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If You Don’t Know Keegan Murray Yet, You Will Soon Enough

How does a future lottery pick fly under the radar for so long? It’s taken a long time for Iowa’s star sophomore to make a name for himself, but he learned patience early on, waiting for the right spurt and spot to lead him to the NBA.

Jack C. Gregory

Keegan Murray calls for the ball. A sweat stain lines the back of his gray shirt. He’s been shooting jumper after jumper in a gym about 10 minutes away from downtown Chicago. Midrange off the dribble. Five spots of 3s. Jab left and pull up. He often won’t move to the next spot until he executes each drill perfectly. Until each release feels just right.

It’s drizzling outside on this late-April morning. The sky is a deep gray-blue. A park sits across the street. This unassuming gym, which has a sign near its entrance that reads “To whom much is given, much will be required,” is where he’s been training for this week’s NBA combine in Chicago. Murray is one of the most intriguing participants in attendance. He leapfrogged from a barely recruited prep to a superstar sophomore at Iowa, to a projected lottery NBA pick in next month’s draft. Some mock drafts even have him projected to be a top-five pick.

Few could have predicted the 6-foot-8, 215-pound swingman would be here. He grew up surrounded by miles and miles of cornfields in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a late bloomer whose thin stature—he was about 6-foot and 145 pounds as a high-school freshman—largely caused him to fly under the radar. Now, after a late growth spurt and a breakout sophomore season at Iowa, he might just be the steal of the draft.

And on this April morning, he looks every bit the part. He drills six 3s in a row, standing on the left wing, holding up his silky follow through. His jumper is a thing of beauty, the way the ball whirls off his fingertips, barely grazing the rim before swishing through the net. He misses his next shot, but one wouldn’t know by looking at his reaction.

“I try not to get too high or too low,” says Murray, who shot nearly 40 percent on 3-pointers last season. He has a concentrated focus; intense but completely at ease. Part of that might come from his second love: golf. He’s been playing since he was a child. Both he and his identical twin brother Kris, who also plays at Iowa and has been working out with him in Chicago for the past few weeks, used to wake up at 3 a.m. to watch the Open every year.

Like a golfer pacing a green, Keegan never seems rushed on the court. There is a calmness to the way he moves. He doesn’t simply push the ball—he glides. He lets the game come to him, not forcing shots, not letting things rattle him. He’s so even-keeled that some have questioned his drive, his passion—because he isn’t a loud, flamboyant leader. He prefers to lead by example, such as when he torched Indiana with eight 3s en route to 32 points and a win in the Big Ten tournament.

Sometimes it bothers him that people mistake his soft-spoken demeanor for a lack of care about the game, but those thoughts quickly wash away. It’s not an unusual criticism for less brash players entering the league. “It’s really just another person typing behind the screen,” he says.

He takes a seat on the bleachers, hugging a basketball to his chest. A big smile breaks through. He is warm. Genuine. A bit shy. He has a quiet confidence; an aura of a 15-year veteran rather than a 21-year-old whose life is about to change in ways he can’t imagine.

It’s surreal. Strange, contemplating the unknown. He’s excited. He thinks about what city he will live in. How different life will be. What role he’ll play for whoever drafts him. He isn’t concerned with how high he is selected; he just wants to be in the right situation.

Chicago, where he’s spent the past three weeks, is the biggest city he’s ever lived in. It’s been an adjustment. He calls the artsy, high-rise River North neighborhood, where he’s staying, “bougie.” “Everyone dresses nice,” he says. He feels most comfortable in sweatpants and a hoodie.

He had guacamole for the first time a few weeks ago. He hasn’t tried sushi yet. “My horizons are already expanding,” he says, laughing. He doesn’t go out much or post workouts on social media. He’d rather go about his work quietly, pushing himself to be better on the court. After every game, he asks himself if he has any regrets. He keeps a tight circle, having the same best friends since kindergarten.

