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Jaden Ivey or Keegan Murray? Sacramento Kings’ NBA Draft decision is anything but simple

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Kings introduced Mike Brown as their new head coach on Tuesday afternoon. Several players attended. He cracked jokes about locking Doug Christie up in college, used his purple dress shirt to signify his color-coded excitement about joining the Kings and reminded those assembled of his title experience when mentioning the desire to get a fifth NBA championship ring for his thumb.

Click here for some video highlights. Brown and the Kings seem to be enjoying the honeymoon stage of this partnership.

But franchise-defining decisions are coming quickly. The first major personnel move of the Brown era arrives on Thursday night. The Kings have the fourth pick in the draft. Brown isn’t making the selection. General manager Monte McNair is. But Brown’s arrival matters within Sacramento’s evolving equation.

Wipe away past context, and the most calculated team-builders would suggest the Kings, a perpetual lottery team, use the fourth pick on talent over fit, regardless of their current roster. Find the likeliest future all-star, no matter readiness or position, and call it in. Then, deliver that rookie as much patience and opportunity as possible without worrying that he might be inefficient immediately.

But decisions aren’t made separate from the situation. The Kings, organizationally, aren’t exactly hiding their insatiable win-now desires. They are desperate to end that NBA record 16-year playoff drought. Just read the string of moves that led up to the Brown hiring.

  • They flipped Tyrese Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis days before the 2022 trade deadline sped up the timeline. Sabonis is four years older with four fewer years of theoretical contract control. Sabonis is two years from unrestricted free agency. Haliburton is entering the third season of his rookie deal. Choosing Sabonis over Haliburton reset the priorities and set the ‘or else’ alarm clock on building a winner a whole lot sooner.
  • They held onto Harrison Barnes at the deadline. He has one season and a reasonable $18.3 million left on his deal. Contenders would love to have a player of his caliber and would surely give up a future asset to acquire him. But Barnes still helps this version of the Kings, and has stuck around because slashing next season’s roster to aid the long-term isn’t the stated strategy. Brown mentioned Barnes as an internal leader at his introductory press conference.
  • McNair and assistant general manager Wes Wilcox only have one season left on their current contracts. That doesn’t grant time for a patient rebuild. The obvious edict from Vivek Ranadive and his ownership group is more urgent.

Which leads to the hiring of Brown as head coach. He’s a highly respected candidate who may have held the most desirable, stable and lucrative assistant coaching position in the NBA. It doesn’t get much better than tenured associate head coach and defensive coordinator of the defending champs, having just won a third title in the same location.

Brown doesn’t leave the Warriors to step into the early stages of a tear down. He is being hired at a premium price to jolt Sacramento’s defense to life, unlock the De’Aaron Fox-Sabonis pairing and establishing a winning culture around them. To do that — to secure at least a Play-In spot his first season — he needs the best supporting cast the Kings can field. You can doubt the roster talent or plan, but the franchise intentions appear transparent.

That must all be taken into account leading into Thursday’s draft. Experts have tiered this group of prospects in a challenging way for the Kings. The consensus top three are Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith Jr. and Paulo Banchero. If the Magic, Thunder or Rockets surprise and grab anyone different, it would clarify the Kings’ decision. Any of those three fit well. Holmgren profiles as a perfect pick-and-pop rim protector next to Sabonis. Banchero is a scoring power forward who could be groomed under Sabonis and experimented next to him. Smith might have the readiest 3-and-D complementary skill set in the draft with the potential to develop into more.

But let’s assume the first three picks go chalk. Most experts have Purdue’s Jaden Ivey pegged as the fourth-best talent in the draft. Some have him edging into that top tier. He’s an explosive combo guard with a quick first step and overall offensive package — jetpack to the rim, effective finisher, capable in the floater range, shakier the further that jumper backs out toward the 3-point line — that’ll remind you plenty of Fox.

Which is kind of the issue. Haliburton is more of a complementary talent, and even he and Fox seemed to find the backcourt dance difficult to navigate, especially once Davion Mitchell, another young combo guard selected ninth last offseason, entered the picture. Fox had a down season, but took off again the moment Haliburton departed, Sabonis arrived as a pick-and-roll partner and the ball was back in his hands regularly.

Drafting Ivey and placing him next to Fox would reintroduce backcourt bumper cars with the stakes even higher. It’s something Ivey and his representatives seem to acknowledge. He made headlines on Monday when he told a group of reporters he hadn’t yet had contact with Sacramento in the pre-draft process and, in the mildest of ways, said landing with the Kings “wouldn’t be the worst option.”

The Kings’ recent past includes a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when making a fit-over-talent draft selection. They infamously selected Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic in 2018, in part because Bagley didn’t play Fox’s position. Will that painful experience deter them from making the same mistake again?

Ivey’s first step and on-ball talent is tantalizing. If the Kings’ scouts believe an eventual perennial all-star lies within, they should jump and worry about fit later. He made enough of his catch-and-shoot jumpers a season ago (34.8 percent) to theoretically believe he could find a role early in his career as a second-side slasher and occasional spot-up threat working off of Fox and Sabonis.

This would be the vision of it working at its best — Ivey cutting off ball for a dunk from a passing big man and spotted up on the opposite wing for a catch-and-shoot.

Then there is the transition burst. If the pairing with Fox clicks, the Kings would have the makings of an electric offensive identity, sprinting off every miss or steal. They’d probably be the fastest backcourt in basketball.

But those are cherry-picked highlights. Ivey would need time and loads of offensive opportunity to develop, and that doesn’t expect to be awaiting next season in Sacramento. The same would be true Shaedon Sharpe, the other high-risk, high-ceiling prospect likely available at the fourth pick.

That’s why Keegan Murray’s name continues to be connected to the Kings. Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reported Murray’s extensive meeting with the Kings included a dinner with Fox and Sabonis. That’s notable.

Any roster built around the Fox and Sabonis pairing needs versatile defenders who can shoot the 3. That’s where both Fox and Sabonis are lacking. Neither have developed into a plus-level defender, and neither shoot the 3 with consistency. They need space around their dynamic pick-and-roll game and teammates to protect their flaws on the other end, especially in a Mike Brown defensive system.

Mitchell is a perimeter hound. Barnes, assuming he returns, is a capable wing who can shoot and guard. But elite NBA defensive units have multiple wings who can check several positions. That’s where the Kings are lacking. The fourth pick is their most valuable route to bolster that wing depth this summer, whether they use it or trade it.

Murray profiles as the readiest candidate likely available at four. He is a polished scorer who led the Big 10 in points last season. He will turn 22 before next season, a drawback to some, but not something that deterred the Kings’ front office from selecting the older Mitchell a draft ago.

Murray is listed at 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. He doesn’t have elite quickness and may struggle to become a leading offensive option in the league, but he shoots it well (39.8 percent from 3 last season), was one of the most efficient post players in the country and gets out in transition comfortably.

On the defensive side, he had impressive steal and block numbers (1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals per game), which tends to be an strong indicator of NBA-level athleticism. He should be positionally versatile enough to work in various lineups around Sabonis and Fox. Here is a full Murray scouting report from Adam Spinella.

There are several other paths and trade options that have or will be put in front of McNair before the Kings are on the clock Thursday night. But our Shams Charania reported that they are becoming “increasingly comfortable” with the idea of using the fourth pick to add to the current core.

If so, a decision between Ivey and Murray seems to be the emerging choice, and an outside read of the situation hints at Murray. We will see Thursday night.


Related reading

Amick: Mike Brown isn’t ignoring the challenge ahead with Kings

(Top photo of Jaden Ivey: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)

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