This series will look at each of the Spurs’ eight under-30 players with an eye towards how they can improve in or expand their role on the team. Rather than focus on individual skills, for the most part, we’ll concentrate on what the team needs from each player on offense and defense to identify a key opportunity to have more impact.
Dejounte Murray has only to play regular season minutes to improve on last year’s contributions. Fingers crossed, that should be a low bar to pass. Whether he’ll be the same player or not after returning from a season-stealing ACL tear in his right knee remains to be seen, but if workout clips and rumors can be trusted, Dejounte appears to be well on his way back to form.
On the surface, that seems to augur well for the Spurs’ eventual return to contention in the Western Conference. A back-court pairing of Dejounte and Derrick White will put an immediate end to the porous perimeter defense that plagued the team last year. Dejounte is a phenom on that end of the court, having become the youngest player ever to earn a spot on an All-Defensive Team at just 21 years old.
He has the potential to compete for Defensive Player of the Year, although it’s been over 20 years since a guard last earned that honor. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to do so at the still very young age of 23, but it’s within the realm of the possible for the young Spur. Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus-Minus projections for next season, for instance, forecast Dejounte having the 3rd highest defensive impact of any player in the league.
Of course, that assumes Dejounte can regain all the explosiveness and agility that turns his uncanny anticipation into broken plays and steals. If he is still that player, with another full season of film study and practice under his belt, the Spurs will be a nightmare for opposing ball-handlers.
That would be a welcome change after last year’s 20th ranked defense managed to allow guards to score 20 points or more 64 times, the most in the league.
If Dejounte’s healthy, that’s over. The Spurs will easily rise back into the top 10 on defense, maybe even the top 5. If that sounds like hyperbole, consider that over the 56 games after Derrick White re-entered the starting lineup for good on December 9, 2018, last year’s Spurs were better than league average on D, giving up 110.0 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass (CTG), good for 12th in the league over that time.
The problems, if there are any, will come on the other end of the floor. When Dejounte last played minutes that mattered, the Spurs’ offense was worse at almost everything with him on the court. They shot worse, turned the ball over slightly more, and drew fewer free throws. Offensive rebounding was the lone bright spot, as the team’s rate increased by 2.3% when he played.
That wasn’t, however, nearly enough to make up the difference, and the Spurs scored 5.1 points per 100 possessions less with Dejounte on the floor over the course of the 2017-18 season.
A lot of that can be chalked up to the growing pains of a young point guard learning how to play the position. Dejounte clearly had the ability to make plays, but his timing and decision making lagged far behind his athleticism and vision.
He could create separation out of the pick and roll both using and rejecting the screen going to his left or right, but all too often he failed to exploit that advantage to produce a high value opportunity. He showed an innate understanding of when to cut to the rim and how to open up a passing lane in the process but often found himself out of position for a layup or having misread the help defense far too frequently. He sliced through transition defense like it wasn’t there, generating the most transition attempts on the team, but scored just .95 points per possession on those attempts, an absurdly low number that would’ve been last on the team last season.
All of that appears to have been a part of the plan, though. Despite playing nearly 90% of his minutes alongside someone else capable of running the offense (Patty Mills, Kyle Anderson, or Manu Ginobili), the Spurs gave Dejounte an awful lot of freedom and responsibility. He may not have converted at a high rate, but he got a ton of reps.
In addition to leading the team in transition plays, Dejounte was 2nd in possessions used as the ball handler in the pick and roll and 2nd in isolations. Of course, he was near the bottom of the team in points per possession in both of those categories as well, but the experience born of those opportunities should bear fruit.
Also, to be fair, using points per possession to assess his efficiency in different aspects of the game is just another way of assessing his ability to make shots, and there’s a much easier way to do that.
So far in his career, Dejounte has been a below average shooter from almost everywhere on the court. There’s a chance the retooled jumper he unveiled this spring will make next season different. If he can hit a few more floaters, knock down some pull up jumpers out of the pick and roll, and step into an open three every so often, the defensive value he brings will easily outweigh his offensive limitations.
Looking back to the Spurs’ first preseason game last year, it’s easy to see that version of Dejounte starting to take shape. His defensive chops were visible right from the tip.
On the very first possession of the team’s first preseason game, Dejounte blew up a hand-off, tipped and nearly stole the ensuing pass, switched seamlessly twice in two seconds, then collapsed on the shot into good rebounding position.
And just as importantly, he seemed ready and willing to take open looks.
