Dejounte Murray - who turns 22 on Wednesday - was five years old when a 19-year old Tony Parker made his NBA debut, playing 21 minutes off the bench in a win over the Clippers to open the 2001-02 season. The last pick in the 1st round of the 2001 draft, Parker entered the season as a back-up behind Antonio Daniels.
Seven days later, Parker supplanted Daniels in the starting lineup and thus began a 17-year run at the wheel for San Antonio. While others filled in with spot starts along the way - Beno Udrih, Jacque Vaughn, George Hill and Patty Mills, among others - the title of Spurs starting point guard belonged to Tony Parker.
Although Murray took over midway through last season when Gregg Popovich gave him the nod, it still felt like a new driver hopping behind the wheel with dad in the passenger seat. "Use your blinker when merging. Hands at 10 and 2. Check left and yield on U-turns." Technically Murray was driving, but the trusty Parker rode shotgun with Popovich's On-Star also one touch away.
With Parker now in Charlotte - in addition to Manu Ginobili's retirement and Kawhi Leonard's move to Toronto - Murray is pulling the strings on the ball in San Antonio. Just what should San Antonio fans expect?
Let's start with the obvious: defence.
Kind of speaks for itself.
At 6'5" with a 6'10" wingspan, Murray at the very least projects to spend the next decade-plus as an elite tip of the spear defensive force with enough size and length to bother nearly every perimeter player in the league. He looks the part and the numbers agree as Murray ranked 1st among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus and 9th overall, the only point guard inside of the top 25. That isn't the only number either as virtually every publicly available metric - and some not publicly available - paints the same picture.
That's impressive for anyone, let alone a now 22-year old figuring out the nuances at a position where young players typically struggle.
Murray's value on that end alone should quell any fears about his viability as a long-term starting-calibre guard on a good team and his floor already rises higher than anyone could have hoped when the Spurs grabbed him with the 29th overall pick in 2016.
The million dollar question with Murray pertains to his ceiling, not floor. Two years later, the concerns in evaluating whether he reaches that ceiling are the same today as they were entering the draft: can he finish?
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Unlike fellow 2016 draftee Ben Simmons who remains a non-threat from the outside but is among the NBA's elite around the rim, Murray's finishing remains a work in progress at every level. To say he's perhaps the biggest project of Spurs legendary shot doctor Chip Engelland is an understatement.
There's evidence to suggest Murray can become among the league's elite in terms of generating looks on drives. On a per-minute basis, he averaged as many drives as Damian Lillard and was within earshot of next big thing, Donovan Mitchell . With a larger role in his third season and expanding significantly from his 21 minutes a game load from 2017-18, it's not unreasonable to expect Murray to finish among the top 10 in total drives per game.
Accompanying that presumed hike in volume, there would ideally be an improvement in efficiency. Though physically gifted enough to routinely attack the seams, Murray scored on just 35% of his forays into the lane which ranked among the worst in the league among higher volume drivers and is two-fold.
Not only did Murray struggle finishing shot attempts on drives, converting just 40%, he also has yet to find ways to turn drives into trips to the charity stripe as evidenced by the fact that Murray drew just 20 fouls on 661 drives. It's a stark contrast to Lillard who drives just as much yet draws over three times as many fouls.
Extending outward, Murray also has yet to develop a credible 3-point shot as he sank just 9 of 34 last season. In an era in which everyone shoots and a high premium is placed on spacing, the complete lack of an outside shot becomes far more pronounced. If you take the pool of over 60 guards that logged at least 40 starts last season, they averaged one 3-point attempt every 6.5 minutes. It's simply what guards do in today's NBA. By contrast, Murray's 34 total attempts in over 1,700 minutes breaks down to one over 51 or so minutes of floor time.
|3-pt FG pct||37%||27%|
|Mins per att||6.5||51.3|
Despite the absence of a perimeter shot, there is reason for optimism though it might not be the one most point towards.
Some look at Murray's early struggles as a shooter and draw parallels with Leonard who also entered the league with concerns over his ability to stretch the floor. Given Leonard canned over 37 percent of his 3s on nearly 300 attempts within his first two seasons, it's not remotely the same situation. Sure, nearly all of them were wide open spotting up alongside Parker, Ginobili and Tim Duncan rather than off the dribble but it's not as if Leonard couldn't hit the ocean from the beach. In hindsight, those worries now seem significantly overblown.
Instead of a forced narrative and lazy comparison, we can look to Murray's growth as a mid-range shooter from year 1 to year 2 as real evidence of a massive hole starting to fill in. While it's in vogue to knock any player for taking more long twos in the age of analytics that's proven it to be the least bang-for-your buck shot on the floor, in Murray's case it's a sign of an expanding game and growing comfort level.
Not only as he more than doubled the frequency with which he lets it fly in relation to his total number of attempts, he also more than doubled in shooting percentages on those shots. While certainly no Richard Hamilton and still a shot all 29 teams would welcome, for now, it's the type of drastic alteration both in volume and performance that indicates a go-for-broke approach to simply getting better.
|Pct of attempts||11%||23%|
For someone that will never be confused with Jason Kidd, Gary Payton or Chris Paul in terms of racking up dimes while simultaneously bringing all-world defence, becoming an adequate finisher and threat to score from three levels is what will determine Murray's true ceiling.
Is he destined to assume the identity of an elite stopper in the mould of Patrick Beverley or Tony Allen, the cherry on top type every team loves but doesn't necessarily build around? Or is he the next great two-way star and floor general that can take over a game on both ends?