Malik Monk, the NBA Sixth Man frontrunner, discusses this breakout moment in his career

The Sacramento Kings hired Mike Brown and signed Malik Monk in the summer of 2022. Two-thirds of the way through their first season together, Brown and Monk met in Brown’s office for a conversation both remember as influential in this next stage of Monk’s career, a leap that currently has him as the most productive bench player in the NBA on the doorstep of a substantial free agency pay raise.

Monk’s recollection is of a more generic message that would lead to the outcome he desired.

“Be more consistent,” Monk told The Athletic. “That would probably give me a little bit more minutes out there. Maybe it’d give me a little bit more shots.”

But Brown’s retelling is more vivid. His ask of Monk was specific.

“You’ve played this many minutes,” Brown told The Athletic of what he conveyed to Monk. It would’ve been more than 1,000 at that point. “You know how many charges you’ve taken?”

Monk didn’t know.

“You have one charge,” Brown said. “And on the one charge you have, you were coming from the weak side to the strong side of the floor and you tripped over somebody’s foot. When you stood up, you got run over and they gave you a charge.”

Brown is currently in the second season of an attempted organizational overhaul. The quest for sustained defensive respectability could be the most challenging aspect of the project, given personnel limitations. The Kings don’t have traditional length on the wing or rim protection on the back line. So they must succeed with game-plan discipline, effort and physicality. Protect the paint by committee.

Increased physicality was his ask of Monk. History told him to be skeptical.

“In this league, if a guy is not a physical player, it’s hard to get him to become a physical player,” Brown said. “Just like if a guy isn’t high, high effort, it’s hard to get him to become that.”

Monk is the heavy favorite for NBA Sixth Man of the Year. He leads all players with 1,050 bench points and 352 assists this season. Nobody else has reached 900 points or 300 assists. He scores in bulk but passes more accurately and willingly than a traditional chucker. His offensive aggression and ability have shifted several Kings games this season back in the winning direction.

“The Magic game,” Monk said of the game where he had 37 points and nine assists in a 138-135 overtime win. “Cleveland game at home. I only had like 15 and eight but I turned the energy around ASAP. Damn near every game, bro, to be honest.”

The signature night in Monk’s case came in Minnesota earlier this month. The Kings faced the Timberwolves on March 1 without the injured De’Aaron Fox and trailed at various tenuous moments. But they won in overtime because Monk scored 39 points. That included 35 after halftime, 18 in the fourth quarter and the six that put them over the top in overtime.

But none of his dagger 3s or fearless rim attacks qualified as Brown’s favorite Monk play of that game. It actually came in the first quarter on the defensive side. Anthony Edwards, the league’s most explosive leaper, split a double-team on the left wing and dribbled into a runway with only Monk deterring his path to the basket.

“Ant usually dunk on everyone,” Monk said. “But I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t tripping. Because we needed the win.”

Brown’s request in these scenarios is either a charge attempt or a vertical contest, hands straight up to avoid a foul. In Monk’s first season with the Kings, he rarely did either. In his second, he is doing both. On this possession, he got over in time for the verticality, forcing the miss.

“It was absolutely gorgeous,” Brown said. “I could literally do a basketball clinic on that verticality.”

Two of Brown’s other favorite Monk possessions came against the Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley and the Heat’s Kevin Love. Monk slid over to stop a Mobley dive out of the pick-and-roll for a charge and, after it, he pointed over to a fired up Brown for acknowledgement. Against the Heat, he stepped in front of a barreling Love in transition and took a crunching hit.

“There’s no way he does that last year,” Brown said. “No way. So in an area I’ve been pushing him hard to improve, he’s shown a drastic improvement in a short time. I’ve never seen it in that area that quickly. I’m 100 percent surprised by it.”

Here are the two plays.

Monk was selected 11th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 2017 NBA draft, six picks after the Kings took De’Aaron Fox, his close friend and backcourt partner at Kentucky.

Fox walked into a high-minute starting role in Sacramento. Monk stepped into a low-usage fringe rotation role for a 36-46 Hornets team still trying to compete around Kemba Walker before his clock ran out in Charlotte. Monk was 11th on the team in minutes per game as a rookie and 10th in his second season.

“I didn’t get no opportunity, man,” Monk said. “Inconsistent minutes is inconsistent play. Everybody knows that. I’d go 20 games without playing (much), then I’ll play five games and average 15 in 15 minutes or something like that. Then I wouldn’t play for 20 more games. So it was just inconsistent minutes, man. I think it was the organization trying to figure out what next step they wanted to do after Kemba.”

