I never fully know what I should or shouldn’t take away from NBA Summer League. Sometimes, a player’s improvement or impending breakout sticks out like a neon sign in a noir film, bashing you in the head with an emphatic “HERE I COME LEAGUE.” At other points, subtle shifts can slide under the radar — Cole Anthony, for example, struggled mightily during the 2021 Summer League and then looked like a borderline All-Star for the first few months of the season.
As with most things, I hedge and find myself somewhere in the middle, but Keegan Murray’s performance in Las Vegas has me rethinking things. Taking home Summer League MVP honors after averaging 23.3 points and 7.3 rebounds on 50/40/80.8 splits ain’t bad! While not comparing the two in terms of archetype or upside, Murray did his best Scottie Barnes impression, showing a verve as a shot creator in a way that I didn’t foresee this early in the NBA.
This seemingly came out of nowhere. While scouting Murray in the lead-up to the Draft, I had concerns about his ability to ever create offense for his teammates. The shot creation and versatility he brings at his size was never in question, but actually creating separation downhill was. Murray’s a pretty upright athlete with a high base, and while he could rip off some solid dribble moves out of a triple threat, it rarely resulted in north/south leverage.
Really nice finish through contact from Keegan Murray
Like the process in his attack, but definitely stands out that he struggles to move Key (who is fairly mobile to be fair) with either his burst or handle pic.twitter.com/iLyfKNU6Mu
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) May 2, 2022
This was a regularity from Murray at Iowa this past season: struggle to create separation or gain advantage with his dribble.
So when this happened early in Summer League, I was pretty impressed.
A few and-ones and a bully drive to the rim may not seem like all that much to applaud, but this felt like a night and day shift to me. He’s not getting all the way to the rim every time, but the pick-up point for Murray on drives is a good bit deeper than was typical at Iowa. With his touch and ability to finish through contact, any sort of handle or burst improvements could drastically expand his offensive upside as a play finisher and shot creator, as well as opening some doors to make live dribble playmaking reads.
I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but I feel, in retrospect, that I was too low on Murray’s ability to improve as a ball-handler. I normally am pretty low on a player’s ability to significantly increase their handle: it’s one thing to tighten it, but to find counters and viable combos that weren’t there before is not something I typically expect to happen. Player development is awesome, because it isn’t linear and players like Barnes and Murray make me scratch my head and throw my hands up in the air with a smile on my face.
I mean come on, how can you not chuckle at this?
We’re witnessing a budding shot creator test the waters, and that’s one of the most fun things in basketball. With that extra shift in his handle, Murray flexed an even deeper ability to create his own shot. He nailed step-backs and shots off of movement, getting into his bag from the mid-range, as well. Murray took less than a floater per game during his sophomore year at Iowa, and then started to break in some deep range floaters in Vegas that looked pretty good.
Testing more of that in-between game with his more refined handle is incredibly enticing when thinking about his scoring upside. The pacing and tempo are still a work in progress, as some of his drives can feel a bit on edge, but there’s real intrigue here.
I’d thought of this watching Murray at Iowa and can’t remember who I’d initially seen posit this on Twitter, but there are real shades (re: not a direct comp, there are similarities) of Danny Granger in Murray. Both are combo forwards with some very good areas of athleticism, but a few that also hold them back from being more true threes: burst and lateral quickness. They eat on easy looks that they manifest for themselves with good footwork and intuitiveness within the offense. The shot creation itself feels so similar as well, with that little bit of stiffness, but also suddenness in short areas that makes them adept at getting to one or two dribble combination pull-ups, side-steps, and step-backs.
I still would bet the house that Murray never carries primary usage, but along with his instincts and activity as a help defender, the Sacramento Kings have a player who I’d estimate to have a positive impact as a rookie and likely starter, and someone who could become a legit starting forward with star upside as the shot creation, handle, and half-court guile burgeons.
I think Jaden Ivey is going to be a star, and potentially a primary option and lead ball-handler someday, but given where the Kings are at, are headed, and what their history is, I get picking Murray. This isn’t just “Kangz gonna Kangz,” and it should not take Summer League to recognize that. He brings a great deal to be excited about while improving the present of the team, as well. That’s a difficult needle to thread. Sacramento hasn’t made the playoffs since I was in second grade. I’m 25 years old now! Murray was better than he got credit for when drafted, and based on Summer League, it’s hard not to be excited about how things are trending with him.
