Is Keegan Murray the Second Best Prospect in His Class?

Contrary to popular belief, Monte McNair and the Kings’ front office whole heartily believe Keegan Murray was the best player available when it was their turn in June’s NBA Draft. More than that, based on the manner in which McNair enthused about the forward out of Iowa, it seemed Sacramento considered themselves tremendously lucky to have him land in their lap.

That’s not just an impression they’re giving off, nor is it an outlying opinion. Marc Spears recently told Brian Windhorst that he’d heard from some scouts that “they thought (Murray) was the No. 2 player in the draft.”

Even as draft analysts varied in their beliefs on what the big board looked like in terms of ranked prospects, and in spite of the fact most everyone was wrong about who the first overall pick would be, there was a wide conviction that the top-two NBA-ready talents were Paolo Banchero and Keegan Murray. 

Of course, that remains to be seen, but it adds to the idea that Murray could have been the second best prospect. 

Think about the reasons Banchero and Murray are so highly touted. The first overall pick out of Duke is a leader on the floor, possessing playmaking ability that far surpassed most of the point guards in his class, which allows him to fill up the stat sheet. Murray, on the other hand, is a high character, high work ethic guy who used that undying commitment and effort to have the best statistical season in college basketball last season.

That’s not even all of it. The two of them, in fact, offer versatile skillsets that project to get better as the years go on, and their areas of improvement—Banchero’s defense and Murray’s ball-handling and shot creation—will almost certainly be mended in due time.

Maybe that’s more of a bet than an analysis, but the fact remains that both of them come with attributes that are hard to learn and are unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon. That is to say they’re translatable, allowing each player to be difference-makers from day one.

Of course, ceiling plays a large role in the stock of a prospect, and there’s no denying the high potential of Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith Jr., and Jaden Ivey. However, there is still plenty of room to make the case Murray was the second best player in that draft, especially after seeing him in a handful of games throughout the Summer League from San Francisco to Las Vegas.

Through 6 games this summer, Keegan Murray has stood out among all rookies as having displayed the best play. In about 32 minutes per game, he’s averaging 21.8 points on beautifully efficient percentages (.494/.395/.839), 7.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.5 steals.

Regarding the three games played thus far in Vegas, he’s second among all players in points per game, sandwiched between two second-year players, Cam Thomas and Quentin Grimes. He’s the only rookie to score 20-plus in all three games in the desert, and he’s looking to do it again tonight.

Basketball fans will not know for a while who the top players in this class are, and to use six Summer League games as a primary indication is just as silly as it sounds, but Murray has certainly been painting a good outlook for his chances of being included. 

It’s more than just statistics here in July, it’s about what he’s specifically showing during this time that will instantly help the Kings flourish—if they are to do so—when it comes time to play alongside De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. Both will create opportunities for a rookie Murray to succeed. As such, an excellent fit beside two players who could easily be all-stars mixed with Murray’s history of hard work may be the perfect recipe for career success.

The primary aspect that will make a massive impact when plugged in next to Fox and Sabonis is the fact that Murray may end up being the best shooter in this draft. Yes, arguments can be made for others—it wasn’t that long ago that Jabari Smith was considered the consensus first overall pick in large part because of his eye-popping jump shooting talent—but Murray is portraying a real floor stretcher the way in which he’s posting beautiful numbers from deep as well as the factor of his motion, which keeps the ball high and gets it out pretty quick.

In fact, the way he’s shooting the ball off of screen actions and motions are just so magnificent that it seems Murray is making the case for being higher on the list of scoring options at any given time. He’s shown that plays can be drawn up for him to knock down an efficient rate of looks. 

James Ham wrote that Murray may even be the third option ahead of Barnes with a real potential to, sooner than later, “surpass Sabonis as the team’s second scoring option, although the offense will still run through the big man more often than not.”

If he does eclipse Domas at some point in the next couple years, it could be a fair indication of whether or not he was the second best prospect.

Growth and improvement, needless to say, are vital to securing a place in that top-two, and while Murray was often slighted as having the lowest ceiling of the top-five selections, he’s showing how he has the confidence to take steps in the right direction to get better, both in-game and game to game.

Murray’s primary weakness may be his ball-handling which in turn affects his shot-creation and playmaking. It’s also gotten him to commit a noticeable amount of turnovers. 

In the second California Classic game against Miami, Murray faced a good amount of double teams and dribbled either into situations where the opposition could snag it or to where he’d make a bad pass, finishing with 6 turnovers. It should be noted that five of them occurred in the first half. He followed it up with more steps of progression with just 2 turnovers against the Lakers in the final game at the Chase Center, only making one mistake reminiscent of the previous game.

In Vegas, the first two games told a similar story. Against the Magic, Murray committed 5 turnovers, falling into similar trouble at the hands of his ball-handling, but, similar to the Heat game, 4 of them came in the first half. And against Indiana in the next game, Murray showed perhaps his best improvement, remaining poised and calm when two men guarded him so that he could help find the open man. 

As has been said in this space before, the ball-handling issue is not a major concern with the understanding that he’ll be playing with Fox and Sabonis, who the offense will be primarily played through. Simply put, he really won’t be in a position where he’ll absolutely have to create his own shot, which gives him nice cover to fix up that aspect of his game.

By Wednesday’s game against the Thunder, Murray was simply aggressive and resolved, driving to the rim several times and getting 11 free throw attempts.

There’s little doubt—at least right now—that he can indeed improve that area while expanding upon the excellent skills he already has. His shooting, defense, and activity on the boards do seem like they will only get better.

This ostensible capacity to improve seems largely tied to the fact that he is just a hard worker. 

It’s often highlighted, as Mark Jones did on a broadcast near the end of last season, that Trey Lyles’ dad taught him a valuable lesson that has contributed to the fact he has an NBA career: “A person can be better than you, they can be more athletic, they can be stronger, they can be faster, they can be taller. But one thing they cannot do, they cannot outwork you.”

That applies to Murray. Whether it’s building off of games or slowly getting better as a contest goes on, Murray’s unmatched work ethic is such that he looks like the best player on the floor by the end of each game if he hasn’t already shown it earlier. 

It’s only been 6 Summer League games, but such low stakes would seem to present a rookie—the 4th overall pick—with the opportunity to really try to show off. Yet Murray has never come close to falling into that inclination. As was the case against the Heat earlier in the month and against Banchero and the Magic, Murray did not press or force things. 

He rests on the thing nobody can take from him, which is a major reason he’s such a level-headed, aware, and confident player.

Against Miami, he dialed it back after a horrible first half of shooting, helping in other ways to secure a victory. And in the game versus Orlando, Murray ended up being the calm, collected killer after a blindsiding three from Neemias Queta and an improbable steal when he nailed the tying shot after dribbling back beyond the three-point line.

It was the sharpest looking thing featured in the summer so far as he showcased his composed instinct and execution. One does not just wake up equipped with those attributes, one has to work hard and earn that ability.

It’s difficult to say whether he can maintain and cultivate that further to become a clutch player, but if hard work has any say, then there’s a good chance.

And that may just be the ultimate factor anyway. 

Careers will have to be well charted before anyone can look back at the 2022 draft class and rank the players taken, but Keegan Murray is off to a great start showing why he could potentially be one of the top two as a discernible amount of scouts projected him to be. 

Murray will play his fourth game in Vegas at 5 p.m. PST this evening against the Phoenix Suns where he will look to continue making tiny contributions to that grand case.

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