Sacramento Kings Rookie Chima Moneke Just Keeps On Leveling Up

BILBAO, SPAIN – MAY 08: Chima Moneke (Baxi Manresa) looks on during the Basketball Champions League … [+] final match between Baxi Manresa and CB 1939 Canarias at Bilbao Arena on May 8, 2022 in Bilbao, Spain. (Photo by Juan Lazkano/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

DeFodi Images via Getty Images

In spite of rumors that such a move may be on the way, Sasha Vezenkov – whose draft rights are owned by the Sacramento Kings, acquired in a meaningful trade – will not be joining the team in 2022 after all.

Draft rights are held in perpetuity, as long as the team that holds them continues to issue “required tenders” every year. For a second-round pick such as Vezenkov, this simply means an unguaranteed minimum salary contract, and thus is no significant commitment at all. The Vezenkov situation, then, can be revisited in the future.

Instead, the Kings set their sights on another big man previously playing in Europe. And this one fits a different profile.

Three years ago, Chima Moneke was in his second professional season out of UC Davis, and toiling away in the French second tier. He had joined the Aggies after two stand-out years at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska, and stood out for UC Davis in his two Division I seasons as well, producing across the board with averages of 18.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. All three marks led the team.

Stepping into the professional realm did nothing to temper his production, and in his second French second-tier season, Moneke averaged numbers similar to that. He recorded 15.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks in only 27.6 minutes per game in the 2019-20 season for Quimper, leading them to a second-place finish, the best season in the team’s history. This earned Moneke a promotion, firstly for one year with Orleans in France’s top division, and then last season onto Manresa in Spain’s ACB, the best league outside of the NBA.

There is a clear theme to Moneke’s career. Every two years, he levels up. Two years at junior college, two at a Division I school, two in the French minors, two in the European big leagues. And now, he has a two-year deal with the Kings in the NBA. Where might he be in two more years?

What has made Moneke such a productive player hitherto has been his physical profile. An excellent run-and-jump athlete, Moneke is an NBA-calibre physical specimen, long-limbed with a quick first step and the ability to get very high off the ground very quickly. At every level he has played at so far, he has been the stand-out athlete.

In terms of how he produces what he does, Moneke uses that profile in the ways that it should be used. He is a roll man, a floor runner, a dunk spot finisher, a lob threat and a good short roll passer, built more like an NBA small forward yet with the skills and mentality of a four. He is quick on his feet, and he plays accordingly; moreover, even when he did play in the post back in his college days, he showed a modicum of footwork and touch down there too.

Now in the NBA, Moneke will not have the huge speed and exposure advantage in the NBA that he has done in all his stops thus far. He will no longer be the stand-out athlete. But he will still be a stand-out athlete, and, in an era where the power forward position has been reformed to be more about mobility than strength on both ends, Moneke is well suited. He is competitive, playing defense with energy and motor, defense, and although he lacks strength in his frame (along with the jump shot and handle being limited to fairly uncontested possessions), if he is relentless on the roll and gets to the line, the Kings’ playmakers will find a use for him offensively, too.

Leveling up is of course a finite thing, and there is no guarantee Moneke will complete those two seasons with the Kings. Far from it, in fact. Moneke is signed to a minimum salary contract, one with only a partial guarantee in year one, and none in year two. He nevertheless has a chance to make the regular season roster and complete the journey from junior college to the NBA.

The Kings have only 12 fully guaranteed contracts on their books currently, plus Neemias Queta and Keon Ellis on two-way deals. Moneke is therefore in a battle with Kent Bazemore (fully unguaranteed), Matthew Dellavedova ($250,000 guaranteed), KZ Okpala ($250,000), Sam Merrill ($150,000) and Quinn Cook (fully unguaranteed) for, at best, three spots.

That said, Moneke’s battle for a roster spot might be more directly fought against Queta and incumbent fourth-year player Chimeze Metu. Behind starters Domantas Sabonis and Richaun Holmes, the Kings already have Alex Len as a backup center, along with Trey Lyles offering depth at the four, and Harrison Barnes working across the frontcourt positions.

Unlikely to carry more than six players who can play across the de facto power forward and center spots, then, Moneke may be competing with the broadly similar pair for the depth spot. If this is the case, Metu (who was good last season) and Queta (who is three and a half years younger than Moneke) may both have the upper hand.

There are nonetheless three spots that can be won. And with his rookie minimum contract being cheaper than any of the competition, along with a higher percentage of guaranteed money, Moneke’s chances here are real.

Due to the size of his guaranteed portion, if Moneke is waived by Sacramento, he is not eligible to play for their G League affiliate, Stockton. Nor would he be eligible for a two-way contract; for him to do either of these things, the guaranteed portion could be for no more than $50,000. If Moneke does not make the roster out of preseason, then. it seems likely he will return to Europe, or perhaps some of the richer-paying Asian leagues. But do not count out the chances of the man who just keeps getting better.

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