The Kings made some changes this past month, but as is clear, they are more or less attacking the upcoming season with the same core as the year before.
Thus, getting better depends in large part on the players already on the team getting better, and on that front, there is one in particular that stands out.
Is this the offseason of Keegan Murray?
The improvement of the team—while it certainly includes guys like Sasha Vezenkov, Chris Duarte, and Nerlens Noel, who will all make a distinct impact—seems most contingent on the advancement and evolution of Murray. That isn’t to say he is going to or has to leap straight into star status and be the Kings’ true third guy from day one of camp, but the fact is that how much he’s grown and continues to grow will play a major part in dictating the direction of the team regarding success.
There should be some critical evolution for guys like Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter too, which will certainly be pivotal in deciding the future progress of last year’s third seed, but their trajectories are unlikely to be as steep as Murray’s and therefore less prone to significantly tipping the balance. They could of course—Monk could end up displaying far better consistency to be the Sixth Man of the Year and Huerter’s conditioning could soar to new heights to make his best play more sustainable—but to reiterate the same point another way, the improvement leap is never as big as year one to two.
And what’s more, Murray has put himself in a position to maximize that jump with what he’s doing this summer.
Everyone saw him in his two California Classic games, or at least they caught extensive wind of it. It was an opportunity to put himself in an “uncomfortable” situation and to try out some of the tricks he’s been working on. He demonstrated some play off the dribble while also still torching the nets on DHOs and spot up three’s.
Equally as important as getting buckets by putting the ball on the floor was the leadership aspect.
Murray was the leader of last year’s Summer League team as he was by far the best player and 4th overall pick, but this season, he took it up a notch. He leaned on his experience and what his perspective was as a first-year pro. Tapping into that, he conveyed useful advice to his teammates and, as someone with a full season beneath his belt, challenged them to see the game differently.
Murray does not brim with much fire or swagger, but even still, he’s clearly one of the most confident players at his level of experience. There’s no strutting around and little if any trash talk, but that’s because he’d probably rather bounce back from the adversity of his first few playoff games against the defending champions to end up hitting some critical shots and being a key contributor late in the series.
It’s a balance between being “that guy” and avoiding the mistake of trying to force it: making the proper adjustment rather than folding or straining. It’s that maturity that grounds him and which likely benefitted all the guys on that summer roster.
And it’ll be stronger for this upcoming season as he looks to contribute to the leadership of a talented and close-knit group with the addition of his voice.
Speaking of talented groups, there’s another noteworthy aspect to Murray’s offseason: he’s on the USA Select Team for this year’s FIBA World Cup.
The Select Team trains with Steve Kerr’s National Team, which is subjecting Murray to practicing with and scrimmaging against some of the game’s best talent. It’s clearly beneficial to practice with Domantas Sabonis or play one-on-one against De’Aaron Fox, but this is an added element to expanding his horizons as it pertains to challenges. And as the laws of anti fragility dictate, that challenge will only make Keegan Murray stronger and better.
Lots of players were on the Select Team prior to transforming into super stars. One notable one is Fox, who was on that team in 2019. Prior to ultimately dropping out due to personal reasons, there was a reason people were referring to Fox and other players’ place on the Select Team as a “familiar path to stardom.”
Though it’s not certain he’d be the guy or that this would even occur, but another aspect of the Select Team is that as a member, you’re in the pool of potential replacements should an injury force one of the National Team members to miss time. It may depend on position, but Keegan Murray is one of the best players available and would have an excellent opportunity to be an injury replacement.
Naz Reid, Chet Holmgren, and others are options too, so it wouldn’t be a sure thing were it to happen, but imagine the expanded impact that would have for Murray’s leap from year one to two if he could play even more alongside guys like Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Tyrese Haliburton, and Brandon Ingram? Furthermore, should that somehow happen, Murray would join two of his fellow First Team All-Rookie members in Paola Banchero and Walker Kessler.
And on top of that possibility, one couldn’t discount what playing in international competition can do as it has slightly different rules than the NBA and a wide variance of players, skills, and molds. It would require another adjustment, albeit one that isn’t likely very significant, but that would nevertheless be another growing experience to further the overall progress of last year’s 4th selection out of Iowa. And making adjustments are something Murray’s been able to do at an extremely high level since becoming a professional.
No situation has been too uncomfortable for him. He never let an early thumb injury get to him even as it required a wrap. He overcame off-court adversity and the new travel of the NBA during a tough month of November and only ascended thereafter. And of course he went from being a virtual non-factor early in the Warriors series only to step up as one of the most critical impact players by the end of it.
His ability to make such effective adjustments—through adversity like that and atop opportunities like those he has this offseason—may end up being the largest factor in terms of his development and more specifically what he does in year two.
After all, his Sophomore season with the Kings will be instrumental in deciding what the team does on its quest to once again stand near the top of the conference. It’s very fair to call this the offseason of Keegan Murray—maybe last year as well, but it’s swelled significantly since then in terms of impact, and a year from now, that could be amplified further.