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Why Trey Murphy III is the future of NBA’s ‘3-and-D’ archetype

Basketball is, in its essence, a team game. Therefore, your star player is only as effective as the role players you put around him. What good does it do that Michael Jordan can draw multiple defenders to his airspace if he doesn’t have a Steve Kerr to kick it out to on the perimeter?

That’s why, throughout modern NBA history, teams (the successful ones, at least) have tried to surround their superstars with as much defense and play-finishing as possible. That’s why, in recent years, the “three-and-D” player (an individual who can both hit threes and defend at an above-average level) has become such a popular player archetype.

But along with being a game about teamwork, basketball is also a game of evolution. And like all its other aspects, this player paradigm is experiencing an advancement of its own.

That’s what makes the New Orleans Pelicans’ second-year forward, Trey Murphy III, so important moving forward.

At 6’9, with a 7-foot wingspan, and a college career three-point percentage of 40.1%, Murphy was projected in last season’s draft as the perfect “three-and-d” role player for the Pelicans to slot next to their superstars Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram (hence them using the first-round pick they received from the Memphis Grizzlies to select him).

So far, he’s lived up to that billing. This season, he’s in the 85th percentile among players with at least 25 games played in Cerebro Sports’ 3-Point Efficiency metric (a shooting metric that combines 3PT volume and efficiency to show the most lethal shooters).

What the metric doesn’t fully disclose is that he’s also an advocate for the deep three-pointer. He makes sure he’s usually more than a couple of steps behind the line on all his attempts. This tendency serves two purposes. First, it ensures he never accidentally takes the dreaded long spot-up two-pointer. And more importantly, it makes the closeout an even longer voyage for his defender, putting an even greater strain on the defense at large.

He’s also in the 84th percentile in the website’s Defensive Statistical Impact statistic [an events-creation metric that captures and combines possession-winning actions (steals, offensive, rebounds) with defensive efficiency (blocks, fouls) to act as a proxy for defensive athleticism and feel].

If your defender isn’t going to provide an abundance of rim protection, you’re going to want them to provide disruption in other ways (via steals, blocks, charges, etc.). And Murphy is able to contribute that thanks to his combination of length and quickness.

On paper and in practice, Murphy is the “three-and-d” performer teams have spent the last decade scrambling to acquire. But look a little closer, and you’ll see there is a whole lot more to this kid than meets the eye.

For starters, we mentioned the longer closeouts. Well, because of his reputable shooting ability, defenses have sent out a league-wide memorandum to run him off the three-point line at all costs. If Murphy’s offensive game were solely dependent on spot-ups, such an order would serve as the basketball equivalent of a death sentence.

However, Murphy’s offensive game isn’t solely dependent on spot-ups like his three-and-d ancestors of the past. And when those hard closeouts come, he’s able to put the ball on the deck and make the defense pay for their over-aggression.

Murphy also defies the tropes typically associated with his player genre. If you were told that Murphy finished as the runner-up in one of the events on All-Star Saturday, you’d likely assume that he was competing in the 2023 Starry 3-Point Contest. You’d never believe that he came within one point of being the 2023 AT&T Slam Dunk Champion.

He’s both a sniper and an acrobat. It’s like if they gave Dick Grayson a gun or if they taught Floyd Lawton how to use a trapeze. His 64 dunks on the year place him in the 94th percentile in the league. And he doesn’t just reserve the pogo stick hops for when he’s driving closeouts. He’s also an eager runner, often leaking out in transition to capitalize fastbreak possessions.

According to playtype data, Murphy is in the 88th percentile in transition efficiency and the 84th percentile in frequency.

His aviation acumen makes him that much more versatile as an off-ball role player. Along with his closeout attacking and transition finishing, he’s also a worthy candidate for punctuating lobs or cleaning up mistakes around the rim via putbacks (98th percentile efficiency).

NBA teams are getting smarter and smarter every day. They now know that if you have one dominant ball handler surrounded by four spot-up shooters, all they need to do is force the ball out of said player’s hand and dare those shooters to put the ball on the floor and beat you.

Murphy can and will beat you. His dynamic skillset gives him a leg-up on his three-and-d peers. But soon enough, the whole archetype will have to catch up to him. The players who can only defend and shoot spot-up threes, which everyone once exhausted countless resources to obtain, will no longer be able to stay on the floor. Soon, all five players will need more offensive utility than just spot-up shooting.

This makes Murphy a pioneer in his field, a trailblazer that helped pave the path for the newest evolution of the NBA role player.

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