Kings' Keegan Murray taking on new role at California Classic

Second-year forward looking to take major step in year 2

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When the Kings sent out an email announcing the roster for the 2023 California Classic, the instant reaction was shock, followed by confusion.

Keegan Murray started 78 games for the Kings in his rookie season and averaged just under 30 minutes per game. This isn’t the type of player who usually sees action in the summer season.

Less than a minute into the first game, Murray took the ball coast-to-coast, rose up over Gui Santos, and spiked the ball on his head with authority.

New season. New Keegan Murray.

This is the point of bringing the No. 4 overall pick from the 2022 NBA Draft to summer league. He has more to his game and it is up to the Kings to pull it out of him. The goal in summer league is to challenge the 22-year-old forward to be more than he was last season and maybe even more than he ever thought he could be.

“I’m just trying to get in uncomfortable situations out on the floor,” Murray said during his postgame media session. “That’s kind of my main goal, bringing the ball up the court against pressure, handling the ball more and things like that.”

This is an intriguing statement. Murray avoided the uncomfortable in year one, almost to a fault. You can see his talent. You can also see that he is holding back and acquiescing to his veteran teammates.

That is okay as a rookie. It might even be acceptable to a lesser degree as a sophomore, but there is so much untapped potential and the Kings see it maybe more than anyone else.

“Keegan just exploded in one of these scrimmages, scoring 17 or 19 straight points, everyone in the gym…it was almost, like, silent,” summer league head coach Luke Loucks said. “Everyone could just feel how good he is.”

Loucks went on to say that one of the team’s scouts who was in the building compared Murray’s potential rise in year two to the one that Kawhi Leonard took back in 2012-13.

“It wasn’t that Keegan is Kawhi or Kawhi is Keegan, but the step from rookie season, like oh, we’ve got a pretty good rookie, to like, holy smokes, this guy can be exceptional,” Loucks said. “I think we’re all seeing it as an organization, we’re feeling it, but we’re also pushing him to believe in that. I think he’s feeling it and he’s also embracing it, like, okay, if you guys want me to take this next step, I’m going to do it.”

This is incredibly high praise, but it’s also the general feeling around Murray since the Kings selected him in the draft. From the moment the Kings handed in the draft card to commissioner Adam Silver, the Iowa star has been untouchable in the eyes of the front office.

Murray dropped in 29 points in the opener in Sacramento, although you shouldn’t look all that much into the numbers. He is one of the most talented players in the field, which includes 2023 No. 2 overall pick Brandon Miller. As a second year player, you expect this type of production.

The key is that Murray has taken on a leadership role and he’s pushing himself to be better. He is already visibly bigger than last season, putting on eight pounds since the end of the season. He’s also more comfortable in his own skin, which he credits partially to his time spent this offseason with All-Star De’Aaron Fox.

“He’s there for guidance this whole summer,” Murray said. “He’s just helping me get out of my shell a little bit, to get into uncomfortable situations. He’s been really good to me through these first two months we’ve worked together. Not many guys are around in their cities working out with the team, so I’m just glad that he’s been here this summer and took me into his hands.”

Fox may be the perfect life coach for Murray. While brash and confident as a young player, Fox has always been on the introverted side. They aren’t the same type of introverts, but having someone that you can talk to and help pull you out of your comfort zone is a plus.

Social media has given us a glimpse into the relationship that is building between Murray and Fox, which includes plenty of Uncle Keegan time with Fox’s young son Reign. There is a family vibe that is building in Sacramento and even young players can fit into that world.

Murray wasn’t perfect in his debut. He shot 8-of-17 from the field and turned the ball over a couple of times. There was also the issue of his one rebound in 31 minutes of action, which Loucks mentioned in his post game conversation.

“I did challenge him at halftime, he only had one rebound at halftime, I wrote it on the board, I said ‘you only have one rebound, can you please help us rebound’” Loucks said. “And he went out and got zero in the second half.”

Not every message will take right away and rebounding is something that the Kings may not really want Murray to go all in on during the summer session. There are a lot of players trying to make a big impression. The lane can get crowded with out of control high flyers and players giving extra effort.

The key to this summer is for Murray to get confident with doing more. Expectations in year two are rising and he needs to take ownership, like the leaders on the Kings’ roster.

“For all of those moments from Keegan, we ask a lot of him, just like coach [Mike] Brown asks a lot from Fox and [Domantas] Sabonis,” Loucks said. “When you’re a key part of our organization, we’re going to demand a lot out of you and I think that at every notch that we’ve asked something for Keegan to do, he’s put a smile on his face, or kinda half smile, because he doesn’t know how to smile, and he’s gone out and done it.”

This is the process the Kings are going with. Murray is the leader of the summer league squad, at least in Sacramento. There is no early word as to whether he will venture to Las Vegas and continue with the team there.

The Kings’ 100-94 win was all about Murray, but there were a few other bright spots. Local product Jordan Ford scored 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field, including three makes from long range.

Rookie Colby Jones came off the bench to add 12 points, five rebounds and two steals. He struggled as a primary ball handler, but that is what summer league is about. The team may continue to push this idea and see if he can respond.

Neemias Queta struggled early, but bounced back to drop an 11-point, 1-rebound, three-block double-double. His seven fouls were an issue, although most of those came in the first half. He also posted a team-best +15 in the plus/minus category.

Third-year forward Kessler Edwards has been in Sacramento working out with Fox and Murray as well this summer. He didn’t have a great start to the summer league schedule, missing all seven of his 3-point attempts. He still managed to score 10 points, grab four rebounds and pick up four steals. Most of his buckets came off of steals and transition finishes.

Lastly, Loucks, in his first shot at running a team in summer league, was composed, funny and even had a touching moment when his two young daughters stormed the stage for a photo op. Loucks is an up-and-coming coach who could find himself moving up quickly if the Kings continue to have team success.

The Kings return to the court on Wednesday for their second and final game of the California Classic against the Heat. They’ll take off on Thursday for Las Vegas where they have games scheduled for Friday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

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