This weekend, freshman forward Jordan Murphy admitted that part of his recent struggles likely come as a result of trying to learn yet another position.
Already this year, Murphy has played center and power forward. Now, as a new fixture in a starting lineup that includes both 6-11 Bakary Konate and 6-9 Joey King, the freshman is also being asked to play small forward.
The transition has been obvious. Murphy first entered the starting lineup against Milwaukee at home in the non-conference finale on Dec. 23. He finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds in that game, but hasn’t looked like the same player since. Foul trouble has been a concern, to be sure, but so has his lack of meaningful involvement in the offense and his absence from the boards, perhaps most notably in a 77-52 loss to Northwestern on Saturday.
“I think it’s a little more difficult,” Murphy said. “It’s a different role than I’m used to playing. I mean, I think it’s different now that I have to learn three different positions and everything … the energy I bring to the game would be more important to every position whether it’s the 4, 5 or 3.”
Coach Richard Pitino said last week that he was implementing plays to get Murphy, even at his new position, in the post for scores. But often times, especially in the last two games when the San Antonio native has managed a total of just 13 points and 10 rebounds, Murphy looks stuck on the wing, away from the basket. In the last five games, Murphy has attempted eight three-pointers (making three), nearly doubling his season total and in the last two games, three-pointers have accounted for 50 percent of the shots he’s taken.
Murphy said he’s not necessarily trying to expand his game in that way, but he finds himself in situations where he’s open at that range now that he’s hanging out on the perimeter more.
“Just whenever I get an open look, I need to start getting more confident in my shot and start taking more of those,” he said. “But it’s just a different feel than I usually have.”
Pitino said he wants Murphy – the Gophers only reliable post scorer and rebounder – to post up more and harder, but the freshman has also dealt with extensive foul trouble in league play. In each of the last four games, Murphy has picked up two fouls with at least six minutes remaining in the first half, and Minnesota has played more than 45 minutes with him in first-half foul trouble (two or more fouls) in that span.
Against Northwestern, Murphy was also slowed by four turnovers, at least a couple of which came while trying to maneuver from the corner to the basket with the ball.
“Most of my turnovers are just me doing too much,” he said. “I need to relax more and I think that would be a lot more effective, just having better spacing and be a better passer than I’m really showing. I’ve got to pass the ball better, I’ve got to get less turnovers, I’ve got to give more to the team.
“The early foul trouble is me being aggressive but not really knowing how to calm down a little bit. It’s just a little bit of nerves fouls. I’ve got to really cut down on that, take some deep breaths and just calm down.”
Murphy’s struggles have corresponded with an 0-4 start to the Big Ten slate. To be sure, the losses have come due a multitude of issues and shortcomings. But Murphy is also becoming aware that his performance is critical to the team’s success this year. Without their best weapon rolling, the Gophers don’t have much of a shot.
“Coach has been telling me a lot that I’m more valuable to the team than I’m seeing, and in a way he’s right,” Murphy said. “I can see whenever I get two fouls and I have to leave the first half early, I can see it. I just can’t foul – it’s as simple as that.”
In the zone
Pitino stuck with a zone defense for most of Minnesota’s loss to Northwestern despite that the players were having trouble correctly rotating and kept losing shooters and allowing the Wildcats to penetrate deep.
On Saturday, the coach suggested switching to mostly man-to-man defense wasn’t a great option either.
“We’re not good at a whole lot right now defensively, so we’re trying different things,” he said.
They were doing some ball screen things. I don’t think zone or man is the issue …I just think it’s execution on both sides. Our man wasn’t really good either.”
Riding the pine
Charles Buggs sat on the bench for the third game this season on Saturday with Pitino again declining any specifics. Asked whether his absences had to do with something Buggs was doing in practice or whether it was an attitude issue, Pitino said “It’s a practice thing. …You ask the question, I don’t want to make him look bad. He’s working, he’s just got to get better. He’s a good kid, he’s just got to get better. I played the guys that I thought could help us win the game …it’s not like we’re just benching him and we’re turning away from him.”