The unexpected defensive growth of Keegan Murray in year two

Feb 20, 2024, 3:48 PM

Keegan Murray #13 of the Sacramento Kings defends Alex Caruso #6 of the Chicago Bulls during the fi...

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - FEBRUARY 03: Keegan Murray #13 of the Sacramento Kings defends Alex Caruso #6 of the Chicago Bulls during the first half at the United Center on February 03, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois. 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 Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

After finishing last season 24th in defensive rating (116.0), the Sacramento Kings came into 2023-24 with a clear emphasis on improving that side of the ball. With 28 games remaining post-All-Star break, unexpected defensive growth from Keegan Murray has brightened their potential.

Murray spent most of the offseason working with star point guard De’Aaron Fox, which included plenty of one-on-one matchups. When asked about the Iowa product’s progress earlier in the season, Fox was complimentary.

“I think he’s moving so much better than he did when he first got to the league,” Fox said of Keegan Murray. “I think he can be an outstanding defender. He’s 6’8, he’s long. Obviously, he can already shoot the ball, he can already do things offensively, so for us, if he can be that type of guy defensively, that’s huge for us.”

Throughout his rookie campaign, Murray would draw tough defensive assignments, but it often felt forced. His ability to make life hard on opposing scorers was only shown in sporadic instances, but, in hindsight, maybe those reps helped fast-track his growth.

When Sacramento goes into a game against the Phoenix Suns, for example, Murray is probably their best current defensive option for Devin Booker.

The same is likely true with Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves or even Stephen Curry on the Golden State Warriors.

Against the Los Angeles Lakers, he could provide some repetitions on D’Angelo Russell and LeBron James.

That’s not to say he’s been locking those caliber of players down, but it’s just about increasing their workload and effort needed for each bucket.

Realistically, the Kings’ core trio of Fox, Murray, and Domantas Sabonis is not viewed as featuring exceptional defensive talent. With center being the most influential defensive position — and Sacramento not showing any desire to play another big alongside Sabonis — it’s an uphill battle to sneak into the top of the league defensively.

Fox has also shown strides on that end, and Sabonis never lacks effort but doesn’t possess ideal physical tools to be a consistent rim deterrent. Despite that, head coach Mike Brown and his Kings ranked 18th (116.1) in defensive rating heading into the All-Star break, per NBA Stats.

The encouraging aspect of Murray’s growth centers around the long-term roster construction rather than solely this season.

General manager Monte McNair and his front office will need to continue to add defensive talent to the roster and improve on the likes of Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes, and their bench if they are going to take significant strides as a group.

But now, there’s added flexibility. While positions continue to grow extint in the modern day, which is especially true in Sacramento, where one through four are interchangeable, it’s all about whether any given lineup can guard the oppositions.

Let’s say the Kings revisited a Kyle Kuzma deal this offseason, only for Jonathan Kuminga to become available. The fact that Keegan Murray can comfortably contain guards could allow him to essentially function as a shooting guard in a lineup that features Fox, Murray, Kuzma, Kuminga, and Sabonis.

Conversely, if players like Alex Caruso and Josh Hart emerged as reasonable acquisitions, a lineup of Fox, Caruso, Hart, Murray, and Sabonis seems viable. Again, these are solely hypothetical deals and names to display the long-term flexibility Murray’s growth provides the coaching staff and front office.

Coming out of college, Murray was a known movement shooter with exceptional size at 6’8, but his potential defensive outcomes were littered with question marks.

Throughout his rookie campaign, Murray made those who questioned his off-the-dribble creation start to second-guess themselves. In year two, he’s continued that trajectory and confused his critics with exceptional defensive progress.

While no individual player can solve a team’s defensive problems, it’s an encouraging step in the right direction for McNair, Brown, and the Sacramento Kings.

When is the next Sacramento Kings game?

Sacramento will enter the All-Star break looking to rest and recover for the final stretch of the regular season.

Once the Kings return from the week-long break, they will face rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs–owner of the worst record in the Western Conference–on Thursday, February 22nd, at Golden 1 Center.

Be sure to tune in right here on Sactown Sports 1140 for all of your Kings vs. Spurs coverage, beginning at 5:30 PM PST on Game Night before a 7:00 PM PST tip-off from downtown Sacramento.

Upcoming Schedule

  • NBA All-Star break – February 15-21
  • Thursday, February 22nd – Sacramento Kings vs. San Antonio Spurs – 7:00 PM PST
  • Sunday, February 25th – Sacramento Kings @ Los Angeles Clippers – 6:30 PM PST
  • Monday, February 26th – Sacramento Kings vs. Miami Heat – 7:00 PM PST
  • Wednesday, February 28th – Sacramento Kings @ Denver Nuggets – 6:00 PM PST
  • Friday, March 1st – Sacramento Kings @ Minnesota Timberwolves – 5:00 PM PST

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