Dejounte Murray faced a challenge but also an opportunity entering the 2021/22 season. DeMar DeRozan and the rest of the veterans were gone. The Spurs were about to become his team, and how he fared in an expanded role would determine the trajectory of his career.
Needless to say, he was ready for the increased responsibility, as his All-Star nod shows. Murray improved in almost every aspect of his game while still seemingly having untapped potential. His rise was so impressive that it might make the front office reevaluate the timeline, which is good but also scary.
Traits, expected role and stats
Dejounte Murray is a 6’4” point guard who entered his sixth year in the league at age 25.
After being the second leading scorer the year prior, he was expected to become the team’s first option on offense and its best playmaker.
In 68 appearances, he averaged 21.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 9.2 assists in 34.8 minutes a game.
Murray was stuffing the stat sheets from the start, logging the first of his 13 triple-doubles in for the season in the just the fourth game, but it took him a while to settle into the role of go-to guy. San Antonio was competitive on most nights, but a trend emerged early on: they simply couldn’t close games. After years of relying on DeRozan to handle business late, the team often looked lost down the stretch, and as the first option, all eyes were on Murray. Fortunately both the team and its best player made progress in that area as the season went on, as their 7-8 record in the clutch after the All-Star break shows. A few standout fourth-quarter performances helped cement Murray as the closer, and while he didn’t always deliver, he never shied away from the responsibility the role entails. It was a testament to his leadership skills, which hadn’t always been visible in more veteran-heavy iterations of the team.
Beyond those understandable growing pains in the clutch, Murray dazzled from the start. He made a leap as both a scorer and creator that seemed unlikely just a season prior. While the three-point shot remained a relative weakness, his willingness to let if fly whenever he was open was a welcome sight. His finishing at the rim remained good after being a huge issue earlier in his career, while his mid-range jumper stayed deadly. As a creator for others, he wasn’t always flashy or advanced, but he did a good job of getting the team organized and finding the open man consistently.
All those strengths landed Murray in the All-Star game, and he only shined brighter after the trade that sent Derrick White to Boston and gave Murray even more touches. After the All-Star break, he averaged over 25 points while shooting 47 percent from the floor and getting to the line over six times per game to help the Spurs make the play-in tournament.
Season grade: A
The last few games of the season weren’t great for Murray, who battled an illness and couldn’t regain his form in time to help the Spurs reach the playoffs, but it’s undeniable that he was fantastic throughout the year. The numbers, which include leading the league in steals, are insane, but equally impressive was his ability to slowly step into the leadership role on the court and to stay motivated even after getting the All-Star nod in order to propel a late-season arise. There was a sense of urgency and a desire to seize the opportunity and step into the spotlight that characterized Murray’s year. His talent is obvious, but his hunger is one of the biggest reasons to be excited about his future.
Unfortunately the trade-off for the increased production on offense was a decline in defensive impact. While still remaining a threat on that end at times, Murray’s point-of-attack defense took a step backward. Opponents went at him in the high pick-and-roll, and he often struggled to get back in the play. Other times, the best ball handlers in the league caught him flat-footed and simply went by him in isolation. It was uncharacteristic but completely understandable since he spent so much energy on offense.
Hopefully this offseason, through additions and/or internal development, the team will find ways to ease his shot creation burden, so the All-Defense team version of Murray can make a return. The Spurs will need it if they intend to rebuild the defensive identity that was synonymous with their playoff streak.
Murray will enter the second-to-last year on what has become one of the best value contracts in the league. He’s eligible for an extension, but he’ll surely wait to become a free agent and go for a max deal, which he should easily get if his play remains at the level that it was last season. Will that be with the Spurs? It seems likely at this point, since he’s expressed a commitment to the franchise, but how this offseason goes could affect his decision.
Murray will be 26 when the 2022/23 season starts. He’s an All-Star now. He’s made the playoffs as a rotation player but never made it past the first round. He openly campaigned to get Zach LaVine on the team. Dejounte is probably hoping for help to make it to the postseason and make a deep run as soon as next season. Are the Spurs on that same timeline? We are about to see. San Antonio has extra draft picks and a lot of cap space. Will the front office decisively pursue talent that can help now, or, if their main targets are unattainable, will they remain in asset acquisition mode? And how will it sit with Dejounte if the latter happens? It might seem early to worry about what Murray thinks, but he’s represented by a notoriously aggressive agency and will have leverage as his contract winds down.
There is a middle ground between going all in and going younger, of course. Even if the Spurs don’t land a star, they can make some veteran additions like the one they made with Doug McDermott to round out the roster, rely on internal growth, and hope that’s enough to get them into the playoffs. As long as they retain enough flexibility to pounce when a running mate for Murray becomes available, they can still build a team competitive enough to please him while still focusing on their homegrown talent. There’s a balance that can be achieved, and the front office has done a good job of walking that tightrope so far.
Murray being so good now that these questions are even worth asking is nothing but a huge win for the Spurs. They have a star entering his prime, which is always the hardest part. Threading the needle between continuing the youth movement and keeping him happy could be tough, but as far as problems go, it’s a good one to have.
Keita Bates Diop
Lonnie Walker IV