He is still studying for his final in Liability in Sport, a sports law class at Iowa, and hopes to return eventually to finish his degree. He looks almost embarrassed when his younger sister, McKenna, brings up an NBA analyst praising him, or some famous person shouting him out. He’ll respond with a quick “cool” or “nice.” After she told him he became verified on Instagram after leading Iowa to its first Big Ten championship in 16 years, he merely said “Oh,” and moved on.

Priority, the agency he’s signed to, recently asked him what colors he’d like to wear for his draft suit. He told them he hadn’t thought about it yet. He thinks he’ll spend his first paycheck on groceries and an apartment. He and Kris have always shared a car, a Chevy Impala. Michelle, their mom, asked Keegan what kind of car he might purchase once he’s making millions. “I don’t know,” he said. “A new Impala?”

Because Keegan was never anointed a star as a teen, he has learned that nothing will be handed to him. He’s taking a more circuitous path to the NBA, beginning as a role player at Iowa before seizing the spotlight. He knows he has to continue to work just as hard as he did to get to this point in order to make it at the next level, and not become consumed by his newfound fame.

“Praise is probably worse than criticism,” Murray says. “You get a big head. You think you can do this, do all that. That’s affected a lot of guys professionally. A lot of guys in college, too. You can see the trajectory going up then all of a sudden, it’s a downfall.”

He’s spent years watching others ascend, waiting, working for his moment. His mentality then is the same as it is now.

“Be myself,” he says. “I feel like trying to be someone else is harder than being yourself.”

After their workout, Keegan and Kris walk to Hub 51, a nearby lunch spot. They can hardly hear each other as the music blasts overhead. Keegan orders one of his favorites, chicken tenders and fries. His twin brother, who hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll return to Iowa or declare for the draft, orders sesame chicken and rice.

Most people can’t tell the brothers apart. Keegan had hoped the bit of scruff he’d grown under his chin would make it easier for people to differentiate them. Growing up, sometimes classmates and teammates called them “Twin” or “Kreegan.” They’ve always shared a room. Keegan was more into players (LeBron James) while Kris was more into teams (Celtics). Keegan pulls up a picture of Kris and himself on his phone from their time at Prairie High School. The two had puffy cheeks but looked as thin as toothpicks. “That was five years ago,” Keegan says, almost in disbelief at the transformation. “We were tiny.”

Courtesy of the Murray family

Two men leaving the restaurant stop and stare at the twins. Keegan doesn’t say anything. He is learning to get used to the attention. When he returned from Los Angeles after finishing as a Wooden Award finalist, he was shocked to see a group of Iowa fans waiting for him with signs at the Cedar Rapids airport.

Nowadays, locals walk up to him and Kris, screaming, “Are you guys the Murray twins?!” A man who lives in their building once ran into them and told them that they were welcome to come over anytime and grab a beer with him. “You can just knock on my door!” he said. The twins haven’t yet taken him up on that offer.

Keegan’s quiet demeanor matches the way he plays, with little flash and fanfare. He doesn’t wow with his athleticism, but he’s incredibly versatile and gifted in the open floor. He takes pride on defense and can guard multiple positions. He boasts effortless NBA 3-point range. He’s a smart passer who also blocks shots and gobbles up rebounds. And he doesn’t quit on possessions.

Most don’t know that Keegan is actually left-handed, despite shooting with his right (he writes and does everything else with his left). His father, Kenyon, who also played for Iowa from 1993 to 1996, was a lefty in disguise as well, passing down the family trade. He thought his boys could benefit from fooling opponents into forcing them to their dominant hands (Kris bucked tradition, opting to shoot left-handed).

“[Keegan’s] game translates well to the pros on so many different levels,” says Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “His skill set is complete. He can play guard, he can play forward, he can guard the post … and he can make shots from all different places.”

Murray remembers when few were praising him or giving him a chance. Even McCaffery didn’t offer him a scholarship right out of high school.

“Trust the work that you are putting in,” Kenyon would tell him and Kris. “Be patient.”

