With all the buzz about what Keegan Murray’s year-two jump will look like, a lot of focus has been put on his shot creation, but it’s his defense that may contribute the most to his second season growth.
That notion seemed to come into light on Wednesday night in San Francisco where, despite going 4 of 15 from the field and 0 of 7 from three, Murray was a plus-defender in a low-scoring loss to Golden State, spending a lot of time guarding Steph Curry.
The Kings lost that game by 1 point without De’Aaron Fox, and while a loss is never a good thing (just ask Harrison Barnes), it was the team’s defense that gave them the best chance without their best scorer and foremost leader.
While the offense only managed 101 points and never scored more than 24 in a period after a 31-point first—a clear indication of Fox’s absence—the performance on the other end was some remnant of a sign that this team can come together to defend, which is the biggest hurdle in their quest to go from good to great.
The Warriors were never permitted more than 28 points in a quarter, which is solid in today’s league. With that, Steph Curry, who was averaging 33.5 per game coming into Wednesday’s contest—was limited to just 21 points.
“You’re not stopping Steph Curry, but the reality of it is, this is the best job I think we’ve ever done on Steph,” Mike Brown concluded postgame.
Though he was far from perfect, Murray played a prominent role in that. And regarding the shots he missed—again, all 7 of his three-point attempts—they were mostly good looks that would normally fall at an effective clip, but again, it’s the defensive end of the floor that most can hold onto as a sign of what could be coming as the season moves along.
As alluded to, Murray’s quickness was lacking with such attention paid to Curry’s three-point shot as seen in the fourth when Murray couldn’t get moving fast enough as Curry got downhill, likely anticipating a pull up jumper, but luckily Davion Mitchell stepped in with a good contest as the low man.
Similarly, Curry got a layup to fall after a give-and-go cut where Murray could not get a hand on the pass while running a half-step behind the Warriors guard with the paint entirely open.
Murray’s fluidity when going through screens also has to get better. That was clear on this Klay Thompson three, and it happened a few times when chasing Curry around. But with Curry, those are nearly impossible to stop sometimes, especially with good screens, and yet, Murray had a decent contest getting a hand in his face on one make, and later, there was a deep three where, perhaps in hindsight, Kevin Huerter should have switched out onto Curry following a guard-to-guard screen.
It wasn’t all bad navigating through screens. On one play, Murray moved fairly swiftly—albeit, through a slimmer screener—to get a hand up on Curry, who had less space on the wing and missed.
When it comes to actually guarding Curry one-on-one, there was some promising success. Once, Curry drove and stopped on a dime for a step back mid-ranger, but Murray stayed on him, contested it, and helped force a miss.
Most prominently, Murray ended up with two steals, and both of them came against one of the hardest players to guard. In the first quarter, he had no trouble getting through a poor Dario Saric pick—it was virtually ineffective—and disrupted with his hands to jar the ball loose. And shortly before halftime, he applied nice pressure with his chest and again utilized his hands to snag the ball from Curry.
“You’re not going to stop a future Hall of Famer like Steph,” coach Brown explained following the loss. “You just hope to make him work for it, and I thought Keegan tried to make him work for it.”
Curry was relatively held in check in the score column, had 7 turnovers, and had to work for most of his shots. That was due to a collection of guys, including Mitchell, of course, and even Barnes and Huerter, but Murray’s effort was perhaps most notable. His ability to step up to the challenge was a big sign for his development.
Mike Brown also said that the Kings have thrown a lot at Curry to try and limit him amid this heavy dose of playing Golden State over the past few months, so he figured Murray’s length would be a useful look. More than that, he took into account how “Keegan’s grown a lot on both ends of the floor.”
Last season, Brown was already talking about Murray as a guy who’s well on his way to becoming a two-way player, and he’s doubled down on that notion this year in a conversation with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on their “All the Smoke” podcast. Brown said he’s putting “pressure” on his guy because he believes he has a third star in the making in Murray.
There’s no more pressure than being handed the assignment of guarding Curry, and the former Iowa Hawkeye exhibited plenty of promise. If he can continue doing that when called upon—guarding an opposing offense’s point of attack—that could be huge for Sacramento’s defensive versatility.
A season ago, when names like Chimezie Metu and KZ Okpala were momentarily in the rotation together, Brown noted how he wanted Okpala to guard point guards because, for one, he felt he was able to, and two, because he wanted the flexibility to have better size guarding a big should a defensive switch take place. Murray can provide something similar, and he’s easily stronger and a better rebounder than Okpala could ever claim to be. While the Kings don’t switch too much at the center position—Metu being an exception a year ago—Murray can maximize the versatility of a smaller lineup when switching is far more ubiquitous.
Plus, think about the times where Murray was on Curry and the small yet strong Davion Mitchell was on Draymond Green. Hypothetically, that could be the kind of defensive look—whether it’s Mitchell, Fox, Chris Duarte, or someone else—that can really help because if the big screens for the guard, then the defense is losing next to nothing if forced to switch.
And that’s on top of Murray simply using his excellent length on points of attack, which, if he gets more comfortable with it, could be reminiscent of Klay Thompson’s ascendence as a two-way player earlier in his career when then-Warriors coach Mark Jackson frequently went with that defensive look.
Again, a loss is never a good thing, and Murray’s got to be able to get at least some of those good looks to fall—especially in a 1-point ball game—but a major takeaway, that just happens to be on the bright side, was how the second-year pro was a standout performer among an admirable team effort on the defensive end.
Remember, it was far from perfect, but it was still commendable. It’s just a matter of whether or not he can keep that up, and his head coach is going to continue to challenge him on that.
“I’m proud of the effort Keegan tried to give on (the defensive) end of the floor and the results from it,” Brown appraised after the loss. “We’ll just see if he can continue doing it.”