The Kings have come closer to filling out the roster that they’ll enter next season with after signing two players with connections to Nigeria’s 2020 Olympic National Team, which was coached by Sacramento’s newly hired Mike Brown as well as assistants Jordi Fernandez and Luke Loucks.
The additions of forwards KZ Okpala and Chima Moneke came around the same time that it became official that Sasha Vezenkov, whose rights were acquired just ahead of June’s NBA Draft, would not be joining the Kings for the upcoming season.
Sacramento still retains the stretch 4’s rights and will perhaps be looking to bring him on board next year, but the conditions were just not apt for an entrance into the NBA at this moment. Coming off of a Greek League MVP and a trip to the Euro League Final Four, Vezenkov has ambitions to tackle in Europe. Plus, given the cap situation, there was little financial leeway to give him a worthy deal.
Instead, it appears coach Brown opted to suggest some of the talent he witnessed last summer as a way to fill out the roster. Aligned with several of the characteristics Monte McNair expressed he was looking for in potential acquisitions, it seems these additions were executed with coordination between the general manager and the head coach.
That in itself could be a positive sign.
At the end of last season, before hiring Mike Brown as his head coach, McNair stated his intention to pinpoint “the correct person to lead this organization — the team — on the floor” while he and Assistant GM Wes Wilcox lead the organization from their posts in the front office. Likewise, Brown described his ambition to help build and facilitate a “vertical and horizontal alignment of trust” within this organization, so this desire to work with one another and showcase mutual confidence conveys that such an arrangement is off to a good start.
Results, of course, will have to play out in their favor, though, which is a nice transition to looking at what Okpala and Moneke will offer to Sacramento’s roster.
KZ Okpala is a 23 year-old, 6’8″—some have said he’s closer to 6’9″ or 6’10” with shoes on—215 lbs. forward who will provide nice length (7’2″ wingspan), athleticism, and defensive ability. Scouting reports out of college noted his ability to guard multiple positions and he showed that capacity in Miami, so he’ll provide the versatility to be a nice depth piece on defense with good upside.
In 2019, he was drafted out of Stanford by the Suns before being traded shortly thereafter to the Heat. The athletic forward played mostly in the G League his rookie season, and played with Miami up until this last February when he was traded to Oklahoma City and subsequently waived days later.
Brown, Fernandez, and Loucks coached him last summer for the Olympic games in Tokyo where he played alongside fellow Kings forward Chimezie Metu. In 3 group phase games, Okpala averaged 3.7 points on 57.1% from the field, 3.3 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1.7 steals per game.
He evidently impressed Brown and his staff.
“KZ is a remarkable talent,” the head coach said in praise of Okpala. “This is a young man that, in my opinion, has a chance to be, obviously, an elite defender. And these are high expectations, but the short time I’ve had him, he could be a Defensive Player of the Year type candidate once he figures some things out to get consistent minutes on the floor.”
Such high acclaim may seem a little inflated, but given another chance in this league, within a system—particularly on the defensive end—that he’s comfortable with, Okpala has his best chance to prove he deserves those “consistent minutes” Brown alluded to last summer.
There’s also the fact that this may be the first time the newly signed forward’s NBA footing is relatively stable and suitable for continuous growth. Due to the timing of his post-draft trade, Okpala could not participate in that year’s Summer League, and this was only followed up by an early achilles strain that sidelined him for a while. In year-two, development time was shelved as both the Summer League and the G League were shut down due to the pandemic.
Okpala’s familiarity with Brown and his staff could very well allow him an opportunity to grow into an effective player.
Hours after news broke on the former Stanford Cardinal’s signing, Sean Cunningham reported of another agreement between the Kings and a forward that attended school in Northern California and has ties to Brown’s Nigerian National Team.
Former UC Davis Aggie Chima Moneke is a 26 year-old 6’6″, 223 lbs. forward that was originally born in Nigeria and hails from Australia, where he competed against the likes of Ben Simmons and Dante Exum early on. Cunningham noted that he “will bring defense, athleticism and length to the Kings,” a similar package to what Okpala offers.
In 2018, he went undrafted, venturing overseas to play in a Division 2 French League where he was cut very early into his first professional season. Despite the setbacks, Moneke played at that level in France until he moved up to play for BAXI Manresa in Spain this last season.
Through both the Liga ACB in Spain and the Basketball Champions League (a club competition that Moneke was MVP of in 2022), he averaged 14.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 steals per contest in 51 total games for Manressa.
Last summer, Moneke played on Nigeria’s National Team under Mike Brown and company before the final roster cuts were made ahead of the group phase. He played 10 minutes in Nigeria’s exhibition upset against the USA, contributing a rebound and an assist each in the first ever victory over the USA by a national team from Africa.
The former Aggie’s comfort with Brown and his staff, plus his high energy style of play, could be a nice mix for the the roster’s depth.
Both KZ Okpala and Chima Moneke will have an opportunity to provide valuable contributions for the Kings this season as they play under and alongside familiar faces from Olympic competition.
Just over a week ago, McNair said that he was still looking to make moves this offseason to improve the roster. Though that may be any front office’s attitude at all times, with the aforementioned cap situation, it seemed any move would either be a large one—likely including Harrison Barnes—or a series of more under the radar moves like Friday’s signings.
Right now, it’s looking increasingly likely that the opening night roster will resemble something extremely close to what it looks like at this moment. That’s not writing off an additional trade—the NBA, at the moment, seems to still be at a log jam as everyone waits on Kevin Durant—but it does seem less likely.
Following these contract agreements, Sacramento’s roster currently includes 14 players: Fox, Sabonis, Barnes, Huerter, Holmes, Monk, Murray, Mitchell, Davis, Len, Lyles, Metu, Okpala, and Moneke. With a roster limit of 15 and a need for a third point guard, there could still be a move or two.
The Kings did reportedly schedule work outs for Quinn Cook, Matthew Dellavedova, and Shabazz Muhammad during Summer League in Vegas. Cook or Dellavedova could fill that needed role on the end of the bench.
For now, it’s looking like the roster for next season is slowly being finalized.