The Spurs are nearing their first crisis in almost two decades. Kawhi Leonard has missed most of the season with a mysterious quad injury, the relationship between him and the organization is reportedly strained, and he can opt out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018-19 season. There are no guarantees in free agency, even for San Antonio: Tim Duncan was this close to signing in Orlando in 2000. The Spurs are an aging team without the cap room to make a big move in free agency this summer. They have to sell Kawhi on internal improvement. A bunch of role players and 34-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge won’t be enough. They need another young star. The fate of their franchise may rest on the shoulders of Dejounte Murray.
The 21-year-old has already exceeded expectations in his second season in the NBA. Murray has more than held his own since replacing Tony Parker in the starting lineup last month, averaging 9.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.6 blocks on 44.7 percent shooting in 27 games as a starter this season. Point guard is the toughest position in the NBA to learn, but San Antonio can’t wait for Murray to reach his prime. The Spurs need him to make the leap in the next 18 months, which means he either has to learn to shoot 3s, or they have to solve the puzzle of turning a non-shooting point guard into a star.
Murray’s broken jumper is the biggest reason he slipped to the no. 29 overall pick of the 2016 draft. He had the physical tools to be a lottery pick. At 6-foot-5 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-9.5 wingspan, he has freakish length for a point guard and a lightning-quick first step. The problem was he shot only 41.6 percent from the field, 28.8 percent from 3, and 66.3 percent from the free throw line in one season at Washington. He had inconsistent mechanics and poor shot selection, a terrible combination for a primary ball handler.
The Spurs famously turned Kawhi into an elite 3-point shooter in the NBA, and they are undoubtedly hoping to do something similar with Murray. Under the direction of shooting coach Chip Engelland, they have spent the past two years trying to rebuild Murray’s shot from the ground up. He has stopped shooting 3s for the time being. After taking 118 in 34 games in college, he has taken only 42 in 98 games in the NBA. They want him to develop a midrange jumper first and then gradually expand his shooting range over time.
There are signs of progress. After shooting only 6-for-33 (18.2 percent) on 2-point shots outside the paint as a rookie, Murray is a more respectable 48-for-131 from that area (36.7 percent) this season. San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich has given him the green light to shoot jumpers off the dribble, and he’s at least confident enough to take them. Murray’s off-hand was all over the place when he was shooting last season, and they are clearly working on keeping it out of the way and allowing his shooting hand to do most of the work. There are times where it looks like he’s taking one-handed jumpers:
Murray still has a long way to go, though. Opposing teams regularly go under screens and dare him to shoot when he’s attacking the basket. He’s not much of a threat on the pick-and-roll at this point in his career. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Murray is in the 19th percentile of scorers league-wide on the play this season.
The bigger concern is what happens when he’s off the ball. Murray doesn’t threaten the defense on the perimeter, and they don’t close out hard on him (if they even bother at all). He has taken only 21 catch-and-shoot jumpers all season, and 17 have been completely unguarded, according to the numbers from Synergy Sports. This will be an even bigger issue in the playoffs, when teams have more time to game plan for the specific weaknesses of individual players. Opponents will likely guard Murray like the Nuggets did at times in their 122-119 victory over the Spurs on February 23. Watch the way Murray’s defender, Will Barton, completely abandons him in the corner to double LaMarcus Aldridge on the other side of the court:
The obvious comparison for Murray is Parker, another speedy point guard who thrived early in his career without much of a jumper. However, the league has changed a lot since Parker’s rookie season back in 2001. That was the first season after the illegal defense rule was repealed, allowing teams to play zone defense. Over the past two decades, defenses have grown more sophisticated and teams have moved toward lineups with longer and more athletic players who can cover more ground when they rotate. Playing non-shooters on the perimeter has become increasingly difficult.
There are few guards in the NBA these days who are not consistent 3-point shooters. Of the 82 who have started at least 10 games this season, Murray is dead last in the number of 3-point attempts per game (0.3). But he doesn’t make up for that weakness around the basket, where he’s shooting only 56 percent this season, far below the league average of 65.7 percent. His biggest problem is a lack of core strength. Murray is still growing into his body, and his spindly frame and high center of gravity make it easy for him to be pushed off spots. He will often pull up on drives and float shots over the arms of defenders. It was a reliable shot for him in college, but those types of in-between floaters have not fallen for him at this level. Murray has taken 59 runners this season and is only in the ninth percentile of players league-wide on that shot. Mastering the teardrop is what made Parker such a wizard in the lane. He made it look much easier than it actually is.
