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Keegan Murray Changes Everything

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 16: Keegan Murray #13 of the Sacramento Kings (2nd L) reacts with teammates after making a three-point basket in the third quarter U at Golden 1 Center on December 16, 2023 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Days after Keegan Murray's record-breaking heater against the Utah Jazz, as emphatic of a breakout performance as you'll see all season and one that we will get to shortly, I'm still thinking about a moment from almost exactly one year ago that helped me understand Murray's deal more than any before or since.

Murray gets coached harder than any of his Sacramento Kings teammates. His pregame run-throughs with Kings assistant Dutch Gaitley are notably intense, he's been pushed by Gaitley and Doug Christie relentlessly this season on micro-techniques like closing out with his left hand high instead of his right; even his eye-popping highlights get him razzed by his teammates. Mike Brown calls him out more than anyone else, like when he screamed "Shoot the fucking ball!" at Murray after he passed up a three.

The moment I'm thinking of came in early January, after a heinous 136-134 loss to the then-unfixed Lakers, when Murray shot 4-for-5 from three yet failed to grab a single rebound. Brown stepped to the podium and ripped his team, specifically calling out Murray. He allowed that, yes, Murray was an elite shooter, but he wondered what his second-best skill was. So Murray responded by grabbing 10 boards against the Lakers a week later, then 14 against OKC, and doubling his per game average up to about seven for a while. In his team's most important win of the season in San Francisco months later, Murray played 45 minutes at the four and led the team with 12 boards.

Murray later explained that he was relying on Domantas Sabonis, the league's leading rebounder, to clean the glass. But after Brown "lit a fire under" him, Murray decided to simply start hitting the boards, to great effect. Murray was starting for a three-seed as a rookie, and though he was content to mostly space the floor and fill in the gaps around his two All-NBA teammates, Brown called Murray out because he knew that he could do more; the rookie proved his coach right pretty much instantly. A similar situation played out when Brown asked him to attack the rim. This was when it clicked for me that Murray has it in him to play like the do-everything, all-around wing star he was at Iowa, in the NBA. Once his team demanded he become that sort of player, he graciously acquiesced.

Ironic, then, that after a year spent mostly shooting threes and not doing much else, Murray started off his sophomore season by doing everything else at a significantly higher level while seemingly forget how to shoot the ball. He has an 0-for-7 night from deep this season, he was shooting 28 percent on 7.2 three-point attempts per game before tweaking his back in November; he rounded into this past weekend on two straight games without a made triple. Meanwhile, Murray has doubled his drives per game, and has started to shoot a little one-legged fadeaway. A summer spent playing one-on-one with De'Aaron Fox everyday prepared him for the surprising role of point-of-attack defensive ace, putting in elite performances on Donovan Mitchell and Steph Curry and standing out in the advanced metrics as one of the best wing defenders in the NBA. That's great, but the Kings are down to 14th in offense this season after finishing with the most efficient offense in league history last season, and as otherworldly as Fox has been, the team's only truly scary when the shooters are clicking. When would the fully realized version of Keegan Murray show up?

The answer: Saturday, when Murray dropped 47 points on the Jazz, a career-high tally that included an NBA-record 11 straight makes and a Klay Thompson-esque 26 in the third quarter. He also grabbed eight boards, forced six turnovers, and somehow broke all manner of franchise records without once ever disrupting the flow of the Kings offense (which was also missing Fox) to seek out his opportunities. The highlights are at once spectacular and staid; there's Murray getting a simple handoff from Sabonis and nestling into the gap to pull it, there he is filling the lane and taking the open three in transition, there's a little give-and-go for a dunk. Because this is Murray, one of the most deadpan players in the league, the one real moment of sizzle was when he jab-stepped Taylor Hendricks off him and nailed the standstill three to end the third quarter.

The timing of the 47-pointer was as serendipitous as possible, as trade rumors began to intensify last week about the Kings' desire for one of the Raptors' wings and Toronto's coeval interest in Murray. James Ham reported that Murray was untouchable, though the counterfactual that the current front office flipped Tyrese Haliburton two seasons ago makes that report somewhat difficult to trust. Sacramento was 14-9 before the Utah blowout, though their point differential was bad—by my math, six of the nine losses can fairly be called shitkickings—and the struggles of Murray, Harrison Barnes, and Kevin Huerter all at the same time, while Fox was playing like a top-10 player, made the need for a wing upgrade after a quiet summer seem increasingly urgent.

It seems less urgent now. While Murray won't shoot like this every night, you can see the vision: the clearest path for the Kings to become something more than a frisky team that gives someone a hard time in first round is for Murray to play like an all-star. That's an extremely high bar, especially with the league in this cutthroat state of hypercompetitivity, but also totally attainable given how much Murray can do. In typically droll Murray fashion, he spent his post-game interviews dryly praising his teammates, who spent the game yelling at him to smile and joshing him on the bench.

The Kings are 16-1 when Murray scores 20 or more points, and if he's going to defend one-through-four, shoot 40 percent from three (he shot 41 last year and raised this season's percentage by six points on Saturday, up to 35.7), and make meaningful contributions across the board, everything changes for them. That's a lot of pressure for a second-year player, but starting for a 48-win team and having to play the four-time champions in the playoffs was, too. Murray was ready then, and he's steady enough that you have to believe he'll be ready in the future. "Two, three, four years from now: Whoa," Brown said on Saturday. "You're going to really see something out of this young man."

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