The University of Kentucky is at the heart of college basketball's one-and-done era, where top high-schoolers arrive for a single season of NCAA hoops before jumping to the NBA.
Last winter, Kentucky pushed to become the first undefeated national champion since 1976, but lost in the semi-finals of March Madness. Soon after, seven players – three of them freshman – declared they would leave school for the NBA draft. Coach John Calipari had a roster to rebuild – and a Canadian named Jamal Murray in his sights.
Murray, an 18-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., is the hottest name among Canadian high school players. Calipari visited Murray and his father, Roger, in April, and Murray visited Kentucky last week.
The 6-foot-5 guard had put together a solid basketball résumé over several years, but his performances in early April, particularly his 30-point MVP showing at the prestigious Nike Hoop Summit against numerous acclaimed 2015 college recruits, garnered much greater attention. Murray plays at fledgling Athletic Institute Orangeville Prep, north of Toronto, which saw a stream of coaches from top colleges visit last September.
Murray had also been courted by NCAA champion Duke University, but Duke has signed on two other top-ranked guards, which is typical of the ebbs and flows considered by both schools and recruits. Murray may have additional questions for Kentucky, as new reports suggest Calipari is considering a return to the NBA to coach the New Orleans Pelicans, where one-and-done Kentucky star Anthony Davis has become one of the league's best players.
The key, Roger Murray said, is to see where Jamal would have the best opportunity.
Murray is likely to decide by June. High school players typically decide by the national letter-of-intent deadline, which this year was set for May 20 – but Murray has rushed to complete additional schoolwork so he can play college hoops this fall, instead of the planned 2016. To do so, he would bypass the letter-of-intent deadline and sign a letter of financial aid at some later point.
"You have to have some knowledge of where everyone is coming from," Roger Murray said of recruiting. "Just maintain your structure, of the original way you wanted to go, without getting caught up in the whole hoopla of it. It's a delicate balance." Asked about his son's ability and readiness for college basketball, Roger is emphatic: "Without a doubt."
Other schools interested in Murray include the University of Oregon, where Canadian Dillon Brooks, a friend of Murray's, has finished his freshman season. Kentucky declined comment when asked about recruiting, but Oregon confirmed it is pursuing Murray.
George Raveling, director of international basketball for Nike, has watched Murray since Grade 8, so unlike the many NBA staff at the Nike Hoop Summit in April, he wasn't surprised. He feels Murray has the potential to play in the NBA for a long time.
"He's one of those players that take quantum steps forward each year," Raveling said.
Mark Bairos, a contributor to the website Hoops Hype Canada, has also watched Murray rise. "Whatever college he chooses, as star-studded a lineup as he joins, he will shine."
Numerous websites such Scout.com, Rivals.com and ESPN.com rank teenagers. A lot of it is nothing more than speculation, but the guesswork fuels the hype. The bottom line: A handful of today's high school blue-chippers could be prominent NBA rookies within 18 months.
Coping with the hype is a skill in itself. Murray's dad instilled in him the practice of meditation, a tool Jamal employs to calm and focus his mind. Murray recently joined Twitter, with the handle @bemore27. He had a sly smile in his initial posting about a "decision."
"My first tweet!" Murray wrote on April 19. "Made a decision to officially join twitter."
Murray has taken an unusual route to teenage basketball prominence: He has played high school ball close to home rather than following the typical path, like Andrew Wiggins and others, to U.S. prep schools. He has played mostly against American competition, with Orangeville Prep and his club team, CIA Bounce – but his choice to stay in Canada left him out of sight of some of the usual online arbiters.
Still, even while Scout.com ranks him No. 26 for high-schoolers finishing in 2016, Draftexpress.com – which predicts the NBA draft – figures Murray will be in college this winter and in the NBA in 2016, as the No. 21 pick in the first round.
"When I come here and do this, they can't say anything now," Murray said of critics after the Nike Hoop Summit, which featured the top five high school players of 2015.
At Orangeville Prep, Murray has only recently established himself outside the attention paid to Thon Maker, a seven-foot 18-year-old who was born in Sudan, moved to Australia, and attended prep school in the United States before, in a unique move, coming north to Canada.
Maker was the primary reason a troupe of major college coaches, including Kansas's Bill Self, visited Orangeville Prep last September. "It was a very long list of all sorts of Hall of Fame coaches," Orangeville Prep coach Larry Blunt said. "We had everyone. It speaks to Canada. It's a testament to basketball in this whole region."
For Roger Murray, Jamal's decision about college is the culmination of an athletic career that father and son have worked on for years. The theme has always been "be more" – like Jamal's Twitter handle.
"We are," Roger said, "going to be thinking this through."