“He just sort of glides”: Johnny Furphy’s Centre of Excellence coach on what to expect from the KU freshman

Centre of Excellence's Johnny Furphy shoots a free throw during a game against the Canberra Gunners on May 30, 2023.

From the perspective of Robbie McKinlay, the head coach at Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence, Johnny Furphy has “always sort of been that younger guy.”

Playing basketball growing up, Furphy took his cues from his older brother “that he’d always sort of hang around and do what he does,” McKinlay said. In addition, as a December birthday, Furphy was always among the youngest in his grade, because Australia’s academic calendar runs from late January or early February until the end of the year — one of the reasons why Furphy initially hoped to reclassify to the recruiting class of 2024.

That was before the stratospheric levels of hype from July’s NBA Academy Games in Atlanta, Georgia, which transformed Furphy into a highly sought-after 2023 prospect, and his signing with Kansas men’s basketball earlier this month. Now, he’ll have a chance to learn from more experienced teammates at one of the top collegiate programs, “having older guys around him sort of leading him and showing him the way and how Kansas does things.”

McKinlay said Furphy has an ideal demeanor for the spotlight that awaits him.

“The thing with Johnny is, he’s so level-headed,” McKinlay told the Journal-World on a WhatsApp call Monday night (Tuesday morning in Canberra). “If you watch any of those highlight dunks, he just moves on to the next thing. There’s not a lot of highs, there’s not a lot of lows. He’s just steady, and that’s the thing that I like a lot about coaching him.”

photo by: Greg Francis/Discovery One Photography

Centre of Excellence’s Johnny Furphy goes in close during a game against the Newcastle Falcons on June 4, 2023.

By all accounts, Furphy was a late bloomer. He told 247Sports in July that he had a growth spurt during the pandemic and “things started rolling from then.” McKinlay and the Centre of Excellence, essentially a training program for future Australian national basketball players that has in recent years produced the likes of NBA draftees Dyson Daniels and Josh Giddey, first became aware of Furphy via an assistant coach from Victoria who had seen him in Melbourne.

McKinlay watched Furphy compete in early 2022, where he was playing for an under-20 second-team Victoria squad.

“I went to the tournament and saw Johnny for the first time,” he recalled, “and said ‘Who’s this guy?'”

McKinlay was convinced he belonged on the Victoria first team, but more pressingly, the CoE wanted Furphy for a string of games in Perth that June. A scholarship had opened up when Tyrese Proctor left the program to go attend Duke. Furphy’s parents agreed to send him to Canberra.

“By the end of the first quarter of the first game, we said ‘We needed to bring this guy in,'” McKinlay said.

photo by: Greg Francis/Discovery One Photography

Centre of Excellence’s Johnny Furphy shoots from long distance during a game against the Newcastle Falcons on June 4, 2023.

These were uncommon circumstances, McKinlay explained, because the CoE does not make a habit of adding players who are already in their senior years. Typically, it enrolls its participants in a local high school; “With Johnny, because he was so far down the path, he finished school in Melbourne.”

This created a series of logistical hurdles as Furphy tried to complete his last six months of high school from afar while still training at the CoE, and making matters worse he started having minor shin problems (not a stress fracture but shin splints, McKinlay recalled; even so, a significant impediment).

“He wasn’t really maximizing his time here, not through his own fault, but because he had to finish school and he had to deal with the shins and whatever else,” McKinlay said.

And so came the idea to reclassify to 2024, spend more time at CoE, grow into his body, get more access to American colleges and so on.

“He was all for it before Atlanta,” McKinlay said.

Furphy had excelled and made the all-tournament team at the National Prep School Invitational in Rhode Island in February, but the attention he got from the NBA Academy Games this summer was on another level entirely.

McKinlay had seen a prospect boost his stock in Atlanta one year earlier, when fellow CoE forward Alex Toohey burst onto the scene and made himself a target for some of the top schools in the United States. (Toohey committed to Gonzaga but ended up deciding to play in Australia’s National Basketball League this year instead.)

McKinlay said that he told Furphy and his parents, “This thing might blow up in a good way for you,” along the lines of what happened for Toohey.

“Did I think it was going to go as big as it did? No,” McKinlay said. “But it was definitely always a possibility.”

Write-ups about Furphy’s talents have the air of, well, a furphy — Australian slang for a tall tale — until you see him play. The aggressive rebounding, the dynamic athleticism, the well-developed jump shot and even some slick passes are all on display in the 6-foot-8 wing’s highlights from Atlanta.

College coaches were smitten.

“Just the way he moves is different,” McKinlay said. “It’s hard to describe. He just sort of glides and it’s just different. And I think that’s what a lot of coaches saw.”

photo by: Greg Francis/Discovery One Photography

Centre of Excellence’s Johnny Furphy goes up for a layup during a game against the Canberra Gunners on June 8, 2023.

The top programs in the nation, including Duke, Gonzaga, North Carolina and of course KU, had varying levels of reported interest in Furphy. Suddenly waiting to attend college for another 13 months made a lot less sense to him and his family, McKinlay said, even with the disruption of having to change plans so abruptly.

“What you would work on here, with your game,” McKinlay said, “you can just do it there … (and) unless the Lakers or the Celtics are knocking on the door, you don’t need any more exposure.”

Ultimately, Furphy averaged 14.3 points (shooting 22-for-56 from beyond the arc) and 5.6 rebounds in 12 games for the CoE against Australian semi-pro teams. KU coach Bill Self said in a video posted to social media Aug. 6 from Puerto Rico that Furphy has “scary good bounce off one (foot), and he’s a good jumper off two.” So what does he still need to work on?

“He’s got to get stronger physically,” Self said, “and a lot of that will just be with age, but also in the weight room. (Director of Sports Performance Ramsey Nijem), I’m sure, will make him one of his pet projects, because if he gets a little stronger, I’m telling you, he’s kind of a cross between Svi (Mykhailiuk) and Christian (Braun).”

McKinlay agreed that Furphy (whom KU lists at 202 pounds) still has work to do on his body, following the physical and mental growth he showed in a year at the CoE, playing alongside top national talent like Toohey, Ben Henshall (now with the Perth Wildcats of the NBL) and Alex Condon (now at Florida).

Now, McKinlay notes, he’ll be able to show off his ability to cut sharply to the basket and take advantage of the passing acumen of veteran point guard Dajuan Harris Jr.

Self said in the video that he expects Furphy to be “impacting us and playing a lot of minutes right off the bat,” adding that “he’s going to be behind, but he just knows how to play” and crediting the work of the CoE.

“Because he is a late developer, it’s all sort of coming together for him now at the right time,” McKinlay said.

photo by: Greg Francis/Discovery One Photography

Centre of Excellence’s Johnny Furphy high-fives teammates as part of a game against the Bankstown Bruins on March 11, 2023.


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