The Kings may very well regret passing on Purdue’s Jaden Ivey with the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft. But I don’t think they will.
Many argued Ivey was the best player available when Sacramento was on the clock, the most athletic player in the draft and the guard with the most upside in the class.
If you subscribe to drafting the best player available and figuring everything out later — a perfectly acceptable draft strategy, in most cases — it fails to recognize one of the Kings’ great weaknesses. In their record-long, 16-year playoff drought, Sacramento has shown it time and again: The Kings aren’t good at figuring things out later.
So, yes, Ivey might become an All-Star with the Detroit Pistons, who took Ivey one spot after Sacramento’s pick at No. 4. Maybe he’ll become the next Ja Morant or Russell Westbrook. He might join the long list of elite talents the Kings have passed over, like Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
But I’m here to argue that Sacramento made the right pick in Iowa swing man Keegan Murray.
Because sometimes the best outcome is more important than finding the best available player. And the outcome here is Sacramento landed a prospect with versatility and maturity, two of the most important ingredients to having success in the playoffs, which is the point of this whole thing.
In Ivey, there would have been another roster log jam at guard, leaving the Kings to handle a tricky situation with De’Aaron Fox, who hasn’t proven he can excel with another ball-dominant player in the back court. Fox was noticeably worse when he had to share ball handling duties with Tyrese Haliburton before Haliburton was traded in February.
Murray, a 6-foot-8 forward with a complete offensive game, represents what’s important to winning. He can guard multiple positions and won’t be a liability on either end of the floor.
When the stakes are highest, those are the players you want. The guys who have to be guarded from distance and can switch on to smaller players defensively are the ones that help most in May and June. Or in the Kings’ case, maybe late April. Even with Morant now a star for the Grizzlies, Memphis was 3.2 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor last season because he was a liability on the defensive end.
Murray can shoot from 3. He made 40% of his shots from beyond the arc last season with the Hawkeyes. He already has the foundation to defend, evident by his 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals per game. Sacramento should hope he becomes their version of Al Horford or Pascal Siakam, a pair of two-way players who have been key cogs in deep playoff runs because of their two-way versatility. New Kings coach Mike Brown, a defensive specialist, should be thrilled the team prioritized defense with this selection.
No matter how fans or internet prognosticators feel about Ivey, McNair’s messaging is pretty clear. He, along with the rest of his staff, believe Murray was the best player available at No. 4, leaving the Kings to argue there was no decision about fit when it came to choosing between Murray and Ivey.
“Our approach is (to draft) the best player available,” McNair said. “I think at the end of the day, with fourth pick, after exploring all our options, we felt extremely comfortable that the best player available was Keegan Murray.
“...Obviously Keegan is an extremely well-rounded player, a two-way player, one of the most prolific scorers in the country. Blocks, steals, rebounds, he impacts the game in so many ways. We talk about versatility, somebody who can play inside and out on offense, somebody who can guard multiple positions on the defensive end, and somebody who was one of the best players on one of the best teams in the country all year long.”
Ivey has star potential, sure. But in college he wasn’t as efficient on the offensive end (57.9 true shooting percentage compared to Murray’s 63.8). Murray averaged 23.5 points per game last season to Ivey’s 17.3. And Murray added 8.7 rebounds, which should help Sacramento, whose 33.3 defensive rebounds per game ranked eighth-worst in the NBA.
But here’s the real issue with drafting Ivey and figuring it out later. Many of Ivey’s attributes — a combo guard who can score, isn’t a great 3-point shooter or defender — are similar to a player on the books for $30 to $37 million over the next four seasons: Fox.
The idea the Kings should draft Ivey and figure out what to do with Fox later are missing a significant part of the equation. The remaining $135 million over the next four seasons on Fox’s contract make him just about impossible to trade right now. So the Kings would have been stuck with another surplus of guards, like they had with Haliburton and Fox last season, leaving Fox and Ivey to figure things out.
Maybe they would have, but what team has succeeded deep into the playoffs with two lead ball-handlers who struggle to shoot from distance and defend? Teams that didn’t have that problem: the Warriors, Suns, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Heat, 76ers, Bucks and Celtics (the eight teams that appeared in the conference semifinals this spring). Versatile wings are the most valuable assets in the NBA and that gets proven every year in the postseason.
Murray is both a better fit than Ivey and helps the Kings in the short term, which is crucial given the long playoff drought and the fact general manager Monte McNair’s contract is up after 2023. Murray can slide into the starting power forward slot, which was occupied by Chimezi Metu and Trey Lyles throughout last season and develop unencumbered.
This pick is safe. Murray might not have the upside of Ivey, but he falls in line with what wins in the NBA come playoff time. That should be the Kings’ prerogative, and apparently it is.
“Ultimately,” McNair said, “after sitting in the room with my front office staff, our scouting department, our analytics department, it became unanimous that Keegan Murray was the best player available and we jumped at the chance to select him.”