Kings coach Mike Brown, rookie Keegan Murray and free-agent acquisition KZ Okpala all met with the media following practice Wednesday, so there was a lot of talk about Sacramento’s starting power forward position.
Brown chose to start Okpala instead of Murray when the Kings beat the Los Angeles Lakers 125-95 in their preseason opener Monday at Crypto.com Arena. Murray came off the bench to score a game-high 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting with six rebounds and two steals in 21 minutes. Okpala had two points, two rebounds, one assist and one steal in 10 minutes, finishing 1 of 3 from the field and 0 of 2 from beyond the arc.
Brown’s decision came as a surprise to some given how Murray has performed since Sacramento selected him with the No. 4 pick in June’s NBA draft, but there were indications Okpala would start in the days leading up to the game. Okpala was part of a starting unit that dominated a 5-on-5 scrimmage Saturday and he was on the floor with the starters in Monday’s morning walkthrough after Brown told him he would start against the Lakers.
Brown didn’t mince words when discussing his decision. He knows Okpala well following their time together with the Nigerian national team. He believes Okpala has the potential to become an elite defensive stopper at 6-foot-8 and 215 pounds with a 7-2 wingspan, but there are certain things he must do.
“I’m watching how the group plays,” Brown said. “What I like about KZ is he’s a guy that knows he’s got to defend. He’s got to take the best player. He’s got to run. He’s got to offensive rebound. He’s got to do all the little things to free up some of our other guys to do what they do. He’s got to cut. I thought he had some cuts that led to some easy buckets for himself and his teammates. He got out and ran in transition. I thought he got in the mix for offensive rebounds. He’s got to keep trying to do that at a high level for me to continue to take a look at it, but I could easily start somebody else there right now.”
Okpala, 23, came out of Stanford as a second-round pick in the 2019 NBA draft. He signed a non-guaranteed two-year contract with the Kings after spending the past three seasons with the Miami Heat.
Okpala said starting against the Lakers was a “great honor” and a “blessing.” When asked if he had been told he will continue to start, Okpala said: “No, and I’m not worried about that whatsoever.”
Okpala said he knows what he is being asked to do and he is comfortable with the assignment.
“Real comfortable,” he said. “I know my role. Mike Brown told me my role, so I was real comfortable out there. Defense, that’s my strength, guarding the best player on the floor. And then, offensively, spacing, catch and shoot, corner 3s, cutting, offensive rebounding.”
Brown has said he will likely experiment at the shooting guard and power forward positions to find the right rotational alignment with De’Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes and Domantas Sabonis. Brown didn’t say who he plans to start at power forward when the Kings play the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday at Golden 1 Center.
Murray, 22, will receive strong consideration after shining in his preseason debut, but the 6-8, 215-pound forward is more focused on learning and adapting to NBA size, speed and physicality. He said his reps in practice have been evenly distributed between the small forward and power forward positions. Brown explained the shooting guard, small forward and power forward spots are pretty similar in his view, saying Murray is capable of playing all three, depending on defensive assignments.
“Really, our 2, 3 and 4 are all the same,” Brown said. “It’s more about, can we match up defensively? Keegan, in my opinion, can probably play the 2, 3 or 4, so his versatility on both sides of the ball is a lot of fun to see, especially with how poised he is for a young guy.”
Fans can’t wait to see more of Murray. Some are calling for him to start, but Brown seems to be handling the situation wisely. He is showing the rookie he has to earn the starting job while testing and grooming him for multiple positions, perhaps preparing the Kings for life after Harrison Barnes as the veteran forward enters the final year of his contract.
Murray is taking it all in stride. Consider his response when asked if he had any thoughts on the possibility of starting versus playing a backup role.
“If I do my job on the court, everything else will take care of itself,” Murray said. “So, for me, KZ has been playing really well and he’s a great defender, so I know that I need to learn right now and that’s the big thing for me.”