Kris Murray Is Entering The NBA On His Own Terms

It was nearly three months into his junior year at the University of Iowa, and four games into his basketball season, when it hit Kris Murray that he was on his own. The Hawkeyes breezed through three blowout wins, but the matchup against Seton Hall was the first road game and started closer than the others. It didn’t stay that way.

With early emphasis on controlling the pace and unhurried shots from way, way out, Murray spearheaded a decisive run to close out the first half of the game, and came away from the 83-67 win with 29 points and 11 rebounds.

Recalling it over the phone a little under a week out from the NBA Draft, Murray’s memory of that night is crisp. He called the game a “coming out party.” Not because the atmosphere was especially electric — though Hawkeyes fans are known to travel loyally and far — but because the role he was stepping into was his own, out of the shadow of his twin brother and current Sacramento Kings player, Keegan Murray.

“That game solidified everything I’d worked for, why I came back, and gave me confidence going into the rest of the season,” Kris says.

It was, for Murray, the introduction he craved when he made the decision to defer from the NBA Draft the year before. That decision, to some, came as an act of support for a sibling, an effort to let Keegan take the full attention of vying teams in the Draft. To others it was a surprise — why not capitalize on the intriguing story of gifted twin brothers, fresh from a Big Ten championship? To Murray, it wasn’t that complicated.

“I wanted to make a name for myself,” he says. “Going back, I had a chance to do that.”

Though basketball had galvanized for both Murray brothers during their time at Florida’s DME Academy prior to college, Murray says he had “kind of a slow start to his basketball career.” Given the certainties of his length and ability, he believed he had the chance of making it to the NBA. Still, some of that skill-set had been bound to what his brother did on the floor. Playmaking, for one, tended toward one regular outlet — “My default was to pass to Keegan, because that’s how we always played,” he says — and his minutes, as a bench player, were limited. Scratching at the surface of that, it’s not hard to place yourself in Murray’s shoes, wondering what the space of an extra year could bring with it. He knew he could get better.

That game in New Jersey gave Murray, and everybody else who was watching, a pretty good idea.

As a starter, Murray’s minutes obviously shot up, and he took to the floor like an explorer. He pushed himself further into the areas of the game he’d done well in as a freshman and sophomore, like his aptitude as a playmaker, while stepping into new territory, like a real comfort with physicality and scoring from everywhere.

“It really picked up steam toward the end,” Murray says of the growth to his game, and the momentum he felt kicking in to his aforementioned slow start.

Murray credits the support every Iowa team gives each other, across all sports, for an atmosphere of community and excitement, one shared in the pride of fans and the city itself. He often, and fondly, refers to himself as an “Iowa kid.” It’s clear that sticking around had a lot to do with how personally meaningful his college years were to him, and that they got to play out so close to home.

“Playing three years at Iowa has probably been the most fun part of my life, so far,” Murray says, when asked why the last year was so meaningful. “Being able to put on that jersey every single day, going through the tunnel — maybe not the COVID year but the last two years. I’ve met a lot of great people along the way, on and off the court in Iowa. I’m just grateful for everything that university gave me.”

In his junior year, Murray started all 29 games in which he appeared, but nothing about his game grew hurried. He was as unruffled crashing the glass for defensive rebounds (he got to the line double what he did the year prior) as he was pulling up fluidly in the middle of a fast break, the action more like a feather coming slowly down to earth than the dagger it was going in. Murray was the only college player this year to average 20+ points, seven-plus rebounds, and one-plus block per game, while also making more than 65 threes.

“I definitely think my versatility helped me a lot,” Murray says placidly of his season. “I was a guy who could post up, score in the mid-post, make the right play, knock down threes. I was just a tough guard at all three levels. That’s why I had success this year, and why some teams had a tough time figuring out what to do with me and how to guard me.”

Part of the reason why teams couldn’t figure him out was the thing he’d gone back to Iowa to shake: he was being compared to Keegan. It’s a comparison that clearly hurt opponents who didn’t bother to note the stark differences between the two on the court, and has continued over into some of Murray’s current pre-Draft scouting reports, which can read as loose, cursory mirror sketches to his twin — no, seriously, Kris shoots with his left hand while Keegan shoots with his right.

“It’s lazy to compare me to Keegan, it’s happened this entire season, ever since I went back to school,” Murray bluntly says. “When you actually sit down and watch us, we’re two completely different players and that doesn’t really get talked about a lot.”

Though the goal in the back of the head for most athletes is to get to a point in their career where they’re beyond comparison, or others are being compared to them, as the Draft’s gotten closer there have been some new comparisons that Murray doesn’t mind as much. Khris Middleton, with his unselfish approach as an all-around solid finisher and defender, is one. Murray’s made the comparison for himself to Middleton before for the aforementioned reasons, their similar body types, and for Middleton’s calming presence on the floor. Asked if it’s refreshing to be compared to someone besides his brother and Murray laughs, “It is, yeah. And that probably means [those] people have actually watched my tape.”

Murray’s as good-natured as he is realistic about knowing the tie between him and Keegan is always going to exist, especially when linking two twin brothers playing in the NBA. He doesn’t read or put much stock in the reports or comparisons they can draw. Where the film finally takes a backseat is with the Combine, and the pre-Draft workouts and interviews, all of which Murray has been fresh off of for the past few months. Meeting in person, at least, gives a chance for front offices to be introduced to Murray as an individual, though he is grateful that he got to see Keegan go through it last year and knew what to focus on as a result.

“It’s a lot more mental than it is physical. You’re taking in a lot of information and getting to know a lot of different people in a short amount of time. To find joy in this process has been the biggest thing,” Murray says. “Being able to enjoy and be yourself throughout the whole process is the biggest thing, and how to get through it and be yourself, and show people yourself.”

For Murray, funny as he is down-to-earth, finding joy in the process can be as simple as taking his dog over to the dog park, where he was just returning from when we spoke, or settling in with his favorite snack and binge-watching a new show. Currently, it’s Game of Thrones — yes, he’s on his first watch, and he’s flying through it due to the number of flights he’s been on over the last few weeks.

“For me, it’s just trying not to make it all about basketball,” he says. “I try to do something at least once a day where it’s not basketball related, and do something I enjoy to take my mind off it. Having a lot of hobbies and getting those breaks has helped me find joy.”

When it is about basketball, Murray is just as assured. A good deal of Draft decisions have already been made by franchises before workouts, and Murray trusts in his talent and what he intentionally used another year to hone. He knows that front offices have been watching him closely — his reads, making the right pass on time and on target, shooting mechanics — and beyond that, the biggest thing in the process has been to be himself and not overthink it.

“It’s a simple game,” Murray says. “It’s just basketball.”

It’s hard, and probably too early, to talk about wieldy words like legacy, given that his dad and brother put their individual stamps on the Iowa program as he did, and now both brothers will move beyond college hoops and into the NBA. Murray is mostly adamant that when it comes time to reflect, hopefully years from now, he will, but in the meantime he hopes he’s been a role model for other Iowa kids to chase their dreams. His own are fixed on the NBA and true to character, revolve around continuing to play the game he loves, getting to see more of the world while doing it, and meeting and creating relationships with more people as he goes.

The relationships closest to him will always be his family, and Murray opted out of attending the Draft in New York City this week to instead watch it at home, in Cedar Rapids, with them. He went last year for Keegan and, funny enough, it was his face that flashed across the screen when the Kings made their pick.

He laughs when reminded the NBA already has his picture on file, “Oh I know,” he chuckles, “they got it right this year.”

Even if it was a mix-up, that he’s already been introduced feels right, because you’re going to love getting to know Kris Murray.