Monk was 19 when he stepped into the league. He shot below 40 percent his first two seasons. Steve Clifford and later James Borrego prioritized veteran backcourt options like Jeremy Lamb and Tony Parker over him. Monk said he didn’t handle everything correctly.

“I was young,” Monk said. “So I probably wasn’t going about some things the right way. (In the summer), I would lift there and then go do my own work somewhere else. Because I wanted to work on what I wanted to work on. Maybe that wasn’t the right thing at that time. It was my second year. Maybe I should have been in there, working out with those guys, trying to get better with the organization. Maybe that would have helped.”

His playing time ticked up his third season, but only slightly. He was seventh on the team at 21.3 minutes per game. He started once, the lone start in his four-season Hornets tenure. Better efficiency didn’t come until his fourth Charlotte season. He made 40.1 percent of his 3s.

But that was cut short in February when he was suspended indefinitely for violating the NBA’s drug policy. He was reinstated in August, but the Hornets had already declined his qualifying offer. He was a free agent at 23 with only tepid interest. Nobody called on the first day of free agency. Was he on his way out of the league?

“At one point, I was out,” Monk said of the suspension. ”I had to do multiple things to get back into the NBA under their rules. But I averaged 12 on 40 percent from 3. I definitely thought I’d have a few calls. But nobody called me man. That s— hurt.”

The Los Angeles Lakers offered a veteran minimum contract later in free agency. Monk said they were the only team to show interest. He rewarded the Lakers for giving him that chance with 76 games of production. Monk averaged 13.8 points in 28.1 minutes, logging 37 of his 38 career starts. He made 47 percent of his shots and 39 percent of his 3s. In the final month, he had scoring nights of 23, 23, 24 and 41.

“I didn’t improve, man,” Monk said. “I didn’t improve. Frank (Vogel) just put me out there for 28 minutes and let me have the ball sometimes. Sometimes (LeBron James) was hurt and I had the ball even more. So I thank Frank for that. Every time I see him, I thank him.”

Monk walked back into free agency an upgraded commodity. The Kings made him a priority. They rescinded Donte DiVincenzo’s qualifying offer to make room. They gave Monk a two-year, $19.4 million contract that has turned out to be a bargain.

“I feel like the organization needed a turnaround,” Monk said. “I feel like they needed new faces here. I feel like I could bring an energy that Sac had been waiting for since (DeMarcus Cousins) left. And my homie is here, my best friend here. Fox. This was going to be the most comfortable fit for me. Because leaving Los Angeles, a big city, coming here slows everything down. Slow pace. Now I can just focus on my craft. It’s been working for me.”

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(Photo of Monk and Fox: Darren Yamashita / USA TODAY Sports)

Golf is Monk’s new obsession. He plays regularly, sometimes with Kevin Huerter and Keegan Murray. When asked of its benefits, Monk pointed to his temple. It calms him, resets his nerves during the course of a stressful season.

“They’ve probably hit every course from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe,” Fox told The Athletic.

But the Kings don’t want Monk to be too calm. His fire is part of his worth to a team that can lack the needed vigor. He’s outspoken in team settings, honest in his critiques and, particularly in his second season under Brown, has made it a point to bark back at Brown. They have a competitive relationship.

“There was that viral video that got out of Mike saying he was about to lose his top,” Fox said.

That was in training camp. The full interaction is detailed in this preseason story. But the spark was Brown’s unhappiness with Monk whining to officials instead of continuing to play through adversity. He felt the Kings had done too much of that in their seven-game series loss to the Golden State Warriors last April.

So Monk has flipped that back on Brown this season. Brown has lost it on the referees on a few occasions — most notably in Milwaukee — and Monk has been the voice there to calm Brown and redirect his focus.

“I’ll just hear Malik like: ‘Mike! It’s not worth it, Mike! It’s not worth it! They don’t give a s—, Mike!’” Brown said. “It’s good for me and the team. Because we don’t need a technical to change momentum of the game or to give the rest of the guys any excuses as to why we may be losing.”

If there was any question about Monk’s ability to level up in a winning environment — which can often be a problem for volume bench scorers — he answered the call against the Warriors in April 2023.

