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February 15, 2012

Lin Before Lin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 4:49 am

In the wake of Jeremy Lin‘s astonishing rise from obscurity, NBA writers are struggling to find a precedent for a young player unexpectedly dominating during his first opportunity to play in the league. I watched one of the best examples unfold in person. During the first two weeks of the 2003-04 season, Ronald Murray–better known as “Flip”–was one of the NBA’s leading scorers as he filled in for an injured Ray Allen.

Murray was regarded a little more highly than Lin entering the league. A product of Division II Shaw University, a HCBU in Raleigh, Murray was taken by the Milwaukee Bucks 41st overall in the 2002 Draft. Before he ever got a real chance to play in Milwaukee, Murray was a distant afterthought in the deal that sent Gary Payton to the Bucks and brought Allen to the Seattle SuperSonics.

Murray had played all of 20 minutes for the Sonics when they were forced to turn to him as their starting two-guard in place of Allen, who underwent ankle surgery just before the team traveled to Japan for a two-game series against the Los Angeles Clippers to open the season. Rashard Lewis, who scored 50 points in Saitama, was the story of the Japan games, but Murray wasn’t far behind. He totaled 46 points in two games.

As it turned out, that just set the stage for what was to come when the Sonics returned stateside. Murray scored 24 points as they won their home opener over the Portland Trail Blazers. His biggest performance came at Minnesota on Nov. 11. Murray scored 29 points, handed out eight assists, grabbed six rebounds and–Lin parallel alert!–had the ball in his hands at the buzzer, rimming in a turnaround jumper to break an 87-all tie and give the Sonics the road win over a Timberwolves squad that would reach the Western Conference Finals.

The streak of 20-point efforts from Murray would end at seven, one better than Lin has currently. But after slumping to 16 points, Murray poured in at least 20 in each of the next four games. On Nov. 24, Murray was averaging 23.9 points, 4.4 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game while shooting an even 50 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent from downtown.

Then, as quickly as Murray had emerged as a star, the run was over. His next two games saw him post more turnovers (10) than field goals (eight), and with the Sonics suddenly slumping (after starting 5-1, they lost five of their next seven games), Murray was benched in favor of Antonio Daniels. He actually delivered four more 20-point outings, mostly in a reserve role, before Allen returned on Festivus. However, Murray had already morphed into the inconsistent volume scorer he would be over the rest of his career.

It’s difficult to remember now exactly how caught up we were in Flip-mania. I do recall a lot of interest in his nickname (he told a variety of stories about how he came by it, depending on the day). Google News archive shows a couple of USA Today features and of course John Hollinger weighed in with the statistical perspective back when he was writing for SI.com. I can tell you that Murray did not appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

I can’t even remember for certain what I thought about Murray. Naturally my official take for Supersonics.com was wildly optimistic, but the only off-the-record thoughts I can find came after just the two Japan games, when I concluded that Murray was definitely a rotation player.

I don’t recall what Murray was doing seeming particularly fluky. In hindsight, we certainly should have been wary of his early success from downtown (Murray would finish the season at 29.3 percent on threes; his career mark was 30.4 percent). His turnovers also rose over the course of his run, from just three in his first three games to an average of 4.4 per game over his last five high-scoring outings.

What kind of example Murray provides for Lin–to the extent it makes sense to draw conclusions from a precedent of one player, which is to say not much–depends on your perspective. He played eight years in the NBA and averaged 9.9 points per game, which is impressive for a second-round pick, especially one from Division II. From the more pessimistic viewpoint, Murray ultimately proved one of the league’s most inefficient scorers. I have him rated almost exactly at replacement level for his career.

Ultimately, my lingering memory of Murray is as negative as can be. By 2005-06, when the Sonics were trying to play him as a backup to starting point guard Luke Ridnour, Murray had become painful to watch. Before the Sonics traded him at the deadline, I didn’t know whether I could take two more months of having to watch Murray play. During his rise two and a half years earlier, I never could have predicted that outcome.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

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