Learning the game from his star-athlete brother and earning his stripes at a hallowed local park instilled a competitiveness in the Kings guard that has driven him to NBA success.
On the outdoor basketball courts known locally as ‘The Woodz,’ where by night, grown men, sometimes three or four times his age, played pickup games until it was too dark to see the rim, the youngest hooper in the park hung on every word of instruction offered by his older, star-athlete sibling.
It was on those back streets in Lepanto, Ark., that Marcus Monk, former Arkansas Mr. Basketball and a 7th-round draft pick by the Chicago Bears, spent countless hours demonstrating to his brother Malik Monk, 12 years his junior, the rudiments of the game.
And it was there, in a small community of fewer than 2,000 people, that the education of Malik, then 11 years old, began in earnest. Smiling, nodding, absorbing, his attention was locked on every one of his idol’s moves and instructions.
When others tried to dismiss Malik as too lightweight, too inexperienced to offer meaningful competition in pickup games where taking it easy on the new kid was an unheard-of breach of etiquette, Marcus was his “in,” refusing to play unless an invite was extended to his little brother, too.
“Marcus definitely paved the road for me,” Malik said. “He means everything to me. It’s not just basketball. He’s seen everything and he knew what positions I was going to be in if I just had my head straight. He helped me through all that.
“Playing with him [at ‘The Woodz’], that really molded my basketball game to where I am today,” continued the Kings guard. “It was crazy out there, but that’s what made me.”
Monk is nearly a decade removed from those early, defining moments in his hometown, but ‘The Woodz’ have remained part of his identity from Arkansas to Kentucky to Sacramento. Detailed tattoos of the park, surrounding neighborhood and tributes to his journey stretch across his chest and down his left arm, from shoulder to wrist. (His right arm remains ink-free, he explains, because it’s reserved “strictly for buckets.”)
Marcus remains not only Malik’s closest friend and mentor, but also represents the sixth-year guard, along with Jeff Schwartz, as an agent for Excel Sports. Several times each week, the Monk brothers reconnect on the phone to debrief and discuss how Malik, who’s averaging career-highs in points (14.9 per game), assists (3.8) and PER (17.7), is putting together his finest season and the many ways he can impact the game as a versatile super-sub.
“We have a good balance. He’s at a level where he studies, he does what he does at his job, and he’ll call me every few games [and ask], ‘What do you see? What’s going on with this? How do you see I can get better about my reads?’” Marcus said. “It’s the same things we’ve been doing forever, but now it’s just he understands it more. When he got to the NBA, it just took him some time to really master his role, but he’s getting better and better and better, year by year, in knowing what he needs to do for his team at that moment.”
Marcus recognized early that Malik was unlike most kids his age. When Marcus attended college, Malik frequently stayed in his older brother’s dorm room during the school year and off-campus apartment throughout the summers, learning organically that basketball is about more than dunks and step-back jump shots inhabiting playgrounds.
Basketball that wins games, Marcus told him, is about less-heralded fundamentals like reading coverages, keeping his head in the game and giving maximum effort at all times.
Above all, Marcus’ philosophy hinged on two core principles he learned the hard way: never get too high and never get too low.
“Sports is the ultimate humbler,” Marcus said. “You’re humbled every time you step on that court because no two days are alike and you have to have the mental fortitude to stay balanced. You can’t get too low because it’s so hard to work your way back up. And you can’t get too high because when you get knocked down, it hurts when you fall.”
A promising football career was derailed when Marcus, the Razorbacks’ all-time leader in touchdown receptions, suffered a serious knee injury that required microfracture surgery. After he was waived by the Bears in training camp and didn’t advance beyond practice-squad stints with the Giants and Panthers, he detoured back to basketball, playing professionally in Germany for two seasons.
Marcus didn’t push Malik to follow in his footsteps, but Malik long admired his older brother, drew inspiration from him and had dreams of turning pro just like him.
Around the same time Marcus returned to Arkansas to earn his MBA, Malik was ascendinding as one of the top basketball prospects in the country. Marcus not only began training him in the gym with more advanced skill-level drills, but helped guide and navigate him through difficult decisions by drawing on his own experiences.
“He’d been through everything I was going through before, and he knew there’s always going to be some adversity going on,” Malik said. “He just told me to put in the work and we'd get through it together, with our family.”
Before his sophomore year of high school, Malik and his mother, Jacaynlene, who was born and raised in Lepanto, left the only place they’d ever called home to relocate into a two-bedroom apartment in Bentonville, Ark. The move brought them only 30 minutes north of Marcus’ graduate school in Fayetteville, and presented better academic opportunities for Malik at Bentonville High.
Malik remains grateful to his mother for uprooting her life in northeast Arkansas to help him pursue his dream.
“She sacrificed everything for me,” he said. “My mama was [in Lepanto] for 40-something years, but [she wanted] a better situation for me school-wise, basketball-wise. The rest is history.”
Because of Marcus' longstanding ties to the U of A, it was widely assumed Malik, a five-star recruit as a senior, would likewise stay in his birth state. But Malik, to the dismay and disappointment of Razorbacks fans, committed to Kentucky because the Wildcats presented the best situation for him to achieve his long-term goals. Boos followed him across gyms and mean-spirited taunts, even death threats, clogged his direct messages, but Marcus was there to help insulate Malik from the brunt of the negativity.
