The Spurs, which lacked a starting point guard this season, had too many not that long ago. Dejounte Murray took over when Tony Parker was still around and Derrick White filled in for DJ when he missed a season with injuries. Both showed that they could be reliable creators and stellar defenders.
The Spurs tried to play them together but their games weren’t complementary, largely because of spacing issues, and they were traded away to kickstart the rebuild. White, less heralded and on a contract many deemed excessive, landed on the Celtics, which only had to send out one first-round pick to acquire him. Murray, coming off an All-Star season and on a bargain of a contract, commanded a terrific return for San Antonio.
Years later, White is a media and fan darling for the best team in the league and Murray is on his way to likely being moved again by a franchise that has given up on him. Expectations and circumstances have shaped their careers so far in a way that might be relatable for some current Spurs players.
Just like they were in San Antonio, Murray and White are similar players. Both are defensive playmakers who can be decent engines but not superstars on offense. It’s their two-way proficiency that makes them good. Murray gets more steals, White gets more blocks. They have both worked on their outside shots to the point of becoming acceptable floor-spacers, at the very least. They are not the most creative passers but they can run a pick and roll and find the open man. Both are big enough to chase wing shooters around if needed but at heart are point-of-attack defenders. Murray is better at creating shots for himself while White is arguably better at playing off others, but both can adapt. Most of those traits were there in San Antonio and have developed linearly in their new teams. The two guards haven’t changed that much, but their circumstances have.
White was not considered the missing piece in Boston. In fact, after his arrival, there was a bigger shakeup following a disappointing end of the playoffs for the franchise. Having a versatile guard around allowed the Celtics to move Malcolm Brogdon and Marcus Smart, but the team was always built around two star forwards and a center that spaces the floor and protects the rim. White, who is having a fantastic season and is worth the All-Star buzz he’s been getting, is just an important piece of the puzzle in Boston. He’s not the savior the Spurs needed him to be, so he can focus on doing the little things that make him special while continuing to develop the major skills that have made him a key contributor to a contender. He fits what’s around him perfectly and it elevates him as much as he elevates it.
Murray’s situation is completely different. The Hawks needed to make a splash to please a restless Trae Young and Dejounte was a big enough name to be worth a major investment, especially coming off an All-Star season. Atlanta executives probably knew he wasn’t the piece that was going to make their team a contender, but shoring up the perimeter defense, adding someone who could contribute some shot creation and who legitimately seemed to want to play for a franchise that isn’t a star magnet made the move worthwhile. Murray was not expected to deliver a title to the Hawks but he was supposed to be the guy who made trips to the Conference Finals a more common occurrence. The fact that the fit was not great next to Young didn’t matter. Neither did the lack of an actual plan to build around those two. The results, unsurprisingly, haven’t been great.
The simplest way of explaining why Murray and White, guards of similar talent, have had such contrasting careers since leaving the Spurs would be to say one landed on a better franchise and roster than the other. It would be a little unfair to the more mature White to just attribute it to that, but it is the main factor. Circumstances matter and so do expectations. White’s All-Star buzz is centered on him not having actual star numbers but affecting the game like one. A look at the stats alone would suggest Murray is having a better season but no one who’s been following the Hawks would make an All-Star case for him. Not with how big of a disappointing mess the Hawks are, despite Dejounte not being the main cause of their problems. White can be beloved for merely helping a great team; Murray can be chastised for not being able to create one. Two similar players, two very different lenses.
For Spurs fans, the White-Murray dichotomy can serve as a way of looking at the young players currently on the roster. Being disappointed in someone for not being a superstar when they were never meant to be one is as unfair to, say, Devin Vassell as it is to Dejounte Murray. But what if Vassell is more of a Derrick White, someone who will thrive on a good team, surrounded by the right pieces? Draft position, salaries and projected upside all play a part in how players are judged, but so does the lens through which they are scrutinized, and changing it often when circumstances change is the smart thing to do. No, Keldon Johnson is not a two-way first option for a rebuilding team. He might be a great sixth man who can focus on scoring for a contender, though. Jeremy Sochan is not a primary playmaker, but he could be the perfect connective piece on a more talented squad. Tre Jones has been the best option as the starting point guard for this team, but he might still be best served for a bench role long term.
Some successes and failures, real or just perceived, are a direct result of a player’s actions. Others come down to their surroundings and the presuppositions of others. Would White be a media darling if he was still in San Antonio, trying to be a primary option? Would Murray be under so much scrutiny if he had not made an All-Star team that inflated his value or had landed in a better situation? Who knows.
The same applies to the Spurs’ players. Some might not be a great fit for a terrible team that runs experimental lineups but could end up being major contributors down the line for a more talented and structured squad. Conversely, maybe others who’ve shined in the high-paced chaos of a team finding its identity might not be as good when their roles change or are reduced.
Figuring out which reality applies to which player can be one of the thrills of a rebuild for fans but it’s paramount to always adjust expectations and account for circumstances along the way. White and Murray are the perfect examples of how players can be judged for reasons and narratives beyond their control. It’ll be worth keeping that in mind as the Spurs continue to change and evolve.