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Analyzing Dejounte Murray’s offensive breakout and how he can make another leap

Dejounte Murray has been one of the most improved players this season, but what does he need to work on to make another offensive leap?

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NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Dejounte Murray has been the poster boy of San Antonio’s newest core ever since he was drafted in 2016. With defensive awareness far beyond his age and limbs that resemble Slenderman, Murray became the youngest player in league history to be named to an All-Defense team in just his sophomore campaign, yet questions swirled about his offensive ceiling. After tearing his ACL in 2018, he spent most of last year regaining confidence in his body, but the lanky guard has fortunately taken the leap that many fans expected this season.

The most obvious improvement that Murray has made on offense has been drastically lowering his turnovers. He ended the season giving up the ball on only 9.4% of possessions, ranking in the 86th percentile among all point guards in the league. In comparison, his turnover rate last year was 14.4%, which was in the 31st percentile. Crucially, Murray has been able to become a more reliable player even as his usage rate has spiked from 23.3% in 2019-2020 to 25.5% this season. This is especially encouraging considering that a heavier workload usually results in a higher turnover rate, as thrusting more responsibility onto a ball-handler increases the difficulty of generating efficient offense.

Another impressive stat from Murray’s season is the fact that he shot the same percentage from mid-range on much higher volume. Excluding shots at the rim, he attempted 9.14 two-point jumpers this year per 36 minutes to just 6.76 last season while converting them at an identical 44% clip. In other words, Murray has remained just as efficient from mid-range even when opposing teams have focused more on scheming against him due to his increased load.

More importantly, the 24-year-old has expanded his offensive repertoire. The Spurs scored 0.84 points per possession on 7.5 pick and rolls per 36 minutes with Murray as the ball handler this year as opposed to 0.75 PPP on 5.4 possessions last season. That scoring figure is still below average, but the fact it increased with more volume is a good sign that Murray will be able to improve his efficiency too. Furthermore, he has taken a leap as a facilitator, generating 19.35 assist points per 100 possessions in 2020-21, which is a point better than the previous campaign. This last part shouldn’t be understated; the fact that his teammates have scored more from his passes per possession means that he’s not only creating more opportunities, but better ones too.

Take this play, for instance. Murray has the awareness and poise to recognize that Poeltl will have a layup and doesn’t try to force up a difficult shot in mid-air.

He made lots of these plays last season too, but they’ve been a lot more noticeable this year. For someone who isn’t the most gifted passer, it’s nice to see the progress that Murray has made in that department and he should only get better with experience.

How Murray Can Take Another Offensive Leap

Even with all his improvements, Murray remains a supporting offensive option instead of a primary one, and he needs to continue increasing his efficiency in order to reach new heights. As previously mentioned, it’s very encouraging to see him convert on similar percentages even with a heavier workload, but that doesn’t discount the fact that he’s still an inefficient scorer.

In an era where offensive efficiency continues to skyrocket, Murray has lagged behind by posting a true shooting percentage of 50.9%, well below the league average of 57.2%. The only area in which he excels is unsurprisingly the mid-range, where his 44% conversion rate ranks in the 66th percentile amongst all guards. Fortunately, a modern NBA offense can be elite even if it’s reliant on such shots, so long as it does so efficiently. The problem with Murray, however, is that his infrequent attempts at the rim and low foul-drawing rate have dragged down his percentages, and he’ll need to improve in one, if not both areas in order for him to become a go-to scorer.

One encouraging sign from Murray’s first three seasons is that he took a much higher number of shots at the rim and was in the upper half of the league — among guards — in doing so. Those attempts plummeted this year, but his past history suggests that he is capable of scoring more around the basket. With that said, the bigger issue lies in his low free throw attempts. After receiving calls at an average rate in his two previous campaigns, his foul rate dipped down to a meagre 6.1% this season, ranking in the 32nd percentile for his position. One cause of this problem seems to stem from him avoiding contact on drives, as Murray often stops early instead of plowing to the rim:

In the clip above, he doesn’t accelerate when he approaches the paint and even stops prematurely to put up a weak floater. Murray noticeably avoids drawing too much contact and misses a wide-open Keldon Johnson in the corner as well, so he needs to become more adaptable and avoid getting tunnel vision too often.

Another example of Murray’s tentativeness occurred during the play-in game, where he stayed on the outside instead of driving middle, resulting in him missing an easy layup.

Drawing more fouls will open up more of Murray’s game, especially in the pick and roll. As mentioned above, he has become a better pick and roll ball handler, but still sits in the 49.4 percentile by scoring 0.84 points per possession. However, that figure isn’t the most accurate since it takes into account every single player who has run such a play. If we filter players who’ve been the ball handler in over 150 P&Rs, Murray sits in the 30th percentile, which isn’t good enough for a guard who runs almost seven such sets per game. Drawing more fouls in these scenarios will increase his PPP significantly and make one of his go-to plays a lot more dangerous.

Moreover, getting better at foul-drawing will naturally create more playmaking opportunities for Murray. Defenders will need to be more mindful of him when he drives and may momentarily lose track of other Spurs players, opening up easier passing lanes for him. It isn’t a coincidence that the three point guards with the most free throw attempts (Trae Young, Damian Lillard, and Luka Doncic) also rank top ten overall in assists per game.

Another factor that contributed to Murray’s poor efficiency was his lacklustre three-point shooting, which regressed to 31.7% after he hit 36.9% last season. Fortunately, given that he’s a decent free throw shooter (which is a good predictor for three-point shooting) and made threes at a decent clip just a year ago, it’s realistic to expect Murray to bump his percentage back up to the mid-30s.

Ultimately, Murray should be able to raise his efficiency to around league average by attempting more shots at the rim and shooting more accurately from three, which he has done in years past. If he figures out a way to become a good foul-drawer on top of that, then there’s a pathway for him to become a secondary offensive option on a contending team and borderline all-star rather than the above-average starter that he currently is. Thankfully, Dejounte Murray isn’t someone you should bet against; he has overcome every obstacle thrown his way, and will continue to do everything in his power to maximize his potential.