Whether explicitly put this way or not, the notion of adding a third star beside De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis has been long discussed.
The three previous NBA champions are three teams with some of the very best big three’s in the league currently. Whether it was Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Middleton or Curry, Green, and Wiggins or Jokic, Murray, and Gordon, a trio of stars—and then some—seems critical to getting a team over the top.
For a little over a year, those paying attention knew Sacramento had something special going after pairing Sabonis with Fox. And with the success of this past season that led the Kings into the third seed in the Western Conference, everyone can feel it.
The next step, in many observers’ eyes, is adding that third star. Names have popped up, some for a moment while others have lingered. OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Kuzma, and others have all been floated around as potential options either through trade or free agency.
Weeks removed from the grinding rumor mill of late June, the difficulty of pulling off a trade for Anunoby seems crystal clear, and more so for a guy like Siakam as has always been the case. And on Kuzma, the whole thing ended up being as impractical as many imagined.
Zeroing in on Anunoby specifically, if there was one thing that could be circled as the primary culprit of jamming up any deal from materializing, it’s Keegan Murray.
The longtime argument against trying to add a third star from the outside is that the Kings have one in the making on the inside.
On top of hitting a record amount of three-pointers as a first-year player, making the All-Rookie first team, and starting for a playoff team, Keegan Murray spent all of last year on a steady upward trajectory.
He learned to overcome adversity—both on and off the floor—in November, he made significant defensive strides, responded to challenges from his head coach, persevered in the playoffs, and displayed numerous glimpses of his evolving game.
On that last note, his game started to confirm that Murray can be far more than a catch-and-shoot guy. His aggression and comfort beamed late in the season with the ball in his hands. Even as his ball handling and first step still looked like areas in need of improvement, it felt less urgent with each possession.
His improvement was incredibly consistent.
This is what got everyone so excited about his willingness to play in the two California Classic games earlier this week.
“I’m just trying to get into uncomfortable situations on the floor. That’s kind of my main goal,” Murray said after Monday’s win over the Warriors when asked about his objectives for the California Classic. “Just bringing the ball up the court against pressure, handling the ball more and things like that, guarding on the ball, just trying to get better at that. And in-game reps I feel like are the best reps, so just trying to figure out how I can get better from that standpoint.”
Through those two games, fans have seen a stronger and bigger Murray drop a 29-point game followed by a 41-point performance. They’ve seen him find his spots off the dribble, guard some smaller players in space, fly through the air for a poster slam, and lead breaks.
And as coach Luke Loucks noted based off a Jay Triano observation, there was a little bit of fire within Murray, who was as stoic as they come as a rookie.
“I think Lester (Quiones) hit a three and started jawing at (Murray) a little bit, which I love — that gets me going,” Loucks explained Monday. “And Keegan looked him dead in the face and was like, ‘Alright, I’m coming at you,’ and came back down and hit a three on him and said something to him. And I don’t know what he said — I’m gonna ask him tomorrow — but he said something to him, and that to me right there — that just shows the like puffing-your-chest-out (demeanor).”
Loucks added that a moment such as that showed a ton more than his dunk or his high scoring performances.
“Just like someone coming at him and being like, ‘No, you’re not coming at me, I’m coming at you,'” the coach added. “And I think that’s where, for him individually and for us collectively for what we need from him, I think he’s doing it.”
This could foretell a massive jump in year two, which a scout told Loucks could resemble Kawhi Leonard’s leap from year one to two. It’s that stark to those in the building.
In addition to building 8 pounds of muscle, expanding his offensive bag, and puffing his chest out, at the end of the day, Murray’s showing equal strides in leadership.
It’s crazy that a guy who had all the first-year accolades he had is returning to play two more games of summer league. It’s a testament to his growth, the team’s growth, but also his summer league teammates’ as well.
“A lot of it was just talking to guys, just talking to Colby (Jones), talking to all the young guys — what I’m seeing on the court, what they’re not — what they’re seeing, what I’m not — things like that,” Murray described of his mentality regarding being that team leader. “And just getting a feel, getting them comfortable in this situation because I was in their shoes last year, so I know what it’s like to play in this situation. Just trying to be more vocal, give guys things to think about before the games, after the games, and things like that. So just trying to use my voice more.”
A year ago, the sense that Keegan Murray was not like other rookies seeped into a lot of peoples’ minds. This summer, a more prominent thought enters: the thought that Murray will be the Kings’ third star.
Of course, as Loucks noted—and as Mike Brown would likely continue to mention—Murray still has work to do. He’s got to improve his handles, his creation off the dribble, his defense, and his rebounding consistency.
Still, it truly feels like a matter of when for Keegan Murray. Even after a mere two California Classic games, the notion of him becoming the third star of this team is once again beginning to take on significant degrees of certainty.