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Dejounte Murray has made the leap the Spurs needed

The young guard is a Most Improved Player candidate. Here’s how he got there.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

As LaMarcus Aldridge faded into the background, a spot as the second featured player in the offense behind DeMar DeRozan opened up in San Antonio. After great performances to end last season, Derrick White was the best bet to fill it, but injuries and a COVID-related absence have prevented him from doing so.

Instead, the other promising young guard on the roster has been the one to step up. Dejounte Murray, now two years removed from a serious injury that slowed down his ascent, is averaging career highs in points and assists while still remaining one of the best rebounding guards in the league.

Murray has gone from solid two-way starter to core player, making the leap the Spurs have been waiting for since his intriguing rookie year. Here’s how he’s done it.

Murray is finally finishing at the rim

One of the reasons why Murray struggled to be a solid scoring option in the past was his inability to finish at an even average level at the rim. Dejounte had a hard time getting all the way to the bucket and once he got there, he was often out of control. In his first three years in the league, he never shot over 54 percent in the restricted area.

This season Murray is converting on 63 percent of his attempts from point blank range, a massive jump.

Dejounte Murray finishing at the rim over the years

There are many factors for this improvement. Part of it is Murray getting better in transition and the Spurs running more. Dejounte is quick and explosive, but for the longest time he was not making the most out of his physical tools on the break. This season, that has started to change. A lot of his buckets at the rim have come on the open court, often as a result of his disruptive defense. Out of Murray’s 84 total buckets in the restricted area, 39 have come in transition and 14 as a direct result of a steal by him. Not coincidentally, San Antonio as a team is scoring more fastbreak points than at any point in Murray’s career. The increased pace and aggression early in the shot clock have helped Dejounte.

That said, Murray has also improved his finishing ability in the half court. The numbers bear that out, but to really notice his progress, it’s better to focus on the new skills he’s unlocked. Dejounte’s dribble was one of his biggest weaknesses earlier in his career. It was high and loose, which not only made him turnover prone (more on that later) but also predictable when trying to attack the rim. There was no shiftiness to his game, which negated his quickness, and often had him trying to finish with an off balance floater instead of a layup. Now that his ball handling and body control have improved, Murray has a lot more tools at his disposal and he uses them well.

Murray always had the physical tools to excel on the break and get to the rim, but it took him a while to hone the skills needed to be make the most of them. With some help from a change of game plan from the team and some individual improvement, it seems he’s gotten there.

Murray is playing to his strengths

While improving on weaknesses is a huge part of of young player’s progression, so is figuring out what they are a good at and making sure they do those things as much as possible. This year’s version of Dejounte Murray is a perfect example of how important that can be in helping someone take a step forward.

There are several areas in which Murray has been good for a while. The most well-covered one is defense. Dejounte already has an All-Defense team nod in his career and he’s only gotten better on that end. Because of the position he plays and the prevalence of ball screens in the modern NBA, he’ll never have as big an impact on that end as an elite defensive center, but it’s undeniable that Murray is among the best perimeter defenders in the league. He ranks among the best isolation defenders in the NBA, according to Synergy Sports, which is fantastic for a player who often covers the point of attack and guards opponent stars.

The other unquestionably great aspect of Murray’s game is his mid-range shooting. Over 23 percent of Murray’s made two-point field goals come from the in-between area, one of the highest marks in the league. It could be problematic for a player to be so dependent on what is typically a low percentage shot — and ideally he’ll exchange some long two for threes going forward — but Murray also ranks highly in field goal percentage from mid-range at 45 percent. That’s better than Jason Tatum and Khris Middleton, for comparison.

Murray from mid-range

Since most of Murray’s mid-range makes are unassisted, as opposed to the looks pick-and-pop bigs get, his pull-up is not just a tool to get a shot up in a time of need — although it definitely is that — but also a way to keep defenses honest. Murray is great at using the room created by ball screens to transition into his shot, especially going left. If opponents try to take away the drives by switching, he can just break out his deadly crossover to his left, pull-up convo. Out of all of 67 Murray’s mid-range makes, 11 have come from what is quickly becoming his go-to move when a big man is on him.

The other big factor on Murray becoming a better offensive player doesn’t stem from something he does but from something he doesn’t: Dejounte is rarely turning the ball over. As a secondary ball-handler and shot creator, which is all he’s asked to be next to DeMar DeRozan, Murray’s assist percentage is never going to be particularly impressive. The problem was that his turnover percentage was way too high for his role. Last season, Murray coughed the ball up on over 15 percent of the possessions he finished, a very high mark considering his usage and assist percentage. This season, he’s cut it down to under 10 percent while having higher usage and assists percentages. Dejounte is making more good decisions, or at the very least fewer bad ones.

There’s still room for growth

This new version of Murray is good enough to be a starter for a long time, but he could be even better. There are two areas in which he could reasonably improve that would make him more well-rounded and valuable.

First, his outside shooting should continue to develop. The three is likely never going to be Murray’s best weapon, but if he can inch closer to a league average percentage from outside, like he did last season, his game would have another dimension. What makes this improvement realistic is that, by playing off the ball often, most of Murray’s three-point attempts are of the catch-and-shoot variety and the vast majority are at least semi-open. Dejounte has proved he can hit those shots, so he only has to become more consistent about making defenses pay. Being a reliable threat would definitely help him in high pressure situations like the playoffs.

The second area for improvement is as a playmaker. Murray is not a traditional point guard and won’ suddenly turn into Chris Paul, but his assist percentage has been rising. His jump this season is particularly impressive because only 15 percent of Murray’s assists have been to Aldridge, down from 23 percent from last season. A good pick-and-pop big can sometimes pad the assists stats of a point guard, but we are not seeing that from Dejounte this year. Instead, a larger percentage of his assists are resulting in makes at the rim or corner threes, according to Murray is not relying on an abnormally good mid-range shooter to rack up assists but instead finding open players at good spots.

Dejounte Murray is without a doubt one of the league’s most improved players this season and a big reason for the Spurs’ success. That alone is worth celebrating, but the fact that he could still realistically get better going forward should make fans giddy about the future.

The young players who were once just a strong supporting cast are slowly becoming cornerstones, which is exactly what San Antonio needs.