By Jesus Gomez
Dejounte Murray wasn’t surprised about pulling down 14 rebounds in Monday’s game against the Raptors. “I love rebounding,” he said. Those who remember he averaged over six a game in his sole season in college know he’s not lying.
The 16 points – all within 12 feet of the rim, of course – are not shocking either. Even the six assists to four turnovers are familiar to anyone who knew enough about him as a prospect. Those numbers from his third start of the season paint an accurate picture of the player he was supposed to be in the NBA.
What is completely unexpected is for him to be posting them in his second season. Murray was considered a potential steal, but also a project. It’s extremely early on his sophomore year, but it seems the latest Spurs’ find is breaking out way ahead of schedule.
Murray was always supposed to fill in as a starter at the beginning of the season in place of the injured Tony Parker, but not much was expected of him. If he could buy the Spurs some time before they sent in Patty Mills, he would have done his job. After an up-and-down summer, it was fair to wonder if he was up for the task. It’s only been three games, but those concerns seems foolish. Murray has emerged as a consistent contributor for a San Antonio team that remains undefeated. And he’s mostly doing it on raw talent, instincts and physical tools.
Murray is not a traditional point guard, by any means. He’s not necessarily a modern one, either. He doesn’t fit the calculating floor general model or the three-point shooting scheme destroyer that is in vogue. Instead, he’s more of a slashing combo guard learning how to be a distributor on the fly. That’s a tough transition, one that will likely take Murray at least another year to achieve. Yet despite lacking polish, he still gets things done.
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Murray can’t shoot. He has only attempted two three-pointers this season and missed both. He’s taken 22 out of his 30 total shots within 12 feet for the rim. He was surprisingly good from beyond the arc as a rookie, but only on a handful of attempts and mostly on garbage time. Murray can hit the occasional mid-range pull-up, but the defense will consider it a win if he lets it fly from outside the paint. Everyone knows he wants to go to the bucket. That has always been the scouting report on him.
For such and one-dimensional scorer, however, Murray sure has been effective. He’s averaging 13 points a game on 56 percent from the floor, mostly by finding ways to get to the rack even when defenses are expecting him. He has a quick first step and a knack for catching both his man and the help defender napping. When he sees an opportunity, he just turns on the turbo and blows past his defender. He’s also a good transition scorer and still has a feathery floater he can use if a shot-blocker gets between him and the basket.
A few of his points also come simply from being opportunistic on the glass or on cuts. He has to supplement his scoring that way because the Spurs don’t really use him as a primary weapon. Something similar happens with his playmaking. He boasts a robust assist percentage so far, but he typically gets his dimes within the flow of the offense. He doesn’t really break down defenses or gets players open with his passes. There are flashes that suggest he could become a primary creator, but he’s not there yet.
Fortunately for him, he’s on a team that has offensive fulcrums at other positions. The Spurs don’t rely on their point guards to carry the offense. Patty Mills is mostly a shooter and Tony Parker is a distant third option behind Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The biggest challenge Murray might face this year in terms of point guard responsibilities will be making sure Aldridge gets his touches once Leonard returns. With some guidance from Gregg Popovich and the vets, he should be able to navigate that issue well.
The offensive success he’s been having will get Murray minutes for as long as Parker is out. His work on defense might keep him in the rotation even after Parker returns. Like almost all young guards, Murray struggles navigating screens. He occasionally gambles. Yet he more than makes up for any lack of sophistication on that end with energy and length. If he remains focused on defense, he could be that type of piece that could elevate the Spurs’ already elite perimeter defense.
Murray is big for a point guard, standing at 6’5 and with a 6’10 wingspan. He’s putting those tools to good use, often putting pressure on smaller opposing point guards. His slight frame should make him a target when he’s guarding stronger players, but he’s been able to hold his own even on switches. His long arms, meanwhile, make him a disruptive presence. Sloppy ball handlers and careless big men are never safe when he’s around.
It’s hard to overstate how impressive Murray has been, considering how raw he looked just a few weeks ago. The Spurs have to be ecstatic about how their young point guard is performing, especially since they actually need him to do well in Parker’s absence. If they hope to continue to win, they will need him to play at the level he’s showed so far.
Murray’s ahead-of-schedule ascendance could also provide a clear path forward for the Spurs. Instead of looking for Parker’s heir in free agency, they could ease Murray into that role this year and give him the reins fully next season. If he continues to develop, San Antonio would have successfully reloaded while maintaining continuity.
That might seem too optimistic, but the University of Washington guard has mastered the art of exceeding expectations. When the Spurs drafted Murray, only the most hopeful of Spurs fans thought that he would be contributing on a large role as a sophomore. He was obviously talented but simply had too much to learn.
That remains true to a degree. Murray still can’t shoot, he doesn’t have refined playmaking ability or a profound understanding of defensive schemes. He’s pretty much the player he was in college in terms of skills. He’s just making up for it with energy and by being smart enough to leverage his significant physical tools.
Murray is still raw, but he’s already making a positive impact at the NBA level. If he ever truly hones his skills, the Spurs will have one of the most dynamic young point guards in the league in their hands.
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