Keegan wasn’t always composed beyond his years. When he was a kid, he would let a bad play derail his entire game. Hound him. At times he could hardly stomach a missed shot. “He’d go downhill in a heartbeat,” Kenyon says.

Keegan was a perfectionist, burning to do everything just right. He’d let his disappointment with himself spill onto the next play. During one such moment in a sixth-grade AAU tournament, Keegan fouled a kid so hard that Kenyon, who had coached Keegan and Kris since fourth grade, benched him.

“You don’t treat your opponent like that,” Michelle told Keegan afterward. “If you love the game, you respect the game.”

Keegan eventually learned to let things go. Exhibit good sportsmanship. He and Kris also played baseball, golf, soccer, and football, but something about basketball tugged at them. They’d come back from a weekend-long baseball tournament and ask their dad: “Can we go to the gym?” There wasn’t much else to do in Cedar Rapids.

Courtesy of the Murray family

Kenyon taught his boys the fundamentals of the game. They were so scrawny and skinny that Kenyon, who was listed at 6-foot-5 during his playing days, wasn’t sure how much they’d grow. He wanted to make sure they had a solid foundation of skills, so they labored on dribbling, shooting, defense, footwork, rebounding. They’d watch old VHS tapes of Kenyon’s games at Iowa. He would tell them: “If I would have worked harder on this … I could have done that …”

The boys played nearly every day in their driveway. The pavement was slanted, adding an element of danger. “We’d play one on one and just get into fights,” Kris says.

Sometimes they’d throw the ball at each other, running into the house arguing. “It always pushes them to get better,” McKenna says. They were each other’s mirror; a built-in rebounder, defender, best friend.

During a playoff game in eighth grade, Keegan unsuccessfully tried to draw a foul on a 3-point shot and landed on the ground with no whistle. Instead of getting back on defense, Keegan pouted. Meanwhile, his man scored a layup to give his team the lead and eventual three-point win.

Afterward, Kenyon asked the team if Keegan should be allowed to play in the next game. Everyone voted for Keegan to play—except for Kris. “He was selfish,” Kris said. Keegan apologized to the team. Nothing like that happened again.

Opponents would try to bully them because they were so frail. Kenyon encouraged his boys by reminding them they couldn’t control their size, but they could control how passionate they were on defense. “Control your controllables,” Kenyon would say.

Keegan didn’t dream of the NBA back then. He just wanted to earn a college scholarship. But it was frustrating, as Keegan watched taller, bigger, stronger peers become ranked and earn scholarships. Scouts hardly even looked at Keegan and Kris their first two years of high school.

“They looked like baby giraffes,” says Michelle, who did her best to load them up with protein. They still struggled. Prairie High coach Jeremy Rickertsen, who also coached them in middle school, would have them do a drill where they had to jump flat-footed while clutching a heavy medicine ball and tap it on the backboard, over and over.

Though the twins were slowly beginning to sprout up in high school, they still heard from college coaches that they were not big, or strong, or aggressive enough.

“They always understood the game. They always made good plays,” says Rickertsen. “It was just a matter of them hitting their growth spurt.”

Courtesy of the Murray family

Kenyon and Michelle reminded them that rankings weren’t as important as playing the right way. Fortunately, the boys shot up to about 6-foot-6’ and 170 pounds as juniors, and 6-foot-7’ and about 180 pounds as seniors.

During that spurt, they’d often cramp up, as their limbs rapidly stretched and transformed. Keegan had it a bit worse: his heel would hurt because his feet were growing so quickly. He played through pain in his heels for nearly two years in high school, but wouldn’t complain or sit out.

The twins weren’t used to their sudden size, often hitting their heads on doors, as well as a chandelier in the home. Keegan once popped up on a bed and accidentally hit a moving fan. But he and Kris still didn’t pass the Division I eye test in terms of weight or strength.

Keegan remembers a few college coaches calling him late in his high school career, then never following up. It hurt, but he continued to grind after practices with Kris. “I’ve been an underdog pretty much my whole life,” he says.

