November 9, 2018

“Passing the torch” isn’t a new concept, especially for the San Antonio Spurs. We’ve seen countless examples of it over the past two decades. The most prominent example: David Robinson taking a step back for a young Tim Duncan. We know how that turned out.

The list goes on: From Duncan to Tony Parker; from Parker to Kawhi Leonard; from an injured Leonard to a revitalized LaMarcus Aldridge. San Antonio’s excellence has been sustained thanks to their ability to promote in-house.

Jan. 21 marked the beginning of a new chapter — a literal changing of the guard. Parker, unquestionably the best point guard in franchise history, graciously took a step back in favor of Murray.

Murray replacing Parker in the starting lineup shouldn’t come as a surprise. He was drafted as the heir apparent with the 29th pick in the 2016 draft. Add in Parker’s age, coupled with the quad injury from last season, and the shift seemed even more inevitable.

Still, “Tony Parker, super sub” has an odd ring to it. At his peak, he was one of the most dynamic guards in basketball, consistently jitterbugging into the lane and finishing amongst the trees with relative ease. At one point, he was the best player in a Big Three featuring Duncan and Manu Ginobili. The fall from grace has not been pleasant, but there aren’t many teams that have proven to be equipped to deal with that like the Spurs.

The increase in responsibility doesn’t change the fact that Murray is a project. He has great physical tools, and he’ll have stretches where he can overwhelm opposing guards. There have been, and will continue to be growing pains as Murray finds his way. Murray’s play this season illustrates how far has to go, but also why San Antonio is excited about him.

DEFENSE

Let’s start with the good. Murray projects as a multi-positional defender because of his size and length. You can’t do much better than 6’5 with a 6’10 wingspan. He has no issue flashing his hands and making plays on the ball. With that kind of length, no ball-handler is truly safe.

Murray was all over the place against the Utah Jazz on Monday night. He kicked off the game with the blocked shot, getting a piece of a Mitchell triple at the end of the shot clock:

Early in the second quarter, he Jalen Ramsey’d a lazy pass from Raul Neto, leading to an easy flush. You can’t teach this kind of anticipation.

He had three blocks against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night, the most impressive coming against Gary Harris in transition. Danny Green had to be proud:

Murray is active and trusts himself, sometimes too much. Like many young perimeter players, he can take some odd angles when fighting over screens. He can make up ground quickly, but he still shouldn’t take himself out of plays as much as he does. He’s been burned when going under screens in pick-and-roll (1.406 points per possession allowed, 5th percentile) and navigating dribble-handoffs (1.0 points per possession allowed, 32nd percentile) because he hasn’t been able to recover and close out as quickly as he feels he can.

Mitchell shot 4-of-18 while Murray was on the floor on Monday night, but that had more to do with Mitchell being off than Murray being a deterrent. Murray constantly found himself tangled up in screens and was either bailed out by help or out-of-the-norm misses. To be fair, Gobert and Derrick Favors aren’t easy guys to navigate around, but these are the kind of shots that counted positively for Murray on the stat sheet despite him defending pretty poorly:

Speedster JJ Barea was able to shake loose against Murray on this dribble-handoff with Dirk Nowitzki. This isn’t awful defense, but one misstep put him at a disadvantage he couldn’t recover from.

Still, there’s a lot to like about Murray defensively. As he gains more experience, he’ll learn more of the subtle tricks that smart defenders have in their repertoire. He has the potential to be an All-Defensive team guy somewhere down the line. Even if he doesn’t, he’s so much better than San Antonio’s current alternatives at his position. They can afford to live with his youthful warts for now.

OFFENSE

Murray’s averages don’t pop off the screen. On the season, he’s averaging 7.1 points with a 43/21/71 shooting split, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 19.4 minutes. Since taking over the starting job for good, things have looked a little better. Since Jan. 21 (11 starts), Murray has averaged 10.5 points (49/25/73), 7.5 rebounds, and 4.2 assists to 2.1 turnovers.

You won’t confuse Dejounte with the other Murray in Denver; he basically refuses to take threes (just four attempts in his last 11 starts) and doesn’t possess an ankle-snapping handle to get where he wants. He mostly plays within himself and takes what the defense gives him.

In a vacuum, that’s not a bad thing. It’s not often that you see young point guards, especially raw ones like Murray, stick to their strengths, make simple reads, and keep the chain moving if nothing’s there.

