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Dejounte Murray still has much to prove as franchise point guard

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Murray’s contrasts make him unique, but his shortcomings as a playmaker have limited team success and kept him off the court in crunch time.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

An increasingly disappointing 2019-20 season has offered up plenty to pick apart: the summer signings haven’t all panned out, core players have unexpectedly regressed, young lineup combinations haven’t been fully explored, and the decisions by one of the game’s best coaches ever have fallen under an unprecedented and occasionally warranted level of keyboard scrutiny.

In light of all that’s dragging them down in the short-term, it’s hard to be overly critical of Dejounte Murray, whose return from an ACL tear can be considered a success. But Murray’s season has also underscored some of the larger questions of what he is exactly on the offensive end of the floor. While positions, including point guard, have become increasingly fluid in the modern NBA, the concept of a de facto primary ball-handler matters as long as a team treats him as one. After leaning into the gesture of passing the torch of floor general from Tony Parker to Murray two years ago, the Spurs have grappled with that concept in his return season, looking to put him in positions to grow while making the most of his other strengths.

Still just 23, Murray’s averaging career highs in points (9.8), assists (3.8), steals (1.6) and minutes (24.3) per game this year. His work on the glass remains positionally elite (5.7) with his awesome 12.4% rebound rate leading all NBA rotation guards. When given license to gamble defensively, his combination of instincts, length and motor really affirm Clyde Frazier’s indelible unequaled description of him: “feline quickness; canine attitude.”

I mean:

On the offensive end, he’s developed into a credible midrange threat, beating defenders who go under screens by knocking down almost half of his non-paint twos, while hitting 35% of his threes at a higher volume, mostly off the catch. From both levels, the mechanics on his jumper simply look better, a testament to the work he put in over his lost season. Equally important for the Spurs these days — he’s repeatedly expressed an enthusiasm to continue playing basketball in San Antonio, a desire that was consummated with a contract extension before the 2019-20 season began.

But because of that extension — worth $64 million in guarantees and running through the 2023-24 season, making him the only piece locked in past the summer of 2021 — Murray’s role as franchise point guard takes on even greater importance, with his strengths, weaknesses and theoretical role as primary ball-handler all potentially shaping many of the team’s moves.

A career-best average of 3.8 assists per game may overshadow Murray’s actual limitations as a playmaker thus far, which is why so much of the offense continues to run around DeMar DeRozan. It doesn’t leave Murray in a natural spot, playing off-ball and often dribbling out of open catch-and-shoot opportunities, but it mitigates the risk of working the offense around him. It speaks to his odd fit that he has the worst offensive rating of any rotation Spur (107.2) and has played less minutes in the clutch than DeRozan, Patty Mills, Derrick White, and Bryn Forbes.

Even with Murray’s improved pull-up jumper from 13-18 feet, pick-and-roll plays that finish with him as the ball-handler average 0.7 points per possession and result in a turnover almost 15% of the time, putting him in the bottom 30% in the league. Part of that’s his poor finishing at the rim, but it’s also a result of a feel for the game that’s still coming around — hopefully.

Murray’s handle remains loose, an issue that presents itself on both simple possessions and when he dribbles into traffic. It’s one reason we rarely see him get into the meat of a defense, let the defense collapse, and then create a high-percentage look.

Most of Murray’s assists in the half court come through either pick and pops or dribble drives that lead to kickouts to three-point shooters. When the reads are straightforward, he can deliver the passes on target. But he’s prone to tunnel vision all too often.

You can easily dismiss plays like this by reminding yourself of Murray’s age and the full year of competitive basketball he missed, both extremely valid. But his new contract, and the importance of having dependable, dynamic playmakers, also can’t be overlooked.

Turnovers like these are fine if Murray’s balancing them out with other risks that pay off, but he rarely does. That conservative approach is almost certainly by design, but the team would surely love to have him make typical next-level plays we often see from franchise point guards, if they felt he was capable.

In a perimeter-oriented league, a primary ball-handler is ideally both a pull-up threat from deep and capable of making multiple reads on the defense, creating for himself and others. Murray’s not there yet in either area. The Spurs have curbed that concern by putting the ball in DeMar DeRozan’s hands more, giving Murray his share of pick-and-pops but primarily keeping him off ball in half-court sets. The team improvement has been noticeable from the season’s low point in November, but it’s worth wondering if a better assessment would benefit from Murray straying out into the deep end every now and then.

The team’s view of Murray is the other side to this, as it’ll continue to affect roster-building in the years to come. If they see him filling out his skillset, they can de-emphasize that need from other key pieces and pass on investing in other options at lead guard.

If Murray doesn’t progress in those areas during his first big NBA contract — playmaking, pull-up three-point shooting or scoring off the dribble — he’s still probably a rotation player. His defense is that good, and his shooting figures to be a serviceable complementary skill. But it does complicate things: the need for non-traditional bigs (like, say, Luka Samanic) and playmaking wings becomes greater, and it pushes Murray into more of a 3-and-D role rather than traditional point guard, assuming he can provide the 3. On both fronts, there’s an opportunity cost attached to pressing forward with a young player with a unique profile and getting something wrong. Time will tell what kind of gamble the Spurs are making, and how it pays off.