Sacramento Kings forward Keegan Murray is a star in the making

In any given NBA season, there are a handful of teams and players who make up the zeitgeist of the league. Fans fawn over them. Talking heads dedicate countless hours debating their merit. Analysts (like myself) use our platforms to tell their stories. 

Last year, the Sacramento Kings were one of those teams. After owning the longest postseason drought in the NBA, they took the basketball world by storm, racing to a 48-34 record and the third seed in the vaunted Western Conference. 

However, due to an amalgamation of injuries, roster continuity, and new kids on the block (you may have heard of a fellow named Victor Wembanyama), the Kings have been relegated to the unpopular table in 2023-24.

Such a change is normal. Everyone loves to play with new toys. Unfortunately, when this happens, what gets lost is the internal improvement being made by the forgotten teams/players in the shadows.

That’s what happened to Keegan Murray. After a strong rookie campaign, he’s leveled his game up considerably in Year Two. Too bad no one outside of the Kings’ organization and fanbase seems to know it.

But that’s okay because, for one night, there was no Wembanyama, no Oklahoma City Thunder, or Orlando Magic. It was just Murray and his Kings battling an old demon. And Murray used this stage to show everyone just how much he’s grown.

Sometimes One Game Tells The Whole Story

As a general rule, it isn’t wise to over-index on a single-game sample. However, you can use it as a case study to illustrate a player’s strengths and weaknesses. That’s what Murray’s clash with the Golden State Warriors does for us. 

One of the two things that makes Murray such a promising player moving forward is his jumper. Last season, he broke the rookie record for most threes in a season (206). His 3-point percentage has regressed some in 2023-24, as he went from a 41.1% 3-point shooter to a 35.8% one. But that’s primarily because of variance and an increased degree of difficulty on his shot diet. Murray’s other shooting indicators are still strong (75th percentile free-throw percentage, per Dunks & Threes).

Expect some positive regression in his overall 3-point shooting to be coming soon. It looks like that upward trend may have started against the Warriors, as Murray kissed nylon on 8-of-13 attempts (61.5%). 

But like we said, that was a feature of his game last year. What wasn’t part of his bag was the ability to score after dribbling. Last year, only 25.5% of Murray’s field goal attempts came after taking one or more dribbles, per NBA.com. This year, that number has ballooned up to 43.2%. 

The best example of this from last night was Murray’s use of the snake dribble (a move popularized by Chris Paul, who was present to see Murray’s homage to his tactic) to shed Moses Moody and create space to flow into his pull-up jumper.

Along with his phobia of hearing the Spalding touch the hardwood, the rookie iteration of Murray feared physicality. If you take a gander at his film from last year, you’ll notice multiple possessions where he struggles to absorb contact

The beautiful thing about fears is that, with enough work, they can be overcome. Murray no longer dreads bumping bodies. In fact, he relishes the opportunity. This year, Murray is driving more often (4.5 drives per 36 minutes compared to 2.7 per 36 last year) and completing these escapades more efficiently (55% drives true shooting compared to 53% last year). 

Yesterday, Murray had a couple of fierce stampedes into the paint that went in and out of the rim. But there was one possession where he was able to enact his vengeance on Kings killer Kevon Looney (see his Game 7 heroics last year) by driving into him and drawing a foul.  

Recall that we said there are two attributes that make Murray such a tantalizing player. The first (as we already discussed) is his shooting, and the second is his size. Murray measures in at 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, and he uses his deluxe build to be a defensive stopper. 

After falling in the 33rd percentile in Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus last year, Murray finished this regular season in the 90th percentile. 

Murray’s greatest skill on defense is his ability to leverage his length and lateral agility to guard the basketball. In the clip below, we see Murray switch onto the relentless Jonathan Kuminga, stay with him on the drive, and funnel him into his teammate Domantas Sabonis. 

That wasn’t even his toughest assignment of the evening. At the start of the game, Murray was tasked with the Stephen Curry assignment. And it wasn’t because head coach Mike Brown didn’t have any better options, especially considering defensive ace Keon Ellis is also starting for him these days. 

Along with his point-of-attack prowess, Murray can create plays on defense (he had two steals against the Warriors) and provide secondary rim protection (64th percentile in block rate). 

Murray’s maturation has meant the world to his team’s overall defense (71st percentile in defensive on/off, per Cleaning the Glass). After spending last season in the doldrums of defensive rating (25th), Sacramento finished this season above the league average (14th in defensive rating). 

A Future Star Role Player

The title of this article is intentionally misleading (you need to optimize search engine results the best you can). I am under no impression that Murray will be a multi-time All-Star (although I won’t completely rule that out either). 

As the Warriors game taught us, Murray still has a ways to go as a passer/ball handler, and he tends to get tunnel vision on his drives. Given Murray’s age (he’s nearly 24 years old), these limitations in his game likely won’t ever be completely remedied, and it will probably get in the way of him accumulating the offensive usage necessary for All-Stardom from a player of his archetype

With that said, Murray is still a good shooter who can attack closeouts and a good defender who can fulfill multiple roles on that end of the court. Do you know how hard it is to find a player who wears those hats, not in theory, but in practice? Very hard. So hard, in fact, that every year in the draft, teams dedicate high lottery picks in pursuit of this type of player. 

In a lot of ways, Murray reminds me a lot of Mikal Bridges. He’s not a good enough ball-handler/playmaker to be a primary offensive option. But his complementary skills and two-way splendor give him the makeup of a great third banana on a title-contending team.

Despite a down year in Brooklyn, Bridges is a top-50 player in the association right now. And if he keeps going on this path, Murray will be too, when he hits his prime. 

So, maybe we shouldn’t spend all our time fixating on the popular crowd – because the uncool Kings have a pretty exciting future star role player hidden in plain sight.

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