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Why Malik Monk, Kings needed each other to rediscover NBA potential – NBC Sports Bay Area & California

Chaotic. Helpful. Needed.

Those are the three words Kings guard Malik Monk used to describe his NBA journey thus far, from being drafted No. 11 overall by the Charlotte Hornets seven years ago to finding a place where he finally felt like he belonged in Sacramento – and everything in between. 

After shining in his one year at Kentucky, Monk was eager to take his talent to the next level. But things didn’t go as planned in Charlotte, and he came head-to-head with adversity early on.

“Oh, man. Shit. It had me questioning a lot,” Monk told NBC Sports California. “Was I good at basketball? But me being me, having the confidence, it didn’t go anywhere, and having my brother there with me, my mom, having those voices, those familiar faces helped a lot. 

“But yeah, I just didn’t get the opportunities.”

Monk’s playmaking became a hot topic during his 2023-24 campaign with the Kings. He repeatedly was showered with compliments for his ball-handling ability and comfortability running Sacramento’s unique offense. To him, though, this wasn’t anything new.

Instead, it was an opportunity to showcase what he’s done “all his life” – something he believes he didn’t get a chance to do in Charlotte.

“I just didn’t get the opportunity that other guys did. I think I got looked over,” Monk said. “For what reason, I don’t know. With the coaching, I had two different coaches, one was there for a little second and I thought he was going to be back my second year and I was going to play backup point guard my second year, but he got fired. 

“A new guy came in, said a lot of false promises, and I didn’t see the court that much. So I just didn’t get the opportunities. But I’m thankful they did so I can go out here and have a chip on my back every time I play now.”

Monk was much more discreet with his wording this time, but while speaking to Sacramento media back in December, he called out the Hornets personnel by name when asked why the opportunities didn’t present themselves in Charlotte.

“I don’t know. Ask Charlotte,” Monk said. “(Hornets general manager) Mitch Kupchak and (former Hornets coach) James Borrego. Ask those guys.”

Monk played 233 games with Charlotte and started one. He averaged 9.1 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 17.8 minutes over four seasons.

While lack of opportunity might have prevented Monk from growing with the team that drafted him, other factors came into play, too.

Monk’s inconsistent shooting numbers and increasingly underwhelming 3-ball – the same shot that was his strength coming out of college – became a growing concern. He averaged 34.2, 33.0 and 28.4 percent from beyond the arc, respectively, in his first three seasons with the Hornets. His fourth and final season unquestionably was his best, but he played just 42 games that season.

His availability also became worrisome, missing significant amounts of time due to an indefinite suspension (27 games in 202-21) for violating the NBA’s drug policy, COVID-19 and an ankle injury that sidelined him for 30 games during the 2021-22 season.

John Calipari, the longtime Kentucky coach who just finalized a five-year deal to become the new head coach of Arkansas, spoke to NBC Sports California via phone call about the rollercoaster ride that has been Monk’s NBA career.

Coach Cal believes Monk starting his career at the bottom of that ride ultimately helped him experience the highs – and enjoy them even more.

“The thing for him, of all the players that I’ve coached, it came so easy for him,” Calipari said. “That may have affected him early in his career because in that league, if it comes that easy, it’s hard to really grow and get to where you’re trying to go and the grind and all the other stuff.

“You know you’re going to catch it somewhere. He caught it in Charlotte. The earlier you can have a taste of that, the better. And some of my guys get it here. And so going on, they’re not going to be fazed by the ups and downs of this stuff. And so for him, he said it right. He needed to go through that. And he did and guess what? He came out on the other side stronger yet still confident, because some guys go through that and they lose their whole identity and their confidence.”

Monk himself also admitted in the past that his immaturity halted his growth both on and off the court, stating in a 2021 interview that he “had to grow up and be a man about everything” and look himself in the mirror.

While Borrego noticed that growth and applauded Monk for taking ownership of his life and career during his final season in Charlotte, it was clear both sides needed to move on.

A fresh start and new scenery was exactly what Monk needed – and boy did it pay off.

Even more, though, dealing with and then overcoming some really challenging adversity is a lot to ask of a young player. Those situations truly can make or break someone, especially early on in their career.

And in a league that typically isn’t patient, time was on Monk’s side.

In 2021, the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers signed Monk in free agency, where he made the most of that clean slate surrounded by future Hall of Famers in the City of Angels.

In 76 games (37 starts), Monk averaged then-career-highs nearly across the board with 13.8 points on 47.3-percent shooting from the field and 39.1 percent from deep, along with 3.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 28.1 minutes.

When a handful of his Lakers teammates missed extensive time due to injuries, Monk stepped into a formidable role and improved his résumé before he entered restricted free agency the following summer.

That is when Sacramento came calling.

It wound up being the perfect match. Monk helped the Kings reach the playoffs in his first season with the team while at times, despite his role off the bench, being Sacrmamento’s second and third-best scoring option. And in return, Mike Brown and the Kings gave him the platform to remind the league of his capabilities and finally – finally – live up to the expectations he left Kentucky with.

A large part of that comes from the close and honest relationship between Monk and Brown.

“Our relationship is what a coach-player relationship should be,” Monk told NBC Sports California. “He gets mad at me, goes off on me sometimes. But at the end of the day, we never take anything personal because we know we’re trying to reach a goal – and that’s a championship. 

“And same with me, I go off on him all the time and he never takes anything personal. We come back, we talk about what happened and we forget about it. So it’s good.”

There have been a number of instances during their partnership where Brown has been seen – or heard – scolding Monk and, to a lesser degree, vice versa.

