How Kings rookie Keegan Murray is dealing with high expectations coming into NBA debut

One of Keegan Murray’s first tests since the Kings drafted him fourth overall over the summer didn’t come on a basketball court. It came on a ping-pong table.

“I’m not even good at ping-pong,” Murray said Monday at Kings’ media day, his unofficial introduction alongside other players before Tuesday’s start of training camp. “I just make the other players make the mistake.”

Murray and his new Kings teammates put together an informal ping-pong tournament at an offseason gathering. The group had been working out at the team’s facility, playing pickup games, working out and getting to know one another before the rigorous start of the season.

Murray, despite saying he’s no good at table tennis, made it to the championship round of the tournament. His opponent was Matthew Dellavadova, the veteran point guard vying for a roster spot after signing a nonguaranteed contract in July.

“And Delly ended up being really good at ping-pong,” Murray said. “I got to the championship and he beat me like 21-2. It was rough.”

Things had not been so rough for Murray over the last 12 months.

This time last year, he was preparing for his sophomore season at Iowa after averaging 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game as a freshman bench player. His numbers in Year 2 jumped to 23.5 points and 8.7 rebounds while shooting 55% from the floor and nearly 40% from 3-point range. He was arguably the best college basketball player in the country. Of course, that meteoric rise led to him becoming the No. 4 overall pick by Sacramento in June.

And then Murray was named the MVP of Las Vegas Summer League — and was recently named the No. 95-ranked player on ESPN’s Top 100, joining top overall draft pick Paolo Banchero as the only rookies on the list.

All of which raised the expectations for the guy who received only one scholarship offer out of high school and opted to play at a postgraduate program, DME Academy, in Daytona Beach, Florida, before landing at Iowa.

In some ways, the promise of Murray is a double-edged sword. All the signs from the last 12 months point to a strong start to his NBA career. But his back story indicates he’s never been burdened with expectations at any level, unlike most NBA prospects who become the big men on college campuses as soon as they arrive, long before turning pro.

Now Murray’s saddled with helping the Kings end the longest playoff drought in league history lasting 16 seasons.

Sacramento Kings rookie Keegan Murray during media day on Monday at Golden 1 Center.
Sacramento Kings rookie Keegan Murray during media day on Monday at Golden 1 Center.

“For me, it’s just being myself, keeping my circle small, being with people that I know will benefit me rather than put me down,” Murray said. “So that’s really helped me a lot. And I know that feeling that I had a couple years ago when I wasn’t getting recruited for college, just knowing that feeling and how I felt at that point, just leading me to believing in myself.

“No matter if it’s I have a down game, or if I have a positive game, just keeping that same mindset and that same hunger inside of me.”

A theme from Murray’s teammates on Monday was about helping him through shared experiences and influences. Harrison Barnes, the 11-year veteran who is from Iowa, like Murray, was one of the first people to reach out after Murray was drafted. Barnes was an acclaimed prospect out of North Carolina who landed with the Golden State Warriors as the No. 7 pick in 2012, well before the team won its first championship in 2015.

Barnes mentioned learning from veterans such as Andrew Bogut, Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack, Richard Jefferson and David Lee about how to handle an 82-game schedule and cross-country travel while maintaining an even keel. Barnes, a decade and 747 games later, is the resident old head on Sacramento’s roster who’s embracing the role of mentor for Murray, like star guard Stephen Curry did when Barnes was first getting his NBA indoctrination.

“I was always right next to him,” Barnes said. “He always just welcomed me with open arms, let me jump in on anything I wanted to do, whether it was his workouts or whatever. I definitely learned a lot from those guys. They helped me through the rookie-year struggles, second-year struggles, right? Just how to adjust, how to play, balancing work, rest, all those type of things you just try to get the hang of playing your first 82.”

Kent Bazemore, the reserve swing man back for his second stint with the team since the pandemic shortened 2019-2020 campaign, has been with five NBA teams over his 10 NBA seasons. The Kings, along with the Warriors, are the second team he’s had a second stint with. He was attractive to the Kings as a possible depth piece but also a strong veteran presence in the locker room whose perspective could help the team’s young players, Murray included.

Bazemore was asked about about common threads he’s seen from young players that’s been pivotal in having successful NBA careers.

“Just the willingness to accept where they are at that time. And understand that your success isn’t going to be predicated on your first year in the NBA. It’s a long road,” Bazemore said.

Like Barnes, Bazemore mentioned Curry unprovoked by a question. Bazemore was a rookie with the Warriors during Curry’s third NBA season. Curry only appeared in 26 games that year because of ankle issues leading many to wonder if he would have a successful career. According to Bazemore, Curry’s long-term focus helped him overcome short-term obstacles.

“If he were to (put) all his eggs in that basket his third year in the league, like it’s make or break, then he wouldn’t be the player he is today,” Bazemore said of Curry. “So a lot of patience comes with it. There’s so much you got to learn. ... taking your bumps and bruises, paying your dues, and being in the ten-toes-down-every-day feeling, ups and downs and what it actually feels like, and just continue to build, you can play as long as you want.”

Those lessons should serve Murray well as he wades into his NBA career. They might also help him steadily improve at ping-pong.