Malik Monk was one of the best players for the Kings last season. He was an invaluable scorer and facilitator off the bench, finishing fifth in Sixth Man of the Year voting.
As Sacramento looks to take another leap upwards and as Monk enters a contract year, there are undoubtedly expectations that he can be even better.
On his own, he can improve his offensive consistency and his defensive physicality, but something outside of himself can help him take the next step.
Like many on the team, Monk clearly looked terrific in the two-man game with Domantas Sabonis. Both of their abilities to create and score around the rim formed another excellent union on the offensive end.
What about when Sabonis isn’t on the floor with Monk?
The largest conundrum for the Kings rotation last season was the backup to Sabonis. Richuan Holmes fell flat on his face in that regard despite high hopes, Chimezie Metu was hardly sufficient at the center position for many stretches of the year, and Alex Len did not get utilized until there were 8 games left in the regular season.
Now there’s JaVale McGee, a guy the coaches trust and someone who can provide a high-level presence as the big in a pick-and-roll with his quickness, verticality, and ability to play above the rim.
On Sunday in the first preseason game, Monk hooked up with McGee on two straight possessions for alley-oop’s, and reporters and fans alike are fascinated by the prospect of that tandem getting a full season to work together. It was a featured topic among reporters after practice on Tuesday.
Holmes and Monk had a few alley-oop connections in last year’s preseason, and that appeared to forecast a formidable partnership. Clearly, that did not happen.
In the final 8 games of the season, Monk and Len seemed to bring a better tandem of production despite the inconsistency at the backup 5 and the lack of opportunities for Len. But for Len—who is certainly adept at rolling to the rim—he is less of a lob threat and thus not as much of a priority for defenses to stay with him on the back end. Monk created for Len and the big man cleaned up down there adequately, but a more athletic and springy target could easily maximize what Monk can do out of the pick-and-roll.
In the opinion of many, including Mike Brown, McGee—who’s getting the first crack at primary backup center minutes—can take it to another level, which would aid Monk in expanding his impact.
“They (Monk and McGee) can be good because Malik is such a threat getting down hill in the pick-and-roll situation and he likes to throw the lob and he didn’t really play with a guy last year that can just go get it,” coach Brown told reporters on Tuesday after Jason Anderson asked about the potential connection. “So now, as a big, you’re putting (the defense) in a predicament if you pay too much attention to Malik, which a lot of teams did last year — then (the defense is) going to put (their) backside in peril because even when (they) have a small guy, or whoever it is, sink back on JaVale, they’re usually not big enough to go up and challenge a lob dunk or anything like that, so that combination can be really good because Malik’s a willing passer, our spacing is usually pretty good, and JaVale gets in and out of that pick-and-roll quicker than anyone in the league, or almost as quick as anyone in the league.”
The captain of the team and representative voice felt similarly after Anderson had asked him the same question. McGee will definitely “help, obviously, Malik and (that) helps us as a whole,” De’Aaron Fox explained on Tuesday.
“When JaVale’s rolling (to the basket), guys have to tag him or else it’s going to be a lob fest the entire game,” Fox continued. ” So that makes our offense that much more dynamic.”
Asked about his new teammate and their ability to connect on Tuesday, Monk—almost humbly—declared that “it was just one game,” but stated that the two of them “will keep building chemistry and keep getting better and better everyday.”
Monk also shied away from taking on any sympathy for lacking a “consistent” backup big for him to work with in the pick-and-roll last season, as Brenden Nunes rightly described it in his question. Monk’s reasoning for that, however, only backed up Nunes’ and others’ thinking on the matter as he said that he had Sabonis, the starter, there, who “opens everything up for me,” as he put it.
Once more, it’s about the moments throughout the 48-minute game when Sabonis is off the floor.
Though Monk did not seem to explicitly acknowledge it, he must know that McGee is capable of providing something sustainable all season when Sabonis rests. He must know that the slack will be picked up significantly for 10 to 14 minutes a game, even if he doesn’t say it outright.
Perhaps it’s him not getting too far ahead of himself, especially after last season was entirely incongruous in terms of the backup center role.
Even still, when people ask how one of the best offenses from last season can improve, it’s things like this, things like a consistent backup big for Monk to work with, which can increase the lethality of the team’s offensive attack.
Monk’s not wrong to point out that it was just one game, just a tiny sample size, but as Mike Brown has said a few times throughout training camp, a major factor in taking the next step from good to great starts with laying the foundation early.
Brown, Fox, and others assessed that chemistry with the new guys—which includes McGee—”takes time,” but the early returns on the Monk-McGee chemistry look incredibly promising. And as Fox also articulated, that helps Monk, but it also helps the team’s cause overall.
How much better will Malik Monk, and by extension the team, be this season?
Only time will tell.