UK Men's Basketball

NBA Draft a waiting game for Murray, Skal

Jamal Murray answered questions after being selected seventh overall by the Denver Nuggets.
Jamal Murray answered questions after being selected seventh overall by the Denver Nuggets. AP

For Kentucky players, the 2016 NBA Draft breathed new life in an old hit by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: The waiting is the hardest part.

Neither former Kentucky player at Thursday’s NBA Draft was selected as early as predicted.

Jamal Murray, who had been projected as high as the third pick, clapped politely as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth selections.

“You’re just waiting for your name to be called,” Murray said. “You don’t know what’s behind the scenes. You don’t know the trades. ... So I was just patiently waiting, and I got picked up by a great team.”

Denver took Murray with the seventh pick, which made him the highest drafted Canadian since Andrew Wiggins was the first overall selection in 2014. Other players taken with the seventh pick in recent drafts include former Kentucky star Julius Randle (2014) and a guard from Davidson, Stephen Curry (2009).

Former UK teammate Skal Labissiere’s wait far exceeded Murray’s. It became painful to watch as he sat and watched four picks come out of the Barclays Center stands to shake hands and pose for pictures with Silver.

All the while, Labissiere, his extended family and UK Coach John Calipari sat at a table at the foot of the stage and waited. The table was the picture of patience. The player’s guardian, Gerald Hamilton, worked his phone. Calipari sat quietly with a blank expression on his face.

Kentucky sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis was drafted in the second round, No. 34 overall, by the Phoenix Suns. He joins four former Kentucky guards on the roster.

Before the draft began, ESPN analyst Chad Ford spoke confidently of Labissiere being taken by Toronto with the ninth pick.

Instead, Labissiere had to wait until the 28th pick. Phoenix drafted him for Sacramento.

By then, Murray and his family had long departed from a table next to Labissiere’s.

It was widely believed NBA teams lumped Murray with Kris Dunn of Providence and Buddy Hield of Oklahoma as the three best perimeter players in the draft. Murray acknowledged being the third of the trio selected stoked his competitive fire.

“Obviously,” he said. “Always. I always believe I’m the best player, and when a team really sees the No. 1 choice, like Denver did, then I just want to play for them more. I want to give them all I’ve got.”

Murray, the highest-scoring UK player in Calipari’s seven seasons as coach and the 14th lottery pick in that time, said he had never been to Denver. “Other than connecting flights,” he said with a smile.

When asked about playing at altitude, Murray reminded reporters that he used martial arts techniques taught by his father. He also meditates before games.

“I have very good breathing,” he said. “I know how to control it. I know what to do when I lack air. I think I’ll fit perfectly.”

The wait for Labissiere was painful to watch, never more so than when Boston took a player from France, Guerschon Yabusele, with the 16th pick. Yabusele was watching the draft from a seat about 20 rows up from the floor. He came down, put on a Celtics cap, and walked to the stage.

When asked if he expected to be selected in the middle of the first round, Yabusele said, “No. Nobody was expecting.”

Four picks later, a second player came out of the stands: Caris LeVert of Michigan. He was the 20th pick.

The 23rd pick brought a third player from the stands: Ante Zizic, a center from Croatia, picked by Boston. He brushed by the Labissiere table on his way to the stage.

Then North Carolina forward Brice Johnson came out of the stands as the 25th pick (by the Los Angeles Clippers).

Looking summery in a fuchsia jacket and white pants, Labissiere was the subject of a question widely circulating at the Barclays Center: When was the last time a player was drafted so high after producing so little in college?

The draft made that question moot. But one name making the rounds was Hasheem Thabeet. He was the second overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. It’s a stretch to liken him to Labissiere, who averaged 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds.

Thabeet played three college seasons for Connecticut. He averaged a double-double as a junior: 13.6 points and 10.8 rebounds.

But in seven NBA seasons, Thabeet averaged 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds. In November of 2014, he was signed by the Grand Rapids Drive of the NBA Development League.

Players drafted after Thabeet that year include all-stars James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Jeff Teague. Another player taken five picks after Thabeet was Curry.

The common denominator for Labissiere and Thabeet is height. Thabeet was listed at 7-foot-3.

While Labissiere posted no showy statistics, his numbers were not even the most modest by a Kentucky first-round pick in Calipari’s seven seasons as coach.

That distinction belongs to Daniel Orton, the next-to-last pick of the first round in 2010. In largely a reserve role, he averaged 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds. But, perhaps showing the NBA’s addiction to height, he was 6-10.

Orton never averaged more than 3.0 points or 2.8 rebounds as a NBA player.

Top picks for 2016

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia

2. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers

3. Jaylen Brown, Boston (from Brooklyn)

4. Dragan Bender, Phoenix

5. Kris Dunn, Minnesota

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