That wasn’t just because he was a late bloomer. Coaches incorrectly assumed that he and Kris were a package deal, and hesitated to give up two scholarships for similar players. It didn’t help that the brothers were on their AAU program’s second-best team, either, perhaps limiting their exposure.

Kenyon, who coached his sons in AAU and was an assistant at Prairie, would send emails to college coaches, trying to convince them his sons would fill out: “Nobody believed in the two of them,” he says.

McCaffery had known Keegan and Kris since they were fourth graders. His sons competed against them, and when McCaffery was an assistant at Notre Dame he recruited Kenyon. McCaffery felt the twins had great potential. “They were sort of positionless,” McCaffery says. Still, he didn’t offer them initially. In fact, the Murrays received just one Division I offer while in high school, from Western Illinois.

“The hardest part for Keegan would be just staying patient,” says Demetrius Harper, his older brother. Keegan didn’t allow himself to get too down. “[Keegan] just said, ‘I’m going to keep working. I’m going to keep pushing. I’ll get to where I believe I can get to,’” says his uncle, Mitch Westphal.

Keegan and Kris had five Division II offers. They contemplated junior college. Ultimately, they decided that prep school, DME Sports Academy in Daytona Beach, Florida, would be the best option for both of them. They could get stronger and take advantage of another year of development. They were also betting on themselves, willing to prove they could garner more competitive offers with a little more time.

Dan Panaggio, DME’s cofounder, was impressed with the intangibles Keegan possessed. How he had so much promise because of his “capacity to improve,” Panaggio says. Wesam Al-Sous, his coach at DME, liked Keegan’s high basketball IQ, and how receptive he was. “He’s very coachable. He will listen,” Al-Sous says. “Never complain about anything.”

It wasn’t easy to move to a new state without knowing anyone. They weren’t the only ones leaving comfort behind, either. Kenyon and Michelle were going through struggles of their own. They had started attending marriage counseling. They didn’t want their boys to be alone, so they decided that Michelle would move to Florida and Kenyon would stay in Iowa with McKenna. It was stressful—taking out loans, trying to afford two homes.

Kenyon was also trying to mask his disappointment about the boys’ recruiting struggles. “I blamed myself,” he says. Did I not send them to the right AAU program? Did I not send them to the right camp? he’d think. He feared he had messed things up. “She probably walked me off the ledge a couple of times,” Kenyon says, turning to Michelle.

The truth is, it’s easy for prospects to be passed over. It happens every year. Recruiting is a fickle, inaccurate science, projecting how boys will perform as men. Even at the next level, the NBA wants players at their youngest and most developed, leading to an inherent contradiction.

Some prospects, like Keegan and Kris, need more time. Their family supported them. Kenyon and Michelle needed more time, too. They learned to communicate better. They wanted their boys to see that commitment takes work. Persistence. One has to fight for what one loves.

“It also showed,” Kenyon says, “that they don’t have to be perfect.”

Keegan was finally able to take that to heart. Ever since he was a boy, stepping farther and farther back to shoot, he needed to achieve something. To be perfect. But that wasn’t realistic. He learned to accept his path, even if it looked different than those of his peers.

Keegan threw up during his first workout at DME. Matt Panaggio, the team’s assistant coach, laughs at the memory, and the recollection that Keegan might have eaten right before. From there, Keegan became religious about training, pushing himself in blistering workouts on the beaches. He never missed a practice or a game.

He spent hours in the weight room, bench pressing and squatting, and his body began to get stronger. He surpassed 200 pounds.

He began stretching and doing yoga. “I used to be the most inflexible person,” Keegan says. He couldn’t touch his toes. Remarkably, he sprouted an inch taller in his first six months in Florida. His wingspan also gained an inch and his standing reach gained two. And that late spurt helped his game blossom.

