When you think of the term “foundational player” in the NBA, it usually refers to superstars who are capable of leading their teams to title contention (or at least deep into the playoffs) on a consistent basis. There is only a handful of such players in the league at a time, and for the Spurs the most recent was Tim Duncan. (Sorry, Kawhi, one season at the helm doesn’t count.)
The current iteration of the Spurs doesn’t have that type of player at the moment, but they do have one who may be breaking the mold of what a foundational player is. Maybe he can truly be what it sounds like: the foundation of which to build upon but not necessarily the main post or beam that holds the entire structure up, and that player is Dejounte Murray.
In a rare Spurs-centric article for the times, The Ringer’s Isaac Levy-Rubinett took a deep look into the current state of the team to determine if they actually need another superstar to lift them back up, or is their current version of “The Process” — i.e. drafting good-not-great players between the late lottery to end of the first round and molding them to create their ideal team — good enough? Maybe so, and it all starts with Murray.
While San Antonio has taken a step back, its 25-year-old point guard has hit a new level, and might even snag an All-Star reserve spot in the West. Along with his typical All-NBA-level defense, Murray is averaging 19 points, eight rebounds, and nine assists per game, with more triple-doubles than James Harden.
But really I want to talk about Murray’s arms. On defense, he wields his outrageous (6-foot-10) wingspan with the fluidity of elastic and the burst of a viper, to great effect: He leads the NBA in both steals and deflections. He stretches high for rebounds and in a single motion snares the ball with one hand, tucks it under his arm, and takes off in transition. On offense, Murray uses his length to finish unorthodox push shots and floaters. His increasingly silky midrange pull-up is released from over his head, and out of defenders’ reach.
The Spurs boast a passable offense when Murray plays and look rudderless when he doesn’t. But my favorite part of his campaign has been the way he’s stepped into the leadership void that opened up when DeRozan left last offseason. Murray isn’t on the same level as a Kawhi or a Duncan, but he seems to relish being the top dog in San Antonio, including the expectations and legacy that come with that. He plays with a sneering confidence and a chip on his shoulder, all while maintaining the Spursian balance of taking responsibility without hogging credit or the ball. Preeminent NBA statesmen, from Gregg Popovich to Chris Paul, have praised his leadership.
The article goes further to praise the continued development of players like Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell and (to a lesser extent) Lonnie Walker, while looking at the huge improvement of Jakob Poeltl on both ends of the floor, plus the all-around solid, underrated play of Derrick White. It also points out what most Spurs fans have probably noticed this season: when the Spurs are whole and in a groove, they are surprisingly tough for any team.
When the whole team plays, the Spurs are surprisingly competitive. In December, they seemed to find an identity built around transition offense and frenetic defense. Seriously, when their defense is locked in, the Spurs look like the Forbidden Forest from Harry Potter, a thicket of arms that seem to be in multiple places at once. That momentum petered out as the Spurs lost player after player due to health-and-safety protocols. But when they’re rolling? It’s not that hard to talk yourself into this roster.
Of course there are other issues that have to be addressed before deciding that this group could one day turn into a modern version of the 2004 Pistons. Even when they are whole they aren’t winning on a consistent basis. For all the good individual parts, the defense is still a wild card from game to game, they need more outside shooting, and a team can have all the top-tier complimentary players it wants, but it’s still nearly impossible to win in today’s league without a foundational star. Murray may be that player one day, but he’s not there yet. The flashes of Josh Primo generates buzz, but it’s still way to early.
However, none of that means the Spurs are on the wrong track. They’ve shown enough to be excited — or at least intrigued — about the future of this team, and they still have plenty of room to grow and improve. If nothing else, the organization has proven enough in both the short and long term to earn some patience.
In San Antonio, trusting the process means nurturing the growth of the players on the roster, rather than bottoming out in pursuit of the no. 1 pick. There are still plenty of questions about the Spurs’ future, but two decades of historic stability buys you more than three bad seasons’ worth of time to come up with the answers.