As soon as he catches it, the bench prepares to celebrate. They jump to their feet, bounce off the hardwood in excitement, and throw up their hands in jubilation. But Malik Monk doesn’t shoot it, at least not at first. He pump fakes, causing a hopeless, trailing defender to get off balance, and then he rises for the three-pointer. At this point, there are 20 seconds remaining and Kentucky trails North Carolina by two; but most observers have a sense that Monk is about to change that.
Why wouldn’t they? Malik already has 44 points and seven treys. He’s already knocked down a pair of clutch shots. The final dagger almost seems inevitable; and sure enough, it sails through the net without grazing the iron. Kentucky secures the victory, 103-100.
Fast forward six months to Game 3 of the NBA Finals. The Warriors are down by two with just about 45 seconds left. Kevin Durant marches up the floor, notices that LeBron is giving him room, and pulls up for a transition three. Right then, as the ball leaves his fingertips, the same thought from six-months prior returns: This ball is definitely going in. And you know the rest.
Two players. Two cold-blooded plays. It should come as no surprise that one of the guys Malik has looked up to on his basketball journey is Durant. The other he mentions? Russell Westbrook. It’s their competitive spirits that appeals to Monk, who is no stranger to the killer instinct.
Malik grew up in Lepanto, AR, a small town of less than 2,000 people with a poverty rate that doubles the national average. Suffice it to say, the area is not known for its basketball. “There’s a lot of players down there,” Monk explains, “but most of them don’t make it out. I’m just trying to be different.”
Different. That’s the proper way to describe Monk’s path so far. He made it out of Lepanto, joined one of the best college programs in the country, won SEC player of the year, and is now a projected lottery pick. So yeah, the Arkansas native has embarked on a different journey.
The fact that Monk has managed to get this far begs the obvious question: how has he done it? What gives him that killer instinct, that propensity to drop 47 points as a freshman? What renders him different? Jason McMahan, Malik’s coach at Bentonville High School, narrows it down to three things.
Asked how he would describe his game, Monk says with a chuckle: “I can shoot the ball pretty well.” That he can. At Bentonville, he once went 11 of 13 from behind the arc; and in one season at Kentucky, he led the SEC in three-pointers made while shooting 40 percent. “Pretty well” competes for understatement of the year.
He’s more than just a shooter—Malik is a pure scorer, a bucket-getter, an offensive juggernaut. “I think he can do all the pick and roll stuff. Mid-range, finish at the rim on length, hit threes when they give that, pocket pass, see open man, and involve others,” McMahan says. “He can also play off the ball and move without it when he sets his mind to it.”
As for an NBA comparison, Monk sees similarities between himself and 2015 Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams. McMahan and one of Malik’s teammates at Bentonville, Ryan Bachman, are more assertive with their takes. “That is a tough one,” McMahan answers, “Steph [Curry] in vision and flair for the dramatic, and I believe there is some athleticism there that will impress people.” Bachman provides a similar evaluation: “For an NBA comparison, I don’t really know. He is one of a kind, but if I had to I would say a CJ McCollum with Westbrook-type athletic ability.”
Former Wildcat and blossoming Timberwolves’ star Karl-Anthony Towns, who has seen Malik play in person, notes his “great talent and athletic ability…that’s going to be very useful in the NBA.”
And yet, Monk is just 19 years old. The room and potential for growth is immense. According to McMahan, one of Monk’s overlooked qualities is his basketball IQ and knack for rapid improvement. “He picks stuff up so fast and implements it into his game.”
On June 8th, 2017, while the Finals are still ongoing, Monk tweets out some lyrics from Drake’s “Blem”:
don’t switch on me i got big plans
— Malik Monk (@AhmadMonk) June 8, 2017
Those “big plans” have apparently existed for awhile now. Given the smoothness of his game, it’s easy to convince yourself that Monk has coasted on talent alone; but that’s far from the truth. When he moved to Bentonville as a sophomore, Malik made it clear from day one that he was hungry for success. At 15 years old, “he was the hardest worker on the team,” Bachman states, “going 100 percent every day in practice or in the weight room, causing everyone else to follow suit.”
That determination didn’t fade at Kentucky, and I wouldn’t bet on it to vanish any time soon. Monk says the best advice he’s received about how to handle the transition into the League is to “manage [his] time.” There’s less structure and more independence at the professional level. Beyond practice, players have a good amount of free time, and filling that time with the wrong things can lead to untapped potential. Monk is focused on getting the most out of his career. He already has goals for his rookie season, and the dude hasn’t even been drafted yet.
“Rookie of the Year. I’m trying to get that,” he tells SLAM. Big plans.
3. A Great Support System
“I know that a big part of the reason I’m here is all of the people – the amazing people – in my life that have helped me along the way,” Monk wrote in a Player’s Tribune piece that revealed he was entering the draft.
He thanked his mother, Jackie, and his older brother, Marcus, who played two years in the NFL and two years of professional basketball in Germany. Both have pushed Malik to be the best possible version of himself. After the 47-point outing against UNC, Marcus supposedly made sure to remind his little brother that he failed to secure a single rebound.
And of course, Malik acknowledged the many communities that have helped shape him: Lepanto, Bentonville, Big Blue Nation. In Lepanto, Monk basically lived at the local park, known affectionately as “The Woodz.” “That’s where I came up as a young kid,” Monk penned, “and it’s one of those places that will always feel like home to me.” As a tribute, he recently got a big tattoo of the park across his chest. Wherever he goes, Lepanto comes with him.
“I know they will be proud,” McMahan says of the close-knit, hard-working neighborhood that raised the soon to be NBA player.
Malik has largely embraced his role as “the different one.” He’s recognized the fact that others look up to him, and hasn’t taken it for granted. After every high school game, dozens of kids would wait outside the Bentonville locker room, at home or on the road. They just wanted to meet Malik, the rising star, the next big thing. Rather than locate an escape route, Monk would ensure that every single kid got a picture, autograph, or handshake. According to Bachman, sometimes he’d be out there for over 30 minutes, just confirming he didn’t miss anyone.
He was the same way with his teammates–willingly accepting a leadership role and always looking out. “I think what separates him from a lot of other really talented players is that he was a servant leader. He was the first person there to help you if you were on the ground, willing to stay after practice to work on things with you, or be there to tell you to keep shooting when shots you usually make were not falling,” Bachman describes.
I met Malik on Monday–three days before the Draft–at the Tissot store on 5th avenue in New York. An overwhelming and exhausting week is just beginning. Prospects make appearance after appearance, do interview after interview, pose for picture after picture. But Monk just looks happy to be here, happy to be in this position. He’s all smiles as he moseys around the store, perusing the various collections. “I picked this one out right before the [draft] lottery,” he says, pointing to the Tissot watch on his wrist, which has an orange band and a big face, “I think I’ll wear it Thursday too.” One of the biggest nights of his life awaits, and he needs to be looking fresh. When his name is called, he’ll have another timepiece waiting for him – this one with his new NBA team incorporated, as Tissot will be preparing Quickster watches with custom casebacks for first round selections.
We sit down for a brief conversation, and like the million other media members he will talk to, I am lured to ask: How will it feel to finally walk across that stage?
“I can’t even tell you right now,” he pauses, “I got to wait till that moment. It still seems unreal.”
Alex Squadron is an Editorial Assistant at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.