There are only so many silver linings in a 4-10 start. The losses start to mount; struggles become themes; a statistically prolific Dejounte Murray sits in front of a Zoom broadcast and a handful of reporters after a game, stony and baby-faced, increasingly deflective of talk around the individual efforts and numbers that once again came short.
This is your protagonist for the 2021-22 Spurs season: the sporadically anointed point guard of the future-turned lead guard of the present, self-effacing nearly to the point of cliche, tasked with bringing order and punch to the offense and helping set a disruptive tone to the defense. Following the exits of Patty Mills and LaMarcus Aldridge earlier this year, no Spur has been with the team longer than Murray, and no Spur has done more to step into the void left behind. Even in a loss, his game shines too bright to be ignored.
Here are the figures: 18.9 points, 8.1 assists, 8.1 rebounds, 2.1 steals on 45.9% shooting from the field (only Murray and Russell Westbrook are averaging at least 18-8-8 this season, with the Laker turning the ball over more than twice as often as Murray). The first four categories are career and team highs, while the latter perhaps the most impressive given Murray’s ascendance in the offensive pecking order. His field goal attempts have increased every year, from 3.1 to 7.5 to 9.7, 14.5 and 17.6, currently this season. His 87 touches per game is up from 69 last season and ranks 7th in the league, while his usage rate (25.7%) and assist rate (35.3%) are also career highs, and he has been The Guy in crunch time. The Spurs would probably rather not be in a position to ask this much out of him, but they’d be worse off if they couldn’t.
Murray’s 33.3% clip from beyond the arc isn’t setting the world on fire, but it’s encouraging to see that coming alongside a new high in attempts (3.9) with him dipping his toes a bit more in pulling up off the dribble.
Murray has long looked like a quality NBA player, but he’s had skeptics — myself included — who knocked him as a playmaker and questioned his upside within that capacity. Some of that criticism was valid, but it also hinged on some preconceptions of what a normal development arc for a point guard looks like. In an era where so many prospects have come out of the gate hot and able to anchor an offense at age 20, Murray’s path has been linear and understated, tempered by a limited offensive role and propped up by the work he’s put in each offseason. This year, everything from his vision, pace and toolkit of passes have looked better within an offensive system that gives him more freedom to explore the studio space. With each game those doubts carry a bit less weight.
Murray still isn’t a threat to pull up from deep or put pressure on the rim, which means his pick-and-rolls can only have so much teeth. But they also have a decent floor given his dependable floater and pull-up midrange jumper, typically going from right to left.
Murray also continues to develop as a passer in those situations. While he’s missed Jakob Poeltl’s screen-setting and rim-running in the starting lineup, there are flashes of better defense manipulation and creating of windows to find teammates. Again, the threat of his midrange game helps open this up.
The other side of the floor remains Murray’s hunting ground, using his length and anticipation to pester ball-handlers, blow up hand-offs, take away first options and turn mistakes into easy baskets the other way. Most players go through the motions here and there and maybe lob a pass without zip; those that don’t can still drop their guard for a beat while they think a few moves ahead; even the sharpest ones still have to blink. However slim that gap is, Murray can find a way to shoot it with his long, spindly frame and make something happen.
Near the top five in the league in both deflections and steals, Murray’s also among the league’s most efficient scorers in the open floor at 1.57 points per possession. When you see how many of those are one-on-zero chances created by his defensive activity, that high level of efficiency makes sense.
Despite career highs across the board, you can still see room for Murray to improve in meaningful, realistic ways. He’ll likely never be an above-the-rim finisher in traffic, but he can be better at finding angles and making better use of his speed and length. As he gets more comfortable as an offensive focal point, he can also up his low free throw rate with a bit of craft and grift. And if he can approximate his contemporaries’ use of the pull-up three, the whole floor opens up for him in the high pick and roll.
Fans should be more than satisfied with this version of Murray, who seems happy to have found a home and built a career in San Antonio, who’s easily playing up to his contract extension, who overcame one serious injury only to come back better, and whose trajectory has already defied the imagination. Asking for him to go up another tier or two would be unreasonable, and probably unrealistic. But what do I know.