By nature of their role, team executives often come off as somewhat disingenuous when touting the virtues of minor transactions that require obligatory statements, like second-round draft picks. But when Bulls general manager Gar Forman talked about Erik Murphy at the introduction of both the Florida product and first-round choice Tony Snell, there’s no reason to think he was being anything other than transparent.
“In Erik’s case, we really haven’t had a guy that’s a stretch four and we think as he continues to progress, it’ll give us an ability to space the floor,” Forman stated.
The Bulls have clearly made addressing their outside-shooting deficiencies a priority this offseason and in the copycat league that’s the NBA, “stretch” power forwards—non-traditional, perimeter-oriented players at the position, specifically specializing in hitting the long ball, particularly out of pick-and-pop scenarios—are an even hotter commodity these days, especially in this era of small ball and dominant point guards seemingly emerging on every other franchise.
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At 6-foot-10 and coming out of college without excelling at any attribute—a willing rebounder for the Gators, possessing capable ball skills for his size and certainly unafraid to mix it up on the interior, his desire to contribute in other facets didn’t necessarily translate into meaningful potential on the next level in those areas—other than his perimeter marksmanship, Murphy fits the prototype. A comparison he’s heard and appears to be somewhat apt is another player from his alma mater, Matt Bonner, who has enjoyed a long and fruitful pro career, finding his niche as a valuable spot role player in San Antonio for years now.
“Obviously coming from Florida, being able to shoot it, I think a lot of people have the Matt Bonner comparison,” Murphy said of the Spurs sharpshooter. “There’s some similarities.”
But in the small sample size from the Bulls’ summer-league stint in Las Vegas, Murphy demonstrated that he understands that even if he’s never required to do anything other than spot up and knock down open jumpers at a reasonably high rate, at least while he’s playing for the organization he was drafted by, it’s imperative that he makes an effort to improve other aspects of his game and provide intangibles when on the floor.
Suffering a broken nose in mini-camp at the Berto Center prior to departing for the trip, he duplicated the feat in the team’s third game, while completing a put-back layup (no foul was called on the play), then hustling back downcourt to play defense and after being attended to by the team’s training staff, remaining in the contest. He finished that game, a win over Portland with 10 points and five rebounds, but it was far from his best performance.
After beginning the slate in a fashion that likely had some second-guessing the Bulls’ selection — seven points on 3-for-9 shooting, including 0-for-6 from three-point range, grabbing zero boards and committing a whopping 10 fouls (rules in Vegas are obviously different from the regular season), in the team’s win over Memphis — Murphy showed off the talent that’s got him to this point, hitting four out of five triples, en route to scoring 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting to help defeat Denver. Like virtually all the Bulls, besides holdover point guard Marquis Teague, he struggled in a loss to Miami, then bounced back to have his best outing in the finale, putting up 19 points and 13 rebounds while going 3-for-5 from deep and blocking three shots in the absence of rebounding machine Malcolm Thomas, closing out summer-league play with a consolation-bracket victory over Dallas.
Murphy averaged 11.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in the five contests, but more importantly, he shot an even 50 percent from behind the three-point arc and 54.8 percent from the field, while displaying some toughness and a semblance of ball skills. He also fouled too much, isn’t overly athletic, needs to get stronger and for the most part, struggled defensively, but that’s nothing he didn’t already know.
“I think the big thing is just continuing to get stronger. Obviously the NBA’s a really physical game and me being a big guy—obviously I can shoot it—but I’m going to have to play down low,” he said upon being introduced to the media at the Berto Center. “I have to rebound, I have to guard down there, so I think just getting stronger will help me in those areas and those are two areas I want to improve at, too.”
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While it’s certainly an accomplishment just to be drafted, second-round picks don’t automatically receive guaranteed contracts, but due to the Bulls’ salary-cap situation, Murphy is essentially a lock to be on the squad as a rookie. Barring injury to multiple players at his position or are capable of playing it (after last season, I guess that can’t be taken for granted), he’s unlikely to see much more playing time than Vladimir Radmanovic, for instance, as an occasional situational substitute, perhaps for a game-tying three on the final possession of a period, let alone a game, and possibly if Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau decides to sit his regulars at the end of a blowout and lets the client of his longtime friend, agent Frank Catapano, see the light of day.
But more than likely, the native New Englander and son of former NBA big man Jay Murphy—born in France when his father took his career overseas, he was raised in Rhode Island, will not see too much court action.
“It’s going to be a waiting game and if I don’t play for a stretch of games or whatever the situation is, I’m not going to get worried. I’m just going to wait for my opportunity and my name to be called, and when that happens, I’ve got to be ready. So I’ve just got to keep myself ready and do what I can to help the team when I’m asked,” Murphy said. “We’ll see down the road how that plays out, but at this point, I’m just excited to be here, to have the opportunity to work as hard as I can and come in and try to help the team in any way that I can. Whatever’s asked of me, I’m going to do. Whether it’s a bigger role or smaller role, it’s a team game and I just want to help the team.
“There’s a learning curve and my expectations are to come, work every day and try to learn as fast as possible,” he continued. “Obviously I’ve got to continue to improve—defensively, rebounding, getting stronger—every aspect of my game I think I can improve and if I do that, I think whatever happens happens. But I think I’ll be all right.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that fellow ex-Florida player Joakim Noah, with whom he was already familiar from the All-Star center’s offseason visits back to Gainesville, will be present to monitor his progress, encourage him and offer advice on how to earn Thibodeau’s trust on the court.
“Actually, Jo called me on draft night, after the draft and he was real excited, as was I. We were just talking back and forth. He was really excited I was coming here, I was really excited to have the opportunity to come here and obviously it’s nice to know a guy on the team. Just real pumped up. He gets real fired up. He was pretty fired up,” Murphy recounted. “He’s always raved about the Bulls. He loves it here. He loves the city, he loves the organization, he loves the players, he loves the coaches. He has all good things to say. I’m actually really close to him. He comes back and he’s one of the guys I’m closer to that comes back, so it’s exciting to know him and have a guy on the team I know. But he called me up after the draft and he was really fired up. You know how he gets. It was encouraging to hear that.
“He loves Thibs. Jo loves Thibs and he said he’ll get on you, but he makes you work and that’s what I like to do. I like to work and I think it’ll be a good fit,” he added. “I think he might have the highest motor in the NBA. It’s arguable that he has the highest motor in the NBA. When he comes back to school, you see the way he works and you see the way he plays, it’s definitely an inspiration. It gets you going a little bit and I think that’s good. When you play with him and play against him, it brings that out in you because you have to stay at that level to compete with him.
“He’ll definitely be there if I need them, but I think I’ll be able to handle myself.”
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With his determined, receptive approach, an opportunity to learn the NBA ropes and improve on his weaknesses without much pressure to play early on and a skill set that sets him apart from the Bulls’ other big men—Carlos Boozer is a proficient mid-range shooter, but doesn’t have three-point range—although Murphy may not make a huge impact at the outset of his professional career, based on the value players of his ilk possess, if he develops in a satisfactory manner, the Bulls may have ended up with a long-term rotation player and Forman’s words could prove to be prophetic.
By then, hopefully he’ll be known for a lot more than being able to play through a broken nose.