Accountability is one trait Brown repeatedly has preached since stepping into the Kings’ role two years ago, and he doesn’t exclude himself from his own principles. Monk won’t let him.

As a result, the two have helped each other excel in their respective roles. Brown has pushed Monk and helped him take his game to the next level, challenging him in ways he never had been before – including on the defensive end of the floor.

In college, Monk was the two-guard who shot the ball lights-out. In Charlotte, not even his shooting helped his case, and he struggled defensively. The Lakers took a risk and gave him a chance. Monk didn’t make them regret it. And with Brown and the Kings, he has become a versatile guard capable of knocking down the 3-ball and playmaking for others while drastically improving on the other end of the ball.

In Sacramento, it became a two-way partnership — and a win-win for both sides.

Calipari has enjoyed witnessing Monk’s journey from afar, and the excitement and joy in his voice when speaking about Monk radiated over the phone.

Kentucky had just lost to Oakland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in a stunning upset that ended the Wildcats’ season earlier than anyone would have anticipated. By our phone call a few days later, you wouldn’t be able to tell Calipari had just experienced heartbreak.

His energy was uplifting and passionate. The way he spoke about Monk made it obvious how much he loves and cares about him not just as a basketball player, but as a human being.

It was the type of feel-good vibe that, in an ironic yet fitting circumstance, Monk is known for spreading around the Kings organization. It is one of the reasons why he’s Sacramento’s beloved sixth man, the role he’s thrived off of by providing a seemingly irreplaceable spark off the bench for the Kings.

Despite missing the last nine games of the regular season due to an MCL sprain, Monk leads the league in points (1,110) and assists (370) off the bench. And this year, he believes he deserves recognition for his contributions.

Before his injury, Monk said he “a thousand percent” has “got to win” the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, an accolade he was the frontrunner in before getting injured.

Winning the award means receiving the John Havlicek Trophy, named after the eight-time NBA champion and Boston Celtics legend. But to Monk, it would mean much more.

“The world,” Monk said when asked what it would mean to win 6MOTY. “Finally getting recognition for my work, and it’s finally showing to the world that I’m here to stay and I can play basketball at a high level.”

Coach Cal is a busy guy himself, but he keeps tabs on all his former players who are in the NBA.

Every morning on his desk is a stack of papers with the latest stats and updates from those players, showing what they did in their games the night before. If they had a stellar performance or sustained a major injury, he would reach out to that player to either congratulate or check on them.

From what he’s seen from his notes, Calipari likes Monk’s chances of taking home the 6MOTY honor.

“Oh, yeah, he should win. I mean, the Sixth Man of the Year should come from the most impactful player that comes off the bench, right? Who is more impactful than him? And it’s not just numbers. It’s impacting the game. 

“How he’s playing as a playmaker, as a shot blocker, a guy that steals balls, what he’s doing to dominate a run for three minutes and separate the game and then let the team finish the game up. Come on. It’s well deserved. I hope he gets it.”

While Calipari believes Monk deserves the honorable award, he is confident Monk “is an NBA starter in my mind.”

That brings us to the present and the future, where a lot of uncertainty lies for Monk this offseason.

Monk is a free agent this summer and likely will hit the open market to secure what will be the biggest payday of his NBA career. He has stated that he would like to stay in Sacramento – and the feeling from the Kings’ side certainly is mutual – but the finances and logistics make things a bit complicated.

After leaving Charlotte in 2021, Monk told NBC Sports California that he spoke to Kings star point guard De’Aaron Fox, his former Kentucky teammate and best friend, to “see what was up” on potentially going to Sacramento at the time but “didn’t hear anything back,” so he signed with the Lakers.

One year later, Monk eventually ended up in the state’s capitol, but that, too, was no thanks to Fox.

“Fox didn’t text me. My agent called me first, seeing what I was thinking,” Monk said, as Fox walked into the Kings’ locker room, where his locker is directly next to Monk’s. “Then I texted like two or three days later. So he didn’t do shit.”

Perfect timing.

Fox remained less than two feet away as our interview with Monk continued.

While Monk made it clear that Fox had little to no influence in him joining the Kings two seasons ago, I asked if the two have had those conversations now as Monk is set to enter a pivotal offseason.

As I began to suggest that Fox would like to continue playing on the same team with his best friend, Fox corrected me.

“Nah he’s about to go get his money,” Fox shouted. “Get your money!”

Both smiled.

Monk added that the two briefly have discussed it over the course of the season but were more focused on winning games. 

“We’ll probably talk about it after the season,” he said.

Also talking about it will be coach Cal, who assured he’ll be having some conversations with Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé.

“When that free agency stuff comes up, I know Vivek and I will be talking,” he said. “Believe me, I’ll hear from Vivek. I know that.”

Well, that time is now. If this was Monk’s last season as a Sacramento King, his time with the organization would never be forgotten. He’ll leave the city with nothing but incredible memories, from his Band-Aid saga to his high-flying dunks to the big and bright smile that lit up his face while likely cursing out his teammates — it was two years that both changed his career and the way the Kings’ franchise was viewed.

Less than five years ago, Monk questioned if he belonged in the league. The Kings helped him prove that he does. And whatever happens in free agency, the Kings and their fanbase should feel nothing but joy and fulfillment as Monk’s “chaotic, helpful and needed” NBA journey is about to literally and figuratively pay off.

And if their paths ever cross again down the line, there’s no doubt that Sacramento will welcome him back with open arms.

After all, Malik means King in Arabic.