The fourth in a five-part series looking at some of Canada’s up-and-coming basketball talent. Read the rest of the series here.
Before he could even walk Jamal Murray had a basketball in his hands.
His father Roger used to spend hours playing pickup games at a local gym in Kitchener and would often bring his newborn son along and give him a ball to play with while he watched from the sidelines.
As Jamal got older the trips to the gym continued – Roger started taking a mini hoop to the court so he could practice shooting while his dad played.
From an early age, Roger says, it was obvious his son had a passion for the game.
“We used to watch NBA games back in the day and he knew all the players and all their numbers,” Roger Murray said in a recent interview. “I think at four [years old] he knew all the guys that played in the NBA.”
He quickly began to excel on the court too.
By the time he was seven, Jamal was playing in a league against kids three years older and by 10 years old he was on the court alongside his dad competing in those pickup games with guys in their 30s.
“He’s always playing up,” Murray's father said. “He’s always taking on bigger guys.”
There’s no denying the trend that exists in Canada when it comes to developing top-flight basketball talent.
Players often spend two or three seasons competing for their local high school before jetting off to one of the elite preparatory programs in the United States that are known for giving young hoopsters a better opportunity to get noticed by top NCAA coaches and earn scholarships.
That’s where Murray could be considered a pioneer. Sure, the Kitchener, Ont., native left home and Grand River Collegiate Institute at 16 years old in pursuit of his basketball dreams, but he didn’t travel south of the border, though there were no shortage of offers. Instead he moved an hour or so east to Orangeville, home of the Athlete Institute, which is Canada’s version of an elite high school basketball program. (Kevin Pangos and Stefan Nastic are two other Canadian-born players who graduated from high schools north of the border before finding success in the NCAA.)
Players at the Institute live together in a renovated motel, are students at Orangeville District Secondary School and spend many weekends during the school year traveling throughout the United States to play in tournaments against high-level competition.
“They’re like my family here,” Jamal Murray said when asked what it’s like to spend so much time with his team. “I live with them, eat, sleep [and] go to school [with them.]
“We’ve really built a lot of chemistry this year and hopefully we can carry that on into next year.”
Murray’s decision to head to Orangeville was about more than the on-court opportunities the program presented, though.
“I stayed [in Canada] because it gave me a chance to excel academically and stay closer to home,” he said.
For Murray’s dad, basketball has always come second to schoolwork and some of the high-performance programs, or ‘basketball factories’ as some like to refer to them as, in the U.S. have been criticized for putting too much emphasis on athletics and not enough on academics.
That being said, there’s no denying the game could very well end up being a large part of Jamal’s future.
“The sky is the limit,” Larry Blunt, head coach at the Athlete Institute, said of Murray’s on-court potential. “If he continues to work, the game can take him a lot of places.”
And that’s not a coach just over-admiring his player. Murray has the accolades to back up Blunt’s statement.
A 6-foot-5 point guard, he’s already considered to be one of the top basketball prospects in the 2016 NCAA class.
Playing against players who were mostly two years older than him at the 2014 Nike Hoops Summit, Murray scored 10 points and added five assists. He also won MVP at the 2013 Jordan Brand Classic, a game many view as his ‘coming out party,’ and helped lead the Canadian Cadets to a bronze medal at the 2013 FIBA Americas U16 championship.
“Those experiences have been great,” Murray said. “They definitely help build my name and those are opportunities I look forward too.”
Rivals.com currently has Murray ranked at no. 18 on their top 150 prospect-ranking list for the 2016 NCAA class and he’s already received scholarship offers from Michigan State and Illinois.
“The moment never gets too big for him,” Blunt said. “The bigger the stage, the more he really seems to settle in and perform at an optimal level . . . We had games [during the season] where we’d go on an eight, 10 or 12 point run and he’d be responsible for all 12 points.”