“We’re so close-knit; along with me, we had an army around us, just from our relatives, close friends, Malik’s coaching staff, his teammates, my mom’s sister and brothers,” Marcus said. “It brought everyone closer. It passed and ultimately it worked out for both sides.”
At Kentucky, Malik blossomed into one of the nation’s brightest stars, and strengthened an already close friendship with teammate De’Aaron Fox, whom he’d met in eighth grade on the AAU training camp circuit and shared co-MVP honors with during the 2016 Jordan Brand Classic.
“We clicked,” Monk said, snapping his fingers, “instantly. We were talking before we went to Kentucky. We clicked right away because we were some of the top-rated guards in the class. We were together every single day since I got to Kentucky.”
The pair went their separate ways when Fox was selected fifth overall in the 2017 Draft by Sacramento and Monk 11th by Charlotte, but continued to speak on a near-daily basis and made dinner plans when their schedules allowed.
Monk never quite found his rhythm during his time with the Hornets, but despite the ups of netting over 30 points four times and downs of being dropped from the main rotation, he increased his scoring average and shooting percentages in each of his four seasons.
“My main thing at that time was just helping him with being patient,” Marcus said. “I always tell him, ‘You can’t be microwavable; as far as your role and your career, sometimes it just takes time.’ In Charlotte, he made it hard on himself sometimes. He was more frustrated for the wrong reasons. He needed to get knocked in the head because I really believe it’s truly helped him turn into the player he’s becoming now.”
After one year with the Lakers, where Monk established career-bests in nearly every major statistical category and reshaped his career trajectory, the Kings were among a handful of teams that prioritized him as a free agent last summer. Sacramento checked off every box for Monk: a consistent role, a respected coach and a reunion with Fox that was six years in the making.
“[Fox] called me as soon as free agency opened up,” Monk said. “He said a couple of things, but I didn’t think anything of it. L.A. made an offer, but it didn’t match up with what I wanted to do. The next day, I signed with the Kings. I’m happy to be here now.”
The Kings, by all accounts, couldn’t be more thrilled he’s there, too, sparking a surging second-unit, repopularizing band-aids as a fashion trend, and providing a positive influence inside the locker room with his uplifting spirit.
“Malik is the one in practice especially, talking to the guys, getting guys in the right spot, encouraging the guys,” said Kings head coach Mike Brown. “His calmness and presence and the communication that he brings to that group has been great. He’s just a great, fun-loving guy to be around, always messing with people, engaging with people, so to have that energy within the group helps lift everybody even during days when we’re getting after it, we’re in there for a long time.”
Monk has no preference, he says, on whether he starts or substitutes, but while he’s talented enough to be among the first five for most teams, he may have found his niche as an integral reserve who maximizes every minute he’s on the floor. When Monk learned that he'd be coming off the bench, earning 6th Man of the Year honors became one of his personal goals.
Sacramento’s No. 0 ranks second in the league in total bench points (401) and is one of only three non-starters who’s averaging at least 14 points, 3.5 assists and two made threes per game. He’s made an even stronger push for the top-sub award as of late, with seven outings of 20 or more points in his last 19 appearances.
Monk’s assist rate (25.4) is up 11 points from last season and places him in the 99th percentile at his position, according to Cleaning the Glass. On drives to the rim, he’s assisting a teammate 18.3 percent of the time, the highest rate among 137 players with at least 100 possessions, per Synergy Sports.
Few backups have also been as consistent or efficient at putting the ball in the basket as Monk, who, since the beginning of November, is scoring 24.7 points per 36 minutes while converting 48.4 percent from the field, 35.2 percent from behind the arc and 91.9 percent from the foul line.
“You talk about his ability to shoot, he can create for people, he has a medium game and we all know if he gets cooking, he’s hard to slow down,” Brown said. “So to have a guy like that coming off our bench, who’s starting to know the league a little bit, has been really good for us.”
Monk has picked up right where he left off with Fox, too, connecting on multiple alley-oop sequences that would impress the Harlem Globetrotters.
“It’s lovely; just us getting back there and being ourselves,” Monk said. “I complement him, he complements me.”
Just as he’d done since Malik’s childhood, Marcus has been right there with his younger sibling, cheering from his front-row seat at Sacramento’s home opener and giving him advice after the game. And just as he’s done the last few summers, Malik plans to northwest Arkansas to spend time with his mother and older brother during the offseason.
Time and circumstance have slowly extinguished an old sibling rivalry, at least temporarily, but Marcus isn’t ready to pass the torch to Malik as Lepanto’s greatest athlete. Neither remembers when their last one-on-one battle took place, but Marcus, who stands two inches taller, is emphatic that he had – and will always have – the upper hand.
“He still can’t beat me!” Marcus said with a chuckle. “The last time we played, I made sure that I won, and we won’t play again. He was a lot smaller at that time and I just remember I took him down to the post, bully-balled him. It probably would be a little different now, but we’ll never know. We’ll leave it at that.”