The Western Conference assistant coach was idly taking in what was one of the more exciting games of the Las Vegas Summer League slate early in July—a double-overtime finish that gave the Magic a win despite the Sacramento Kings having fought back from an 18-point second-half deficit—when he leaned in and said, unsolicited, “You know, I think maybe the Kings did not really screw this one up.”
Now, that sentiment comes with all the requisite warnings about it being Summer League, with its sloppy games far removed from NBA quality. The predictive value of summer performances is sketchy throughout history. Marcus Banks (ahem) once scored 42 points in a summer game for the Suns, then averaged 4.9 points for the next 83 games of his career. Stephen Curry shot 32.5% from the field and 34.5% from the 3-point line during the 2009 Summer League, then went on to become arguably the greatest shooter in NBA history.
Grain of salt, and all that.
But the mere fact that the Kings got through the month of July with their top 2022 pick in the NBA draft, Iowa forward Keegan Murray, not embarrassing himself or the franchise is a thing to be happy about, given the Kings’ recent draft history. The fact that Murray came out looking like the best and most polished player among his draft class is cause for an organization-wide celebration.
Murray was named the Las Vegas Summer League MVP after he tallied 23.3 points on 50.0% shooting and 40.0% 3-point shooting. His 3.5 3-pointers per game ranked fourth among all players, and he added 7.3 rebounds. His plus-14 for the tournament was third.
Murray was chosen with the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, a soon-to-be 22-year-old forward who arrived after a surprising and dominating sophomore year with the Hawkeyes. Most expected the Kings to deal away with pick, especially with the Knicks having been hot and heavy after Purdue point guard Jaden Ivey. The Kings appeared in a good position either way—they’d get a good package of picks from New York, or they’d simply take Ivey themselves and work out his fit on the roster with star guard De’Aaron Fox and second-year guard Davion Mitchell later.
Instead, they took Murray, the late-blooming power forward. Eyebrows were raised. Heads were scratched. For the constructors of post-draft Winner/Loser columns, the Kings as a loser was a layup—USA Today had them tabbed a loser, as did Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, among others. The sad draft history of the Sacramento Kings was dredged up again. That does not need to be rehashed, but it has no better symbol than the 2018 choice of bust big man Marvin Bagley with the No. 2 pick instead of superstar Luka Doncic (or Jaren Jackson Jr. or Trae Young or even Wendell Carter Jr. for that matter).
But hold that thought.
“Does he have the upside that (Paolo) Banchero or (Chet) Holmgren have? No,” the coach said. “But he is just solid everywhere on the floor, he can score. He can shoot it from long range, he can bring it into the paint and hurt you there, he is going to get better as a passer, you can tell, he has good instincts for it. Same with his defense. He needs work there, but you can see where he has an NBA-level game. What’s funny is, everybody thought they took the safe route when they went with Murray. But he is not the safe route. Ivey was the safe route, just doing what everyone said they should do. It took some guts to go out and draft this kid.”
And Murray has shown himself to be a gutsy player. In his matchup against Banchero, he was a bit better, scoring 20 points on just 11 field-goal attempts and adding nine rebounds. When he went against Holmgren, he scored 29 points with seven rebounds and four steals. Holmgren had just eight points.
“I just go out and compete,” Murray said after the game. “I don’t care who’s lined up against me.”
What Murray cared more about was that he’d shot 12 3-pointers in his previous game, and coach Doug Christie—himself a pretty good Sacramento King in his day—got on him to get to the paint more. He did. He took 10 shots inside the paint that day, and was 4-for-5 shooting inside the restricted area.
“(Christie) just said I need to be more aggressive, attack the paint, and I felt like I was settling a lot the last couple of games,” Murray said. “I made up my mind to be more aggressive, get to the foul-line a little more, just attack.”
He was aggressive, and so were the Kings in pushing everything aside and drafting Murray despite the frowns and jeers from outside observers. Murray not only avoided stumbling out of the gate, but he was the summer’s big star—that is something the Kings should celebrate.