Here, Murray recognizes that Cleveland’s defense isn’t set. Davis Bertans goes into lead blocker mode, shielding off Jae Crowder instead of setting a normal pick (likely followed by popping out). This may shock you, but Isaiah Thomas does not have ideal positioning here. The middle is wide open, and Murray graciously takes the opening, capping things off with an easy finish.

Later in the game, Murray and LaMarcus Aldridge go into their two-man dance against Thomas and Kevin Love. Murray chills until Cleveland shows ICE coverage. Recognizing that, he drives hard to his left, easily beating Thomas off the bounce and forcing Love to commit to him. That leaves Aldridge open on the pop. Murray makes the easy pass, and Aldridge drains the leaping free throw.

Neither of those plays are worthy of SportsCenter love, but they get the job done. Murray used his size, athleticism, and vision to make the best available play.

Murray’s ability to make the right read against ICE and drop coverage is a necessary part of his development. He’s shown just enough craft to be able to create shots for his big men, whether they roll to the rim or pop out for the jumper.

His best assist from the Utah game came in the third quarter. The Jazz showed an ICE look, and Murray manipulated the coverage with the savvy of a 10-year pro:

An issue for Murray, at least right now, is that he doesn’t impose his will very often. There’s a line to walk between taking what the defense gives you, and settling for what’s available because you’re limited. Murray is young and has plenty of upside, but he currently falls on the wrong side of that line.

A cursory look at his Synergy page should induce a gulp, or at least a sigh. He’s generating 0.772 points per possession as an offensive player, placing him in the 12th percentile. Once you factor in assists, that number bumps up to 1.154 points per possession, which ranks in the 38th percentile. He grades out as “below average” in transition and as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, he’s been a “poor” isolation scorer and spot-up shooter.

The next step in Murray’s development is developing some consistency with his mid-range jumper. That’s an odd request in today’s three-point-heavy NBA, but with the way teams dip under screens against him, he has to make them pay from the in-between area at the very least. He had the jumper cooking against Denver on Tuesday night. That’s a positive on its own, but look at how much space Denver gave him.

Murray being a non-shooter isn’t great, but in theory, it’s something that can be worked around considering his size and speed. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t have the touch or enough creativity in his chamber to compensate yet. The jumper is an issue (36.5 percent from mid-range), and he’s only converting 51.8 percent of his shots at the rim, the fifth worst mark among 128 players averaging at least three attempts at the rim per game.

A lack of strength plays a part in his finishing woes. He’s pretty lanky right now, so even the slightest contact bothers him. Here, Murray tries to knock noted bodybuilder Michael Carter-Williams (can you feel my eyes rolling?) off his spot for the transition layup. MCW isn’t deterred, and the ensuing shot misses by a mile.

That kind of thing will improve just by gaining muscle. However, Murray’s overall feel leaves a bit to be desired. He’s fast enough to get by defenders, and he’s shown flashes of the stop-and-go that many of the league’s craftiest drivers have in their bag. Right now, Murray doesn’t know when to turn on the jets, when to shift speeds, and how to alter his shot based on how quickly he gets to the rim.

Here, Murray blows by Kay Felder and finds himself matched up with Robin Lopez. Murray freezes Lopez with a hesitation before turning on the burners. He follows that up with … an inside scoop that doesn’t have a chance. The shot was a disaster from the moment he took off from so far away.

Murray’s shot log is littered with those awkward scoop attempts. You’d like to see him swap out some of those soft takes with hard gathers into the body of opponents so he can either secure more control on the way up, or at least draw more fouls. He’ll have to figure out something in that regard.

The fact that he isn’t a threat from inside or outside caps his ceiling as a playmaker. He sees the floor well and makes the basic reads you need to keep an offense humming, but that only works if the defense is bent. The Murray-to-Aldridge clip from earlier is an example of him making a scrambling defense pay. On the flip side, check out this play against the Lakers.

It ends in an assist, but pay attention to how Lonzo Ball defended Murray. He dipped way under the screen because he knew Murray wouldn’t pull the jumper. He was also in position to thwart a drive if Murray decided to press the issue. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Brandon Ingram dropped down to provide help where it wasn’t needed, so it led to a bucket anyway. The blueprint is out there, though: go under any screen Murray calls for, and make sure the help stays home.

In order for the Spurs to evolve, Murray will have to take a leap offensively. He doesn’t have to be a 20-a-night scorer like peak Tony Parker, but he has to start putting pressure on defenses like him. Murray is only 21 — there’s time — but for San Antonio’s sake, hopefully he’ll start molding into a threat sooner rather than later.

 

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