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Dejounte Murray’s leap as a shooter may be sustainable

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If Murray proves his improvement as a shooter is real, the Spurs’ future will be bright.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Utah Jazz Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Dejounte Murray emerged as an elite rebounder and standout defender earlier in his career, but to truly become a franchise cornerstone, his offense needed some serious improvement. This was the season in which he was expected to take that next step.

A quick glance at the stats suggests it didn’t happen. His 11 points and four assists per game make him one of the least productive starting point guards on offense in the league. His vision, decision-making and finishing all remain a work in progress.

Fortunately, there is one area in which Murray improved greatly, and it might just be the most important one for his development. The 2019-20 season is the one in which Dejounte made the leap as a shooter.

Early in Murray’s career, his lack of range was one of the most worrying aspects of his game. Dejounte sank just 18 threes in his first two seasons combined and only made 31 percent of his mid-range jumpers. There was essentially no spot on the floor in which he was reliable as a finisher, considering his struggles near the rim. His jump shot had a slow release, and he didn’t look comfortable letting it fly, which allowed opponents to play off him or give him room when he had the ball. It’s a testament to his defense and rebounding that he was playable at all but his lack of range was a big issue.

In the preseason of what would have been Murray’s third year in the league, he showed flashes of a quicker release on his jumper and a distinct increase in his confidence in it that had the organization reportedly giddy about his potential. Unfortunately a knee injury derail Murray’s progress, but the setback didn’t stop the Spurs from signing him to a sizable extension before his fourth season, which only put more pressure on him to show some form of development in his fourth year. It wasn’t looking good initially, as Murray continued to struggle at the start of the season. By the end of November, he was shooting 18 percent on threes and 34 percent from mid-range.

Then, something clicked. Maybe it was the lifting of his minutes restrictions, but since December and up to the postponement of the season, Murray shot 44 percent from beyond the arc and a ridiculous 50 percent from mid-range. In that time period he ranked fourth in field goal percentage from mid-range among players with at least 100 attempts and 12th in three-point field goal percentage among players with at least 50 attempts. While he’s been a a solid-if-unspectacular 37 percent shooter from beyond the arc for the season, he’s one of three Spurs who rank in the top 20 from mid-range. All combined, he shot 44 percent on jump shots this season. To give you an idea of how good that is, the only guard on the team with a better efficiency is DeMar DeRozan, who essentially doesn’t take three-pointers.

Dejounte Murray FG% on jump shots

As it happens with any sudden and drastic improvement, it’s fair to wonder if it’s real. The percentages are great, but the volume is low enough to leave room for doubt. Murray attempted under three mid-range jumpers per game and under two three-pointers. A few misses would make his conversion rate look less impressive. More importantly, he’s not respected as a shooter yet. Opponents help off him when he’s off the ball and go under screens when he’s handling it, which show they clearly remain skeptical about Murray’s ability to hurt them with his jumper. The vast majority of Dejounte’s looks are open by design, and he’ll need to take and sink more before the league believes he’s actually a good shooter.

There have been some encouraging signs that suggest Murray is ready to do just that. Despite sometimes missing badly on some three-pointers, he seems willing to just continue to fire. Murray’s confidence on his ability to hit threes seemed to grow as the season progressed, with more shots from outside coming earlier in the shot clock instead of late, when he had no choice but to launch them. If he commits to keep pulling the trigger, even a dip in efficiency would be acceptable. As Marcus Smart proved earlier in his career, if you are actually willing to let it fly, opponents will guard you even if you are not yet an actual marksman.

Murray’s mid-range jumper looks more like an actual weapon already. It’s a skill he’s been trying to develop for a while and it seems all the work is paying off. He still leaves some of them painfully short — a problem he also has on three-pointers — and his touch is not good enough to allow him to hit shots when he’s off balance, but he can sink them consistently when he gets separation. Fortunately, he can often get room to pull up, both because of how the defense treats him and because of some basic dribble moves he’s mastered.

Since opponents sag away from Murray, he often gets to just walk into his pull-up facing little resistance. When he uses ball screens, the big man typically stays close to the rim and contests late instead of stepping outside. On switches or when the defender plays him close, Murray can use an effective crossover to create some room for himself. In all of those circumstances he typically gets good shots up, which is extremely encouraging.

If Murray’s progress as a shooter is in fact sustainable, it would be a monumental development. His solid outside stroke would make him a good option off the ball next to another shot creator, and his ability to hit pull-up jumpers from mid-range would allow him to be a threat with the ball in his hands. If opponents have to respect his shot, they would have to play him closer, which could unlock his driving game. Murray being able to put pressure on the defense as a scoring threat would also create situations in which his teammates could be open, allowing him to set up others by making simple reads. If the shot is real, Murray would be a better handle and some improved finishing away from being a truly dangerous and well rounded starter.

With the NBA looking to continue its season, we might not have to wait too long to find out if Murray has actually taken the leap as a shooter. The Spurs’ future would certainly look much brighter if their young guard proves that the momentous improvement he’s shown in a key area of his development is as real as it seems.