“He was more mature than his peers,” says Jake Culberhouse, DME’s strength coach. “He obviously got more out of it than the rest of them.” College coaches were finally noticing. Remarkably, in a wild turn of events, about 40 called, including McCaffery, after Keegan dominated a showcase event. Keegan (and Kris) committed to Iowa shortly thereafter.

The twins were thrilled to be Hawkeyes, even if playing time might be hard to come by since the team was already stacked with forward Luka Garza, the National Player of the Year, and key upperclassmen in Joe Wieskamp and Jordan Bohannon.

Kris Murray (no. 24) and Keegan Murray (no. 15)
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

During his first week on campus ahead of the 2020-21 season, some local reporters asked Keegan if he was a walk-on. Rather than feel slighted, he became even more motivated to earn playing time. “That was adversity I knew I’d have to fight,” Keegan says. “It helped me be better.”

Keegan knew that the only way he’d be able to get on the floor was if he hustled and took pride on defense. Grabbed every rebound. It was an adjustment. He had always been a scorer, but he had to learn to play within his role. And he did it wholeheartedly. Every day at practice, he made it a goal to out-rebound the 6-foot-11, 243-pound Garza, and would check the stat sheet afterward to see who had more boards.

Before a game against Iowa State early in his freshman season, McCaffery came up to Keegan. “You’re gonna get out there, and you’re gonna forget some stuff,” McCaffery said. “Just trust your instincts. Just go hoop.”

“OK, coach,” Keegan said calmly. “I got you.” He’d repeat that phrase again and again that year when asked to do things out of his comfort zone. He learned that the little things matter. Being a pest on defense, boxing out. He just wanted to win. “Usually, people get joy out of scoring the basketball, but I was getting joy about being a freshman playing in the Big Ten and doing the little things,” he says.

He even started a few games. “He could guard anybody on the floor,” McCaffery says. “He was single-handedly the reason we won a couple of games. He was just that impactful.” He became more and more confident, and finally, by his sophomore season, his time had come. Garza was drafted into the NBA. Keegan would play more than 30 minutes per night.

The elusive thing he had been waiting on had finally happened: boy had become man, and body had finally caught up to mind. Everything was finally clicking. He led the nation in total points and shattered Iowa’s single-season scoring record, becoming a first-team All-American in the process.

He was a co-winner of Iowa’s Chris Street Award, given to a Hawkeyes player or players who emulate the spirit, enthusiasm, and intensity of Street. The former Hawkeyes star died in a car accident in 1993, midway through his junior season. He was Kenyon’s best friend. Kris is named after him.

When accepting the award, Keegan gave a speech. He acknowledged Street for who he was as a person, as a player. What it meant to have his brother named after someone as kind-hearted and passionate. Then Keegan quoted a T-shirt he and Kris received when they were seventh graders from a camp: “If you give 100 percent, 100 percent of the time, somehow everything will work out.”

Kenyon was moved to tears. The quote embodied everything his teammate was about, and showed how inspired Keegan was by his friend. He had no idea that Keegan even remembered the quote. But it has fueled him, even now.

“I feel like nothing that I’ve done basketball-wise is a finished product,” he says. “I need to get better at everything.”

His mind returns to the present. Staying grounded. Staying the same. Staying the goofy Keegan who couldn’t pull off the TikTok dance moves McKenna taught him during quarantine. The same Keegan that forgot to count Kris’s shots during a recent workout, leading his brother to go off on him. Keegan just laughed and laughed.

This fall will likely be the first time the two won’t be playing together. It’s emotional, thinking about it. Maybe it’s not a coincidence Kris plans on getting a golden retriever. Keegan hasn’t decided if he’ll get a dog.

They look at each other for a beat, and smile. Then Keegan’s face grows more serious. It’s almost time to get back to the weight room. Back to getting shots up. Back to being himself.

Trust the work that you are putting in. Be patient.

He catches the ball on the wing, jab steps hard, and accelerates for a pull-up. He holds his follow through, his wrist cupped down. He doesn’t look to see if the ball has gone in. He’s already on to the next.

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