Monk had 32 points in his first playoff game ever, finishing with this shooting line in a Kings win: 8 of 13 overall and 14 of 14 from the line. Of the seven games, he only really had two bad nights. He backed up his 21 bench points in Game 5 with 28 more in the memorable Game 6 road win in San Francisco. He finished second behind Fox in points that series and third behind Fox and Domantas Sabonis in assists and minutes.

“We’re our two best shot creators,” Fox said. “I feel like that skill set shines the most in the playoffs when they’re taking away passing lanes and certain actions. It’s not all about 3s and analytics. You have to be able to get to your shot and make shots.”

Monk’s biggest takeaway from his first playoff taste: Every possession matters.

“It sounds like a broken record,” Monk said. “You probably hear everybody say that s—. But once you get to the playoffs, you really, really see one possession matters.”

The torture in his expression is obvious. He’s thinking about a particular possession.

“My f—ing turnover,” Monk said. “In Golden State, Game 4. I tried to throw a pass up ahead. Turned it over. They hit a 3. We go down six I think with like a minute left. We lost the game.”

His other playoff takeaway: “I’m ready for it.”

Monk is averaging a career-high 15.9 points and 5.3 assists this season. He’s a capable spot-up shooter in lineups alongside Fox and Sabonis, but also serves as essentially the backup point guard when Fox sits who will even shoulder primary playmaking responsibilities in crunchtime on nights he really has it revved up.

“He’s so deceptive when he plays the pick-and-roll because his change of pace,” Brown said. “If you go under he can shoot the 3. If you go over the top, you better beat him to a spot before he turns the corner. If you don’t, he gets downhill quick. He’s a very good pocket passer, vertical threat passer. He can throw the lob. Then he’s got a pull-up game and a float game. But what messes people up is if he sees a crack at daylight at all, he has another gear. He maybe jumps from first or second to fourth gear in his explosion to the rim. He can explode over you very easily if your chest is not completely in front of the ball.”

Monk said he’s not an improved passer: “Nah. I’m just getting more pick-and-rolls.” He had 28 points and six assists in the Kings’ overtime win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night. That quick explosion to the rim was on display during a couple fourth quarter dunks.

Monk has been dependable, playing 143 games in his two seasons with the Kings and only missing six. There have been several instances where he could’ve been elevated into the starting lineup, including this current moment with Kevin Huerter facing an extended absence because of a shoulder injury.

But no matter the circumstances — Fox sits, Huerter struggles, Monk is on a scorching streak — Brown has resisted the urge. He prefers to keep Monk in his comfortable rotation off the bench, referring back to his time around Manu Ginobili and Andre Iguodala to cement the benefit of a high-voltage option in reserve.

Monk felt he should’ve won Sixth Man last season. He finished fifth behind Malcolm Brogdon, Immanuel Quickley, Bobby Portis and Norman Powell. He’s expected to win it this season. Monk admitted it’s an award he desires. But don’t mistake that for a full-on embrace. He doesn’t necessarily love the fact that he never starts.

“Hell no,” Monk laughs. “Hell no I don’t like it. But, s—, it’s what I got to do for us to win and play better. So I just take the role head on.”

The spotlight will soon shift to Monk’s future. He’s only 26, on the front fringe of his prime showing obvious growth. That two-year deal is about to expire. Because it’s so low, CBA rules limit the type of raise the Kings can offer him this summer, perhaps opening the door for a cap space team like the Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers or San Antonio Spurs to spike his salary out of Sacramento’s range, if they desire.

The Kings’ front office tried to plan for this. Part of the motivation for the Richaun Holmes trade this past summer was to increase what they could pay Monk. They want him around long term. But the projected max starting salary they can give him next season would be $17.4 million, translating into a four-year, $77.9 million max offer if extended out with highest allowable raises.

“He’s extremely important to what we’re trying to build,” Brown said. “There’s zero question in my head. We 100 percent want him back. He’s the player he is mainly because of him. But I also feel that you have to be in situations that can help get the most out of you. And I feel like this situation that he has here, the sky’s the limit. We’re only going to get better and he has had a lot to do with the growth of this franchise.”

Monk has made clear his desire to return. But he’s experienced the business side of the league and the unpredictable variables that remain at play. Before any choices are made, he’s trying to cap off this season with an individual award and a playoff run.

“Depends on what we do in the postseason, as well,” Monk said. “But I’d love to be here, man. Got comfortable here. Made a lot of new friends, met a lot of great people. The city loves me. I love the city.

“So, yeah, I’d love to come back.”

(Top photo of Malik Monk: Rocky Widner / NBAE via Getty Images)

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