Keegan Murray wins ROTM, Kings facing decisions, Neemias Queta situation

Murray wins Western Conference Rookie of the Month

With team success, comes individual accolades.

This is a mantra the Kings have had throughout the season, with players like De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis focused on the playoffs and not potential All-Star bids.

On Monday afternoon, Sabonis was named a nominee for Western Conference Player of the Week, although he lost out to Dallas’ Luka Doncic, who was more than deserving of the award. On Tuesday, Sabonis was also named as a nominee for the Western Conference Player of the Month award, which once again went to Doncic.

While Sabonis missed out, Kings rookie Keegan Murray did not. The 22-year-old forward was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for December after posting 12.7 points and 3.5 rebounds while shooting 46 percent from the field and 46.4 from behind the arc in 28.6 minutes per game.

This was the first Rookie of the Month award for Murray and it helps with his bid for an invite to the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star weekend. Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero earned the Eastern Conference award.

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Decisions looming

The Kings have a couple of tough decisions regarding their roster in the coming days. January 10 is the date that all NBA contracts become guaranteed for the year, which means that Kings general manager Monte McNair has some work to do.

Sacramento currently has three players on non-guaranteed contracts for the season including Matthew Dellavedova, KZ Okpala and Chima Moneke.

After being out of the league last season, Dellavedova was a surprise invite to camp and an even a bigger surprise when he made the roster coming out of camp. The veteran has a $2.6 million salary this season, which he will have earned roughly half of by the time the Jan. deadline comes around.

Dellavedova has been solid in limited minutes this season. He’s played in 15 games for Sacramento, averaging 1.2 points and 1.7 assists in 6.7 minutes per contest. He’s a steady hand and a luxury to have in case Fox or Davion Mitchell miss time.

Okpala has been on a rollercoaster ride all season for the Kings. He started the first three games of the season, but also has 11 DNP-CDs on his record. His defense has earned him spot time over 23 games this season and at 23 years old, he has potential for improvement on the offensive end.

The Kings traded away both of their second round picks this season and instead chose to sign Moneke from overseas. The UC Davis alum has played almost exclusively in the G League, where he is averaging 17.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game. He is an energy wing with the ability to defend three or four positions.

McNair can keep all three if he so chooses. He can also decide to waive one or more to free up a roster spot for the trade deadline. Sacramento is likely to remain aggressive as they look to make their push for the postseason and continue to reshape their roster.

This isn’t a financial question as much as it is a roster flexibility issue. All three players bring something to the table for the Kings, whether it’s at the NBA or G League level. McNair has two trade exceptions that expire between now and February 8, a $4 million exception from the Tyrese Haliburton trade and another $1.6 million from the Marvin Bagley trade last year.

For more on this discussion, check in on latest edition of The Kings Beat Podcast where we go over this issue at great length.

Queta Quandary

Welcome to the complex world of the NBA.

Neemias Queta might be a little confused about where he stands in the grand scheme of the league and more specifically, the Kings’ rotation. Then again, the team has been pretty transparent with the 7-foot giant about what it will take for him to get to the league and stick.

For the last two weeks, Queta has been with the parent club, jumping in and out of the rotation and missing time gaining valuable experience at the G League level. After seeing time in three straight games, including a season-high 11 minutes in the Kings’ win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 21, Queta has sat on the bench four straight games without seeing a minute of court time.

As a two-way player, Queta is allowed to be active in up to 50 games with the NBA squad. While we don’t have a number right now, he’s likely 10+ games into that number, although he’s only played in four total contests.

Fans saw glimpses of what the 23-year-old center can do in the win over the Lakers. Queta scored a season-high 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting, including some monster dunks, but even in his breakout performance, he struggled with foul issues and corralling rebounds.

In his next game out against the Washington Wizards, the Kings were outscored 13-5 over a span of four minutes between the late first and early second quarter. While it wasn’t all on Queta, he looked out of sorts and hasn’t been seen since.

Head coach Mike Brown has searched for a reliable backup center to play spot minutes behind Sabonis. He’s tried Richaun Holmes, Chimezie Metu and Alex Len, in addition to the short stint from Queta.

“I am searching,” Brown said back on Dec. 20. “That’s why I gave Neemy an opportunity and guys just have to stay ready. When we get somebody that we feel like can give us consistent minutes in that spot, we’ll roll with them until we think that spot’s not producing.”

Brown has been very clear about what he is looking for from the position, which is the reason why he’s had such a quick hook with one center after another.

“I know for sure I can’t have that spot not bring energy, because it’s not a ton of minutes,” Brown further explained. “I know for sure that spot cannot, not rebound. I know for sure that spot cannot foul 2-3 fouls in the matter of six minutes.”

Playing behind Sabonis is a tall task for anyone. He is an All-NBA quality player who is posting one of his best seasons in his career. The Kings run the ball through him on the offensive end and he’s responded by helping the team rank in the top seven in NBA offenses.

None of the Kings’ reserve centers can match what Sabonis does, which has been a huge problem for the team all season. Queta, with his ability to clear out space with his screens and his developing ability to pass the ball, is a logical fit, but he needs time to mature his game.

Unfortunately for Queta, the Kings’ playoff aspirations this season have Brown and his staff looking for instant answers. The team is already bringing along a young player in Murray. They have been willing to live through some of Murray’s mistakes, but we are also talking about the No. 4 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft who happens to play a spot on the floor the team isn’t particularly deep at.

Brown’s job is to put Queta in a position to succeed. Playing him against Joel Embiid for his first minutes of the season wasn’t exactly fair. Queta lasted two minutes and 22 seconds against the MVP candidate and picked up three fouls. Starting him against two-time NBA reigning MVP Nikola Jokic when Sabonis was out for a night wouldn’t have been fair either, so Brown went with a veteran in Len.

The plan has always been for Queta to play major minutes in Stockton this season, but the struggles of veteran players ahead of him have forced Brown’s hand. With Queta falling out of the rotation again in Sacramento, there will likely be a time when the Kings send him back down to Stockton. For now, especially with Sabonis limited in practice, this is an opportunity for the second-year big man to get experience learning and playing with NBA players.

Whether he is seeing court time or not, Queta is gaining a different kind of experience. The Kings have so many different types of centers on the roster and Queta is getting an opportunity to play against each of them on a regular basis behind the scenes at practice.

There is value in learning to defend an All-Star player in Sabonis, as well as a 7-foot-1 physical player like Len, a pick-and-roll specialist like Holmes and a rangy athlete like Metu. Queta will not face this same level of talent on a night-to-night basis at the G League level.

The Kings also have a much larger coaching and training staff than their G League affiliate, so Queta isn’t just sitting around wasting time when he is with the parent club in Sacramento.

Queta is in his second season with the Kings after being selected with the 39th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. If the Kings extend a qualifying offer this summer, they will retain restricted free agent status for him next year as well.

It should be added that Len and Metu are both free agents this summer. Sabonis has one more year on his contract and Holmes has two more seasons after this year. The dynamics at this position could change quickly between now and the February 9 NBA trade deadline, and certainly following the season.

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