(Image – PhotoSport)
When news originally surfaced that Tony Bennett was pursuing Taine Murray as a class of 2021 recruit, the match seemed made in heaven. Not only did Murray fit the same mold as a number of former Wahoos like Joe Harris or Kyle Guy, but he also grew up and went to school not 500 yards from where Jack Salt did. Additionally, Murray already had experience playing with Salt for the New Zealand national team and had even established a relationship with Kirk Penney, a (now) former member of UVA’s staff, through the National team and their common home of Auckland.
So, when Tony Bennett called earlier this year, Murray was already receptive to Bennett’s pitch. “UVA obviously is an amazing school and I was very privileged when they got in touch,” Murray says “Coach Bennett reached out to me and the relationship just built from there.”
The relationships Murray had with Salt and Penney provided him two solid resources for information about UVA and playing basketball in the ACC. “Jack is such a nice guy so there was no pressure as such from him to go to UVA,” Murray says. “It was really cool to speak to someone about that level, someone from where I’m from who has been through that whole college situation in the ACC.” Additionally, Penney was another outlet for advice. Murray recalls that Penney “gave some great advice about different avenues to explore. He knows a lot about Virginia, being part of the program, so that helped.”
Virginia’s Recruiting Pitch
From there, it was down to Bennett and the rest of the program to impress Murray. According to Murray, Bennett’s pitch really resonated with him. “Tony is an amazing coach,” he says, “and with that comes his amazing recruiting. I was really blown away. They never really hyped up the whole Virginia thing like they could, what with being National Champions.” Instead of resting on his laurels, Bennett was straight with Murray. “He wasn’t afraid to address where I need to get better,” Murray remembers. “That’s something that I like, I like people being honest and I’d rather be told straight.”
On top of just being brutally honest with Murray, Bennett, as he usually is, was incredibly thorough in his breakdown and evaluation of Murray’s game. Murray notes that Bennett “was very in depth which I was taken aback with.” As he likes to do with recruits, Bennett broke down Murray’s film for him and compared his game to previous players in the Bennett system. Murray says that seeing “my play and then a similar player who’s been in the Virgina system and being able to see that side by side was really cool.” He adds that, the more he watched Virginia and saw how his game would fit in that system, “the more I gained appreciation for how they play and it became apparent that I wanted to be a part of that system.”
Murray also appreciates the success the program has had with international players like Salt and Kody Stattman. He admits that their success with international guys “wasn’t really a defining factor. But when you see internationals continue to go a school, that’s really nice to see.” Murray points out how “a lot of international [players] can get caught in the wrong situations. But to see Jack go for four years and then Kody too gives [me] some confidence that they give a pathway for international players.”
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Of course, UVA is more than just a basketball program, and Murray feels that everything about the university suits him well. He notes that “it was very apparent that Virginia loves basketball and they love to play the right way, playing defense and valuing the ball on the offensive end.” But, Murray adds that in addition to his focus on the basketball side of things, “I really pride myself on academics,” so, “seeing that Virginia was a really highly ranked university as a school was in line with what I was looking for.”
But, at the end of the day, the decision to commit to Virginia came down to a few specific things. He stresses that, “for me, the development at Virginia was something that’s really hard to look past. The provenness they have with similar players [to me]. The success speaks for itself.” He adds that UVA’s established culture of winning also was a major factor, saying “obviously, everyone likes to win and to see what they’ve done over the last few years has been awesome.” On top of that, Bennett, who spent a number of years playing professionally in Auckland, and his connection to New Zealand played a part. “That’s quite unique,” says Murray, “not many coaches have lived in New Zealand or know people there so him having that connection was really big.” He emphasizes that, in the end, “Virginia just had a few things that aligned with [me] more than [the other schools].”
