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Dejounte Murray’s playmaking hasn’t caught up to the rest of his game

Murray’s defense and rebounding are already great and his scoring is progressing — but creating for others...

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Dejounte Murray is finally free. With his minutes restriction lifted, the young guard has averaged four more points per game than his season average in the past five outings while also continuing to post elite numbers in rebounds and steals for a guard.

There is one area, however, in which Murray has not showed the improvement expected of him, and it’s an important one considering his position. Dejounte is not in the top 50 in the league in assists per game and has not really increased his dime dishing numbers since his minutes have increased.

It looks like Dejounte’s leap as a playmaker is probably not coming this season, for several reasons.

What Murray can’t control

Having his minutes largely tethered to DeMar DeRozan’s is both a blessing and a curse for Murray. On the one hand, DeRozan’s presence allows Murray to not have to overextend himself by taking on a primary initiator role he might not be ready for; but on the other it prevents him from getting opportunities to expand his game. Murray doesn’t turn into prime Chris Paul in the few minutes he plays without DeRozan, but he does show some minor improvement in both assist percentage and turnover percentage and, more importantly, he gets to push the pace. As long as DeRozan is around, we won’t really see if Murray can actually lead a unit, which is simultaneously reassuring and disappointing.

The Spurs’ lack of spacing does Murray no favors, either. Dejounte contributes to those issues himself, of course, but when he has the ball in his hands they don’t go away. The most used lineups that include Murray also include DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge (two players who shy away from the three-point shot) and often either a forward or a center. Dejounte has trouble getting past his man even in ideal situations, but even when he does he might not find someone open for long, as the other team can pack the paint and recover to shooters that are reluctant, inefficient or both. In pick and roll situations the paint is often so congested that Murray has to pass to the dive man earlier than ideal because the window closes so fast.

With better spacing, more control of the tempo of the offense and more opportunities to create Murray would likely look better as a playmaker. Unfortunately the Spurs can’t offer him that at this point.

What Murray can control

Not every issue with Murray’s often underwhelming ability to create for others stems from problems related to personnel or system. Sometimes Dejounte is actually to blame for his struggles. In no area is that more apparent than in transition. Murray ranks eighth in the league in turnover frequency in transition according to Synergy, and ninth among guards in turnover ratio early in the shot clock by NBA tracking data. The numbers seem to confirm what the eye test suggests: Murray’s decision-making on the break is ridiculously poor. It’s a big problem because one of Dejounte’s biggest strengths at this point is creating favorable opportunities by pushing the pace using his otherworldly speed, but he doesn’t capitalize on those opportunities because he’s so mistake-prone.

In the half court it’s not Murray’s decision-making that holds him back as much of his lack of refined skills. Murray can’t shoot consistently from outside, but he’s also not a great finisher at the rim, despite a promising start of the season in that area. As a result opponents get to play a very conservative brand of defense when he’s running the show. They go under screens to keep him away from the lane, which forces the Spurs’ centers to set and reset screens instead of diving. If Murray breaks free and drives, opponents are more than happy to have a big man challenge him instead of helping more aggressively off shooters. Someone with a tighter handle would still manage to navigate that type of defense well but Dejounte has not mastered that skill yet.

There are areas in which Murray can clearly improve his game to become a better playmaker. From his decision-making to his overall scoring, his skill set has a lot of holes that prevent him from being a primary creator.

We might have to wait for the leap, but it could come in the future

The good news is that Dejounte has shown at least intermittent progress in virtually all the areas in which he needs improvement already and should continue to get better thanks to his work ethic. A tighter handle, a more confident pull-up from mid-range and some improved finishing ability through contact would do wonders for him, and he’s still young enough to develop all three.

As for the makeup of the team around him, the Spurs fortunately already have another young guard who can share playmaking duties while showing an improved outside shot in Derrick White, a running mate for Murray to wreak havoc with in transition in Lonnie Walker IV and a screen setter and rim runner in Jakob Poeltl. As those guys become bigger parts of the rotation and the veterans leave or fade, Murray will have the right teammates around him to fully reach his potential.

The biggest concern with Murray as a prospect was that he simply might not have the vision and temperament to be a lead creator, which might still be true. Fortunately for the Spurs, he’s showing enough positive signs even under less than ideal circumstances to still have hope that he’ll eventually get there.