Jailen Murphy knows exactly what to expect when she arrives in Manhattan early this summer.
The Brentwood Academy guard from Nashville, Tenn., who signed to play basketball at Kansas State this month, has a unique perspective of her future with the Wildcats — one that was fostered through her high school coach Rhonda Brown.
Brown was the point guard for the 1993 Vanderbilt team that made it to the Final Four when current K-State head coach Deb Patterson and associate head coach Kamie Ethridge were assistants there.
“We’ve talked a lot about what she can expect from Deb and Kamie there,” Brown said Wednesday. “I know what they’re looking for. They’re not easy to play for — they demand a lot — but they’re good at what they do. And Jai knows me. I work them hard. I prepare the kids who want to play at the next level, so they’re going to be ready. It’s going to be tougher, but it’s going to be what she’s already been doing. It’s not going to be easy for her. There will be tough days, but I’ve kept telling her, ‘the greater the risk, the greater the reward.’
“The payoff is great — the new facilities there, she’s going to get a great education and she’s having the opportunity to get coached by two of the best you could ever work with.”
Murphy is the fifth player to sign with K-State for next season, joining forwards Breanna Lewis, Jessica Sheble, Erica Young and guard Kindred Wesemann. The 5-foot-9 Murphy is coming off a senior season in which she averaged 15 points and five rebounds a game, while shooting 59 percent from behind the arc to help lead her team to the state championship game.
“Jai is an athletic wing with a very solid shooting stroke,” Patterson said in a release Wednesday. “She will bring a tremendous work ethic and strong fundamental foundation of skills from her Brentwood Academy experience. Her personal character and commitment to academics make her a great fit for our program.”
But there was a time when Murphy wasn’t sure if she would even get the chance to play at the next level. She tore her right ACL last June, had surgery in July, and then watched some offers disappear. In fact, she wasn’t even on K-State’s radar until last month — after Murphy had worked her way back and surprisingly rejoined her team in December, way ahead of schedule.
“She’s a tough kid, a fighter,” said Brown, who played two seasons in the WNBA with the New York Liberty and Detroit Shock. “A lot of kids would have thought everything was over, but she got back earlier than expected and had a really good senior year.”
Murphy said she wasn’t going to miss her senior season.
“At first, I didn’t think I was going to play basketball again, but I worked hard,” Murphy said. “I knew my team needed me and our goal was to go to state. I wasn’t going to let anything from keep me from going to state with my team, especially my senior year.
“I lost a couple offers and it was to the point where nobody was contacting me at all anymore. I thought I wasn’t going to play college ball. I thought people were overlooking me and I didn’t want that to happen. I had to get in the gym and work harder and have my therapist and trainers push me.”
It worked out for Murphy, especially during the state semifinal game when Patterson was in town to scout a player on the other team — not Murphy — who had the task of shutting down the other team’s star player to make it to the title game.
“I was scanning the crowd before the game and looked up and saw Deb sitting there,” Brown said. “I was like, ‘I wonder what she’s doing here.’ I didn’t know she was coming. I hadn’t talked to her for a few months. But I can assure you, she wasn’t there to watch us.”
Murphy looks to be a good fit for a K-State team that relied on a more-athletic lineup this season — due in part to a lack of size and later because of injuries — to make the WNIT semifinals. Playing every position on the floor except center, Murphy has the ability to take defenders off the dribble, distribute and shoot from long range.
“She can do a little bit of everything,” Brown said. “I’ve had her play so many different positions the last three years — the one, the two, the three and the four. She’s only 5-9, but she rebounds and she’s going to go in there and battle. She’s a strong, athletic kid, who can take you off the dribble and she can hit 3s.
“She’s not a true point guard, but she can handle the ball. And she’s not a kid that’s just going to stand out there and wait to get the ball to shoot 3s. She can create her own shot.”
Murphy did all of that as a senior on a knee that wasn’t even close to 100 percent either. Brown said her do-it-all guard would almost have to drag her right leg around to start the season because she was maybe just 60 or 70 percent of her old self.
“They’re taking a chance on her, sure, but Deb and Kamie liked what they saw and she wasn’t even close to what she really is. She’s going to keep getting better, especially after she gets her knee 100 percent and develops.”
Right now, it’s that drive to get completely healthy and focus on the adjustment to college basketball that sets Murphy apart from others, Brown said.
“She had other options, schools closer to home where she might play earlier, and she’s going there where they haven’t promised her anything,” Brown said. “And K-State is good — this year was just one of those years with all those injuries. Coach Patterson is going to have them competing for championships and those kids are going to be in shape, play hard and be tough. That will fit Jai well. She’s a gym rat.
“Jai likes challenges. She’s not going in as a McDonald’s All-American. She knows she has to get in there and work, but she’s that type of kid.”