Murray was not the only King that made me raise my eyebrows as I watched them in Las Vegas. The offense run at Summer League embodied some of the handoff based motion principles that made them exciting immediately after they traded for Domantas Sabonis.
Damian Jones (who balled out to the tune of 13 points and six boards on 72.3 percent true shooting from March onward) departed in free agency. While second year big Neemias Queta had an erratic SL as a DHO operator and decision-maker, there were really positive glimpses of a dynamic hub who sets solid screens, gets players open, and can operate from the slots in a variety of actions. Having a player to mimic what Sabonis runs, of course to a lesser degree, could be very significant for establishing offensive continuity throughout lineups, a struggle for Sacramento last season.
I love the way Queta shifts after hand-offs. He’ll certainly have to be careful with it against heady defenders who try to draw a foul on a moving screen, but Queta is fairly good at toeing the line of legality as a screener.
It seems like a small thing, but opening himself into a potential roll and into the oncoming defender makes himself a target that his own defender has to worry about while also causing the chaser to run into a screen, fight over an extra barrier, or force the defense to switch an action altogether. If they do that, he can slip. If they switch, can he attack a mismatch? It’s a viable question now, but one worth finding out more on in the regular season. This is good stuff when searching for a capable bench big.
Let’s highlight one more guy: Keon Ellis dove for loose balls, shed screens like prime Dwight Freeney, and was a pest at the point of attack for ball-handlers. All of these are expected parts of the Keon Ellis experience.
I was pretty surprised how much offense they actually ran through Ellis, and what happens after a closeout is still a work in progress. Having said that, the shooting is for real, while he is a quality all-around defender. Ellis has a real spot in next year’s rotation, in my opinion, especially as they look to bolster what was a shoddy defense last season.
I’m not entirely sure how the pieces all fit together, but this Kings team will be better next season. I can see the vision between De’Aaron Fox and Sabonis, playing Fox more as a primary scorer than primary facilitator, using his speed in conjunction with Sabonis’ playmaking and dynamic screening to open the playbook and get funky while still being effective. I’m not at all worried about the offense between the two if Mike Brown leans into the funk: Fox averaged 28.9 points and 6.8 assists in 15 games after the Sabonis trade last season on 58.4 percent true shooting and 36 percent from deep on six attempts per game. The shooting and improvement in off-ball activity will certainly be key.
Adding in complimentary handlers and scorers in Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk moves the needle for me, but how much so is largely rooted in Fox’s two-way play. His defense has been excessively poor the past few seasons, which is a major disappointment considering how engaged he was as a defender out of the gates with Sacramento. Most players with defensive issues aren’t as much about effort as it gets made out to be, but Fox’s drawbacks are pretty squarely due to lack of engagement and attentiveness on that end. That needs to change this year, and with a coach known for his emphasis on building a defense, I would fully expect that regression to the mean.
The Kings will need to play more aggressive with Sabonis closer to the level or in a short drop to contain the ball. My guess would be that Davion Mitchell starts to emphasize the team’s renewed defensive presence, and his offensive strides were in direct correlation with more on-ball reps and ability to establish a rhythm in game. Ellis adds to that potential defensive baseline at the point of attack with Murray’s size and activity adding in positivity on backline rotations.
Will the defense be a top-10 unit? Heck no, but considering where Sacramento has been in recent years, just getting out of the bottom-10 in the rankings and being consistently active is a win in my book. This team will undoubtedly have holes in a playoff scheme, but I don’t care. When you haven’t made the playoffs since the George W. Bush administration, let’s focus on getting there first. The offense has the power to be more potent, there’s more talent throughout the roster. Young players with positive value now and moving forward will play a vital role, and Luke Walton is not head coach.
Basically, I’m excited about what the team is building. Basketball fans pretty universally clowned Kings 40 wins guy, and while I do think that is a rather optimistic win total, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities after this offseason.