Racers Go Pro: A Look at the Path for Murray State Basketball Players to the NBA

Mar 9, 2012

As we look at the current team and wonder if these players could go on to professional basketball careers, it’s worth taking a look back to see where some of the Racer legends of the past have ended up. Murray State is no stranger to basketball success, as one of the top mid-major programs in the country. But in the history of the program, only nine players have gone on to play in the NBA. Gary Pitts spoke with a couple of those players to talk about their experience, and a top NBA official to find out what pro-scouts are looking for in college players.

GARY: Jumpin’ Joe Fulks played for the then Murray State Thoroughbreds in 1941 and 42 before going off to war. And in 1946, when the Basketball Association of America, later the NBA, was founded, he was there. He joined the Philadelphia Warriors, eventually setting the record for the most points scored in a professional game, which few have surpassed since, and is now a member of the NBA Hall of Fame. Since Jumpin’ Joe though, few players have left Murray State and gone on to the pros. One of those few is Racer legend Popeye Jones who was drafted in the second round of the 1992 NBA draft. So what was his secret to success?

JONES: “I knew I could rebound. Just watching NBA games on TV when I was in college, I was confident that I could rebound at an NBA level.”

GARY: Jones holds the record for the most career rebounds at Murray State, and he’s the only player in Racer history to score 2,000 points and grab over a thousand rebounds. He was selected as the OVC player of the year two years in a row. But even with all of that success, he was unsure at first that his talent would translate to the pro-level.

JONES: “I was an undersized center in college, and that kind of happens to a lot of guys that play at smaller schools. They kind of play out of position. So, I knew at the next level, at the NBA level, I’d be a power forward. So I was unsure if I could make that transition and be a power forward, and I think a lot of pro scouts were too.”

GARY: And that’s a shared sentiment among Murray State players that have gone to the pros.

MARTIN: “The most difficult part is guarding scorers…”

GARY: Jeff Martin is another MSU legend, and is the all-time leading collegiate scorer in Kentucky. He played for Murray State from 1985-89, winning OVC Athlete of the Year twice. And he spent three years in the NBA before playing another 10 in European leagues. While at MSU, he was a forward. But at 6’5”, he had to play a smaller guard position in the NBA, which wasn’t so bad on offense, but on defense…

MARTIN: “They put the ball in the hole. That’s why they call them shooting guards. And to guard those guys, that was a challenge.”

GARY: So is playing undersized for a position in college something that can hurt your chances of going to the pros? Chris Wallace the General Manager for the Memphis Grizzlies. He says having to switch positions is something that is probably held against some players.

WALLACE: “I mean when you’ve got to make a transition, switch to your position, adds to your chance of failing.”

GARY: But Wallace says while having to switch positions can be a hindrance, you can make up for it.

WALLACE: “If they’re undersized, then they’d better have a dominant skill that they can go to. You know, for example being an unbelievable rebounder.”

GARY: As was the case for Popeye Jones. While he wasn’t the prolific scorer in the pro’s that he was while at Murray State, he could certainly rebound. As a matter of fact, he still holds the Dallas Mavericks record for rebounds in a game at 28. Jones says finding that skill, and sticking to it, is another challenge that faces a lot of players trying to move up to the next level.

JONES: “Are you a shooter, are you a point guard that penetrates, are you a scorer, are you a rebounder, are you a defender? You know, what is your pro skill? That’s what you come in and try to do when you’re trying to make an NBA team. But I think that a lot of times guys come in, and they try to do too much. They try to be a Kobe Bryant or a Michael Jordan.”

GARY: Even if a player has a special skill, and can execute that at the next level though, they have to be noticed at some point. That’s where the big stage comes in, you know, like the NCAA tournament. In the first round of the 1990 tournament, Murray State took number 1 seed Michigan State to overtime, nearly knocking off the Spartans. Popeye Jones.

JONES: “You started to see pro scouts come around to watch me play, and wanted to see what everything was about after that tournament game.”

GARY: And the same stage drew attention to Jeff Martin, as his team got Murray State its first tournament victory in 1988. So once a player has drawn the attention of pro scouts, what are they looking for? Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace.

WALLACE: “You know the old saying, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is a duck. I mean you’re looking for something that looks like an NBA player. The size, athleticism, the skill, feel for the game. And then when you see that those criteria are met, then you can dig deeper and try to get that all important feel for the player’s competitiveness and passion for the game.”

GARY: So with all of that said, how important is it that a player be a part of a bigger basketball program rather than a mid-major?

WALLACE: “I don’t really care whether they’re players at Duke, Kansas, Murray State. Talent bubbles to the top in our business. Look at Scottie Pippen. He went to Central Arkansas. He was I believe about 6’1” and a manager when he went to that program?”

GARY: But Murray State only has nine players who have gone on to the NBA compared to say Duke’s 49.

WALLACE: “Those programs are in line to get the best high school players. And if you look at the top players in the NBA, most of those guys were extremely highly recruited and highly regarded as young players.”

GARY: As the Racers come into this year’s tournament, they’ve definitely drawn some attention with their historic season. It will be interesting to see what talent bubbles to the top. For WKMS News, I’m Gary Pitts.