San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs’ future depends on the growth of Dejounte Murray

Dejounte Murray is blazingly fast, and a lengthy and impactful defender. But until he adds a jump-shot, the Spurs’ future won’t be as bright as its past.

The Spurs were winning 51-40, midway through the third quarter, when the Houston announcer couldn’t help himself. “Murray lined up on Harden…Harden takes him to school!”

To him, the Harden school of isolation was in session, and Murray was the student.

Instead, Murray taught Harden. Four times through-the-legs. Two hesitations. The spin. Murray was there. Harden bricked an off-balance layup and Murray snatched the rebound. The two exchanged words. Then, Murray finished a floater at the other end.

The sequence should serve as a reminder that Dejounte Murray, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL against the Rockets in last season’s preseason, is back.

His impact will mostly be felt on the defensive end where he can turbo-charge last season’s 22nd-rated defense. In 2017-18, the Spurs’ defense allowed 5.1 fewer points with Murray on the floor. Named to the 2018 All-Defense Second-Team, Murray was the only player 6-foot-6 or shorter to record 400 rebounds, 90 steals, and 30 blocks. His impact is difficult to pinpoint. Perhaps best described as a venus flytrap, his 6-foot-10 wingspan swallows unsuspecting visitors. His abnormally large hands are hair triggers, reacting to every movement.

Even with Murray back in the fold, the Spurs’ 22-year playoff streak is in jeopardy. No one should doubt five-time champion Gregg Popovich, but the absence of a go-to star limits their ceiling. San Antonio is projected by Vegas to be the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference, behind the Dallas Mavericks, a 33-win team last season. On defense alone, Murray’s return will pay dividends, but he needs an improvement on the offensive end to elevate the Spurs ceiling.

His redeeming quality is his speed, which isn’t blazing like De’Aaron Fox, kinetic like Dennis Smith Jr., end-to-end like John Wall, nor jolting like Russell Westbrook, but infinite, a bottomless well waiting to be tapped into. A distant relative of Caris LeVert, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and D’Angelo Russell, his speed has a more stimulating than sedating feeling. Normally, he dribbles upright, and his kick of hesitation leaves defenders wondering what hit them.

While Murray’s ball-handling blitzkrieg punctures defensive perimeters, it doesn’t detonate interiors. Murray is a guard borne out of the Spurs archaic system — a team last in 3-pointers attempted last season. His 55.3 percent field goal shooting in the restricted area — the sixth-lowest mark in 2017-18 — is particularly worrisome considering it comprises 45.5 percent of his shot profile.

In the process of constantly trying to use his speed and height to his advantage, he leaves behind what makes his off-beat kilter effective in the first place: change of direction. In the paint, Murray avoids contact, often deploying a hop-step or pro-step. His long-reaching strides result in a loss of vertical explosion. So much so, Murray forces himself to take floaters off the wrong foot, with the wrong hand. Larger defenders simply have little trouble blocking those off-balance floaters. Murray placed third in shots blocked for guards (46) who, in 2017-18, played as many minutes (1743).

Embracing a modern approach — finishing at the rim and taking more 3-point shots — is paramount moving forward for Murray. Someone in the Spurs’ starting lineup needs to offset LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, who were top two in mid-range shots attempted last season. Despite being a non-factor from deep — 18-of-57 on 3-pointers in his career — Murray is a prime candidate.

Using the preseason as evidence of Murray’s ceiling provides optimism in more than one regard. While the statistics should be taken with a grain of salt — there were just five games — what mattered was that the culmination of his rigid routine — the six-day-a-week (five-days-a-week in June) workouts — showed.

In the offseason, Murray focused on knee and core work. It paid off: Murray made six of his 10 shots in the restricted area. Harnessing his chaos, Murray opted to jump-stop more often than not. Such a move promotes stability and power. Also on full display was his forearm shiver, this time used against larger forwards rather than just smaller guards.

Even more, the third-year guard showcased a new shot form. On full display was the process, which started two years ago under the tutelage of Chip Engelland — who once fixed Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard’s jump shots. Iin 2017-18, his off-hand tended to touch three different spots of the ball, making it resemble Magic Johnson’s shot form, a glorified floater of sorts. Now, everything is more consistent.

He releases the ball slightly further above his forehead. He narrowed his base, pointing his toes towards the rim and bending his legs. Murray now lands more balanced instead of flailing forward or sideways and follows through with his arm straight up rather than tilted.

His three 3-point makes were classified as “above-the-break” on, the most interesting of which came at the beginning of the third quarter against the Rockets. Turning down two ball-screens, Murray spotted-up from 30-feet out:

Staggered with Derrick White, Murray is the Spurs only hope for increasing efficiency when it comes to creation. On a Spurs team that upped their pick-and-roll ante, a 27.1 percentile in pick-and-roll scoring efficiency simply won’t suffice. Until he proves he can shoot better than 33.8 percent on pull-up shots — 0.2 percentage points better than Ben Simmons for measure — defenses will defend him like last season with on-ball defenders going under ball-screens, bigs, aggressively dropping. It’s up to him. The next step isn’t making shots, it’s taking his time; taking the extra dribble, either to perform a step-back or to create a window for the rolling teammate.

Murray recently signed a four-year, $64 million contract extension with the Spurs. Murray’s extension, to be sure, is a downright bargain — especially when compared to the other recent extensions around the league (see: Jaylen Brown’s four-year, $115 million deal). But if the Spurs can’t surround him correctly, it’s all for naught.

Expecting Murray to metamorphose into a new player is asking too much. He’s not an All-Star yet. Baby steps. His developing game requires his team to maximize his strengths, diminish his weaknesses. The answer is simple: tether him to floor-spacers, like they have done in the preseason, pairing him with Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills.

If their future, first and foremost, depends on Murray, a key background figure is Derrick White. The pairing didn’t play together in the preseason. Maybe Popovich wants to stagger their two top perimeter defenders. Maybe he wants to pit shooters next to their unwilling (unable?) shooting point guards. Whatever the case, Popovich needs them to play together. The Spurs need to keep a foot in their present and future.

Next: Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25

In 2020-21, the contracts of Patty Mills, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gay, who are already older than 30-years old, expire. Can the foundation of dynasty erected on wise drafting techniques, find a Tim Duncan to their Tony Parker in free agency?

The Spurs are on a head-to-head collision with mediocrity. There’s no other way around it. An improvement from Murray could give them homecourt advantage, while a stagnation could see them drop out of the playoffs in a rigorous Western Conference. Murray represents the next Spurs generation and his path from here on determines how dark or bright their future is.

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