That’s the treatment Dejounte’s going to get until he shows he can knock shots down consistently. Of course, there’s essentially no chance he’s already turned himself into a long-distance threat; that type of development takes years. It’s reasonable to expect Dejounte’s shooting to have improved, but he’s not going to solve the team’s spacing issues by himself.
It’s very unlikely he’ll be more than an average shooter from deep, even on the wide-open, catch and shoot opportunities he’s likely to take at this point in his development. That’s not to say he won’t get there, just that it takes time. But he doesn’t need to be Patty Mills or Bryn Forbes to be effective; he just needs to be able to take advantage of the open looks the offense gives him.
If he can, the Spurs will be dangerous a lot sooner than many expect. If he’s not there yet, Dejounte will have to find other ways to make a positive impact on that end of the floor.
Fortunately, being such a relatively poor offensive player leaves plenty of room for improvement. Dejounte is especially fortunate he has a teammate who already excels in most of the areas he’s looking to improve: DeMar DeRozan.
DeMar made 69.5% of his looks at the rim last season and drew fouls on 15% of his two-point attempts. Those are elite numbers, which, along with hitting 83.1% of his free throws, represent just about everything that’s efficient about DeMar’s scoring profile.
In his last season, Dejounte made just 55.5% of his looks at the rim and drew fouls on only 10% of his two-pointers, both about league average for a point guard. Converting those attempts at a higher rate and drawing more fouls in the process would go a long way towards offsetting below-average outside shooting.
That’s particularly true considering his single most undeniable offensive skill is the ability to get to the basket. He took 3.5 attempts per game within 4 feet of the basket in 2017-18, a number that would have put him 3rd on the team last season, behind only LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar. If he can learn to finish more effectively and draw fouls more frequently, he could become a viable threat, especially out of the pick and roll when there’s only 1 big on the floor or when the team plays multiple shooters.
Some of Dejounte’s best play came in those kinds of lineups.
That’s a mistake by Jerami Grant, most likely, as he sticks to Davis Bertans even though Paul George shifts over to deny the screen. But if he drops to stop penetration, Davis is open at the three-point line, which isn’t a good outcome, either. Dejounte is quick and Davis can shoot.
The two made a pretty dangerous pick and pop pairing that season, something the Spurs should be able to look forward to this year as well. Over 861 possessions, excluding garbage time, Davis and Dejounte registered a net rating of +10.9 points per 100 possessions, per CTG, which was the best two-player net rating on the team.
They didn’t manufacture this bucket by themselves, though. Both Grant and George appeared to expect help from the back line here, too. But with Bryn and Danny Green in the corners, there wasn’t a good spot to help from.
Dejounte also showed great patience in the pick and roll at times, stretching out the big and looking for an opening.
He finds it here by using some nifty dribbling to set Jamal Murray up for the screen, then easing out to the left side, dragging Nikola Jokic away from the paint, before blowing by him to the rim.
He missed, but because he occupied Jokic, Joffrey Lauvergne had an easy time cleaning up. Still, over the course of the season, Dejounte bricked a lot of open layups just like this.
Some of the problem is a lack of touch. Dejounte will probably never turn into Tony Parker around the rim, but he can do better that this.
Aside from just practicing these shots over and over again, Dejounte should work on adding some more muscle to his frame. At 6’5” and only 170 lbs when he came into the league, Dejounte had one of the slightest builds of any player in the NBA. He’s clearly bulked up over the last few seasons, and that will likely need to continue. The shoulder he dropped into Justice Winslow’s chest in that first preseason game last year was a good sign in that regard.
It’s not just about size, though. Generating enough vertical explosion to clear NBA defenders after complex movements like in-and-outs, Euro-steps, and the like requires an incredible combination of balance and power. Dejounte struggled to get lift in those situations during his first two seasons with the Spurs, an issue that had a lot to do with him getting his shot blocked more than anyone else on the team.
He also needs to lean into a few tricks of the trade. Using his off arm to ward off defenders, creating contact by veering into the defender’s path, and getting into the body of a potential rim protector could all dramatically improve his performance in the restricted area if he would employ them more often. Those tactics would likely give him better looks and increase the likelihood of drawing enough contact to get a call.
That too will likely come with time and reps. As easy as it is to expect world-shattering improvements from the Spurs’ potential point guard of the future, it’s important to remember that Dejounte is still very young. He was born the exact same day, September 19th, 1996, as the 21st pick in this year’s draft, Brandon Clarke, and both are 6 months younger than the 11th overall pick, Cameron Johnson.
Dejounte deserves time to continue developing. If he and the Spurs can remain patient — a safe bet if ever there was one — they’ll almost certainly be rewarded once again.