SLAM x Panini Rookie Spotlight: Pelicans Forward Trey Murphy III

Rookie seasons are all about development

How that development takes place—and how fast—varies greatly based on the player, team and situation. Some rookies assume significant roles right away and are able to improve through their experience on the court. Others find themselves in and out of the rotation and must look to grow in different, less glamorous ways.

This week’s rookie spotlight focuses on a guy in the latter category: Trey Murphy III. New Orleans drafted the 6-8 forward out of Virginia with the 17th overall pick this past summer. After transferring from Rice, Murphy III spent one season at UVA and impressed scouts with his versatility, athleticism and outside shooting ability, hitting 43 percent of his 4.8 three-point attempts per game. 

“He’s a guy who picked up steam with our scouts as the year went along,” Pelicans GM Trajan Langdon told reporters following the draft. “Transferred from Rice after his first couple years in school to Virginia and didn’t know a whole lot about him honestly going into the season—obviously with the [covid] shutdown last year and then him transferring. But as we started to analyze and assess different prospects, he was a guy who our group grew increasingly high on.

“Really gives effort defensively and can really shoot the ball,” Langdon emphasized. “High character kid with a high IQ, coming from a really, really good program and wants to be coached hard—all those things coming together fit what we’re trying to do here very well.”

Murphy III was on fire during the preseason, averaging 17.5 points on 53 percent shooting from deep. His play earned him a spot in head coach Willie Green’s initial rotation. Through October, as the Pelicans struggled immensely as a team, Murphy III continued to knock down threes at a high clip and showed flashes of his potential. Things began to shift in November, though. Losses kept coming; shots stopped falling with the same efficiency; Murphy’s minutes gradually decreased. By the end of the month, he was seeing very limited action on most nights. Development, thus, would have to happen elsewhere.

Of course, practices and workouts in the NBA can help rookies tremendously; but there is no substitute for real games. The competition, the physicality, the pace, the intensity—that’s where growth truly occurs, and how guys are able to stay in the best shape possible. So when a rook falls out of the rotation, NBA front offices often turn to the G League—a place defined as a “development laboratory”—for assistance.

Murphy III was assigned to the Birmingham Squadron—the G League affiliate of the Pelicans—for the first time last Tuesday. He joined the team for shootaround in the morning, getting only a few hours to acclimate himself before his debut. To make abrupt transitions like that smoother, the Squadron run many of the same sets as the Pelicans, and Murphy III looked extremely comfortable stepping right into the starting lineup. He played a huge role in a tight 109-107 win, posting 18 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks. He scored one of the biggest buckets of the game, too—with 40 seconds left, and Birmingham clinging to a 105-104 lead, the 21-year-old drove hard to his left and finished a tough layup over 6-10 center Tyler Davis. 

“It’s just playing basketball. It’s almost like an open gym type of setting—you don’t [normally] play with the guys there,” Murphy III told me afterwards, when asked about transitioning to the G League. “It’s also like the NBA as well—you can get traded one day and those are not the guys you’ve played with, but you’re thrown into the rotation and you’ve just got to hoop. I’m grateful for it because I got to get a little bit of conditioning in, too. I haven’t been able to play that many minutes [38] for a while. It was good to do that, for sure.

“I just want to play basketball,” he added. “At the end of the day, that’s what I want to do.” 

He was briefly recalled to New Orleans and then reassigned to Birmingham six days later for a matchup against the Memphis Hustle. In a blowout 119-97 victory, Murphy III did a little bit of everything, dropping 18 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, dishing out 6 assists (tying his career-high from college) and recording 3 steals. He attacked the paint strong and nailed 3/7 from behind the arc.

Those types of performances tend to go overlooked. That type of development rarely gets any recognition. Very few fans tune in to the G League. Even fewer fully appreciate the value of a player’s experience there. 

It wasn’t as watched, or discussed, or covered on social media, but Murphy III shined in his recent time with the Squadron, and got better in the process. And that’s what rookie seasons are all about. 

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