like it. Defensively they were a bit sloppy, although they did hold their opponents to 42 per cent shooting. But offensively it’s clear they have some weapons.
Anthony Bennett looked fit and energized as he counted 15 points and 10 rebounds in his senior team debut. Andrew Nicholson scored 14 in 18 minutes and Brady Heslip came off the bench and showed his expanded arsenal, using his lethal shooting range to open up dribble drives that he finished routinely on his way to a game-high 24 points.
“He’s going to be hard to keep off the team,” said Nash.
Mel Ejim showed he’s going to be hard not to keep around as well, as he had 12 points on seven shots, grabbed three rebounds and had a team-high four assists.
But it was hard not to look at Murray and see the future. He looked young at times, such as when he got caught in-between on a pick-and-roll at the end of the first quarter and made a weak turnover, and figuring out how to defend athletes as big and strong as he is for the first time will take some adjusting, but he’s got nothing but time.
He’s also going to get all kinds of opportunity. While point guard looked to be a position of strength for the national team with Cory Joseph slated to start and Milwaukee Bucks guard Tyler Ennis the likely backup, there are minutes to be had with Ennis out of the picture after shoulder surgery.
Can an 18-year-old work his way onto a 12-man team that is projected to be made up almost entirely of NBA players?
“I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question,” said Nash, who might have been Canada’s best player when he made his senior national team debut at the 1994 World Championships as a 20-year-old. “It all depends how it shakes out. I think Cory has been our point guard. But there are a lot of guys with an opportunity to take the backup spot. It’s going to be probably one of the most interesting positions at the end of the summer to see who wins that spot.”
Murray is game for it. In theory he’s supposed to begin classes at the University of Kentucky in August but accommodations can be made. He says he’ll start them online if he has to.
He’s not at the Pan Am Games for the experience. He wants to push to make the team that goes to Mexico City.
“I don’t see why not,” he said, when asked if he thought he could make the team.
Nerves? Not really.
“I think everyone has jitters going into any game,” he said. “Especially in a Pan Am game like this or something as big as this and representing your country. It’s a little nervous but after you run up and down the court once or twice, it’s all good.”
It’s clear that Triano is going to use the Pan Am Games as an extended tryout to see if he can add something to a roster that’s got big plans for this tournament, this summer and the year to come.
Murray got off to a great start.
“He’s got a great poise to him, he knows how to control the game, he moves the basketball, can score the basketball,” said Triano. “We’re working with him on how to defend against men that he’s never really had to play against before. [But] he has a confidence about him: I asked him once if he was tired, he said, ‘Coach, I’m 18.’”