Despite his offensive flaws, though, Murray is still an intriguing prospect. He has already figured out how to maximize his athletic gifts. He stuffs the stat sheet when he is in. He leads all starting guards in the NBA this season in total rebounding percentage (14.9), and he is in the top 10 in block percentage (1.8) and steal percentage (2.4). Murray is a point guard with the defensive profile of a big man. The other six players in the NBA with those per-minute numbers are centers. Having a player like that defending at the point of attack is incredibly valuable. San Antonio’s defensive rating goes from 97.1 when he’s on the floor, which would be the best in the league by three points over the course of the season, to 105.6 when he’s off, which would be no. 15.
Murray should become one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA in time. He’s already extremely versatile on that side of the ball. He starts next to Patty Mills, so he usually gets the toughest defensive assignment in the backcourt on a given night, and he can can switch screens and match up with much bigger offensive players. Murray put on a clinic against Donovan Mitchell in a 101-99 loss on February 12, helping hold the rookie sensation to only 9-of-28 shooting from the field. His length allows him to contest shots all over the court, and it’s difficult to get much separation from him off the dribble:
Murray has improved a lot in his first two seasons in San Antonio. He’s not the reckless shoot-first player he was in college. His feel for the game has grown by leaps and bounds, and he plays more under control than he did as a rookie. His assist averages have remained constant (5.4 per 36 minutes last season, 5.2 this season) while his per-36-minute turnover averages have dropped from 4.2 to 3.0. Most point guards don’t really understand how to run an NBA offense until they have been in the league for a while, and experience should make Murray a much better offensive player, even if his jumper never comes. If he does start knocking down 3s, there’s no ceiling to contain how good he can be.
The Spurs can’t count on that, though, at least not by the time Kawhi is a free agent. Even in a best-case scenario, Murray’s probably not going to turn himself into a good 3-point shooter by next summer. Free throw shooting is the best indicator of pure shooting ability, and Murray is shooting 71.7 percent on 1.7 attempts per game this season. He has yet to reach even the lowest free throw percentage Kawhi has shot since graduating high school. Kawhi shot 72.6 percent from the line as a freshman at San Diego State and 75.9 percent as a sophomore, and he’s a career 84.6 percent shooter in the NBA.
There are ways for the Spurs to compensate for Murray’s shooting. He is an excellent offensive rebounder, and he can hang out along the baseline and cut to the rim when he doesn’t have the ball. Keeping the point guard near the rim means they will need more 3-point shooting at other positions. Aldridge, Pau Gasol, and Kyle Anderson—who combine to average 4.8 3-point attempts per 36 minutes of playing time—need to either let it fly from deep or lose playing time to guys like Davis Bertans, who alone is averaging 8.1 per 36 minutes. The way the Spurs move the ball should also help them attack defenses who help off of Murray. They were able to make the Nuggets pay for doing that in this sequence from the game between the two last week:
San Antonio could also make up for his shooting on the other end of the floor. They have been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA for most of Kawhi’s career, and they have never paired him with another perimeter defender as disruptive as Murray. Those two could hound opposing ball handlers all over the court, fight over screens, jump passing lanes, and get out in transition in many of the same ways the Heat did with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Murray is averaging only 19.7 minutes per game this season. The Spurs could be dominant defensively when he’s playing near 30.
Turning Kawhi into a star reopened San Antonio’s window to contend for titles indefinitely, but that window could slam shut if the team can’t find another. Drafting those players outside the lottery is hard. The rest of the league has caught up to the Spurs. Their international pipeline has dried up. They still find role players overseas, but they haven’t found another Parker or Manu Ginobili. San Antonio doesn’t get the chance to take an elite talent unless something is wrong with their game. Everyone in the league knew Dejounte Murray had talent, but few thought they could get it out of him. San Antonio is renowned for its player development program, and Murray is one of its biggest challenges yet. If the Spurs start consistently turning elite athletes into good shooters, they may stay on top forever.