Murray’s Continued Development
Now that Murray has committed to Virginia and signed his NLI, the next step in the process is preparing himself as much as possible for when he arrives in Charlottesville in 2021. With the New Zealand school year already over, Murray signed a developmental contract with the New Zealand Breakers of the prestigious NBL. In fact, Victor Oladipo recently became a partial owner of the Breakers and one of their former stars, R.J. Hampton was picked twenty-fourth overall by the Denver Nuggets in last week’s NBA Draft.
For Murray, this experience is an opportunity to learn and develop on and off the court. “It’s amazing,” says Murray, “just being immersed in that culture, I learn so much on and off the court. On the court, the physicality that is being played with you can’t find on the AAU Circuit.” He adds that, off the court, he’s been “learning from [my teammates] and picking their brain. Lots of the guys on the team have been through the college pathway and some have been in the NBA and Europe so their knowledge is great.” He continues, emphasizing that in this professional environment, he’s been picking up on how his teammates are “keeping their body in shape,” and “how they act and behave off the court. I’m learning new things everyday.”
Heading into this upcoming season, Murray has a couple of broad goals in mind. “It’s just about getting better every day around these guys,” he says, “Using these guys to help me be as prepared as I can be for Virginia when next year comes around.” He adds that, in season “I don’t like to look at the stats. Just first of all try and make the Breakers a better team, and then, secondly, try and get what I can out of learning from them before going to Virginia.”
Specifically, Murray will be looking to improve his game and grow more comfortable playing against stiffer competition while building on his strengths. He notes that his playing strengths are “my three-point shooting and my ability to [get to the rim] as well,” adding that “I most definitely like to play on both ends. I like to play defense and to lock it down on that end.” In terms of potential areas to improve, he says that he wants to continue “working on my body, trying to get bigger and stronger.” Additionally, he notes that he’ll be looking to improve his “decision making on different reads with bigger athletes and higher IQ players,” while also “continuing to grow on the defensive end with positioning and spacing.”
Potential at UVA
All this experience is meant to help Murray be the best player he can be when he gets Virginia. Part of that is playing against grown men in the NBL. But he’s also had some phenomenal experience playing in systems and schemes that are similar to the ones he’ll be playing in at UVA. Notably, the packline defense is common in New Zealand. Murray says that, while they may not play it as effectively as Virginia, it’s “a defense that I’m familiar with.” That knowledge of the packline will be very valuable for Murray in 2021.
On the offensive side of the ball, Murray has already played in systems that utilize pin down and flare screens and emphasize wing dribble handoffs, all of which are central components to Tony Bennett’s offensive system at Virginia. “The actions that I’ve seen with Virginia’s offense and some of the systems which I’ve been a part of were very similar,” says Murray. “The pin down actions, flare screens, and hand offs are all things I’ve played in and I’m excited to play in them again at Virginia.” Again, Murray’s previous success playing in those sets is going to make his adjustment to the Virginia system that much smoother.
Part of Murray’s continued development is to expand his game outside of just being a shooting guard. In fact, part of Virginia’s pitch to Murray was the emphasis that they could help him complete his game and be someone, like a Malcolm Brogdon, who can play as both the point and off-ball guard. “I’d love to have both in my arsenal,” Murray says, “for sure I’m a shooting guard at the moment, but getting my game to a stage where I can play the point and shooting guard would be the ultimate goal. Just having the most complete game possible.”
All this talk and emphasis on development is meant to make Murray, after his time at Virginia is over, the most complete player he can be. And, if he does continue to improve and grows in the UVA system, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be a serious NBA prospect when his time at Virginia comes to a close. But, for now, Murray says that his time in Charlotteville will be “ just about getting better everyday through the Virginia program and trying to help Virginia win. You don’t play basketball to lose.” He does admit that, with that effort and contribution “the exposure that Virginia will give will be amazing. If I just work hard and continue to get better, then it will fall where it will fall and hopefully that’s another amazing opportunity after college.”
Nonetheless, he emphasizes that, until then, “the first goal is helping Virginia win and becoming as good as I can in that program.” Because, after all, “you don’t play basketball to lose.”
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