For NBA players, receiving acknowledgment from their peers must feel like an ushering into a new stage in their career. In regards to lottery picks and players with lofty expectations, that acknowledgment may come sooner rather than later. For Dejounte Murray, the no. 29 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, that acknowledgment came during a nationally televised game in 2018 against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The 2017-18 season seems like an eternity ago. Kawhi Leonard was still on the Spurs and LeBron was still on the Cavs. The Spurs were in the middle of what would be their last full season without one of either Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginobli on the roster.
But everything seemed like it would be OK. San Antonio had Kawhi and LaMarcus Aldridge to build around. (Even though that season was one big “???” pointed at Kawhi.)
The Spurs also had a spindly 6-foot-4 guard who was starting to gain league-wide attention for his exceptional defense and tantalizing upside.
We all know how things have gone for the Spurs and their fans since then, but let’s not wallow in the disappointment.
I’m here to dig back into the archives and analyze the night a majority of the NBA–and especially Spurs fans–convinced themselves Murray had a chance to be a superstar.
There wasn’t a lot at stake at the time of the matchup between the Spurs and the Cavs. The Spurs were 31-18; the Cavs were 27-19. It was a late January game. The All-Star game was approaching and player fatigue levels were starting to become noticeable.
But the matchup was special because the game was on TNT. It was special because LeBron was still at the peak of his powers (shoutout to Bill Simmons). And it was special because we were all witnesses to exactly what the Spurs’ point guard of the future was capable of.
This game was one of the 73 contests Kawhi missed that season, so the burden of the offense fell on Aldridge–as it had that entire season. Aldridge played well; he had 30 points on 12-for-18 shooting and was a plus-23 on the night.
The Spurs received contributions from other Spurs players as well–Parker scored 14 and Davis Bertans chipped in 13. But it was Murray who gave the Spurs the boost they needed to push past LeBron and Co.
Murray posted a hell of a line. The second-year man out of the University of Washington had 19 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, and SEVEN steals. All of that in only 29 minutes of action. The kid showcased every aspect of his game that–until that moment–had only been shown in flashes.
Murray pushed the tempo off of steals–which led to open looks for ace shooters like Patty Mills and Danny Green. He played the offensive glass for tip-in opportunities, sneaking behind guys like Derrick Rose and JR Smith, who just couldn’t match his energy that night.
Speaking of Murray’s energy, with just over nine minutes remaining in the second quarter, Murray lost the ball then recovered within roughly three seconds to steal it right back. That was the kind of energy and hustle Murray demonstrated that night.
Murray’s defensive IQ was on full display with an advanced defensive play: With less than a minute elapsed in the third quarter, Murray was guarding JR in the corner but read an entry pass from LeBron to Kevin Love near the right block. Murray rotated over to steal the ball and ignited another transition opportunity for the Spurs.
He guarded bigger players–Jeff Green and Lebron–on drives and held his own, even stripping the ball away from Green on a play in the fourth quarter.
Murray didn’t record a single block on the night, but he affected several shots at the rim, placed himself in a perfectly vertical position, and even forced a LeBron miss at the rim that would’ve cut the lead to two possessions with just over four minutes remaining in the game.
That defensive play led to a transition three-pointer for Green on the right-wing. His impact went beyond the box score.
And now for the moment. That moment of acknowledgment I referenced earlier. With 2:54 remaining in the game and the Spurs up 105-94 Murray was stuck guarding LeBron in an isolation play.
The Cavs had shooters surrounding the perimeter so the Spurs couldn’t send defensive help too soon. (Not with LeBron, one of the three best passers in NBA history scanning the floor.)
LeBron knew he could win the matchup (Spoiler Alert: he kind of did win it) but that doesn’t matter–it’s the moral victory that came from the resulting play that matters most.
LeBron made his move. He drove left. Murray cut him off perfectly, but LeBron, being really good at basketball felt Murray on his right shoulder so he spun back the opposite direction to his right hand, knowing he now had the Spurs’ guard at his mercy. LeBron went up strong. The refs whistled Murray for the foul.
What came next is what did it for me. Lebron approached Murray right after the foul is called, dapped him up, gave him the “Great defense, I see you” pep talk, then gave him a demonstrative pat on the back. And at that moment–that moment of intentional acknowledgment during a nationally televised game, from one of the game’s two best players ever–that was the moment I was sure Murray was destined for great things.
The season played out and the Spurs finished with a 47-35 record. They would go on to lose to the eventual champs, the Golden State Warriors 1-4 in the first round.
But despite the turmoil Kawhi’s exit would bring the franchise, Murray had impressed everyone in the league. He made the 2017-18 All-Defensive Second Team, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to make an All-Defensive team.
Murray was the only player in the league under 6-foot-6 to record at least 400 rebounds, 90 steals and 30 blocks that season. He recorded 459 total rebounds, which was the most rebounds by a point guard in Spurs’ history.
He was also an essential cog in San Antonio’s defensive system that season–with the team finishing the year with the third-best defense.
Since his breakout 2017-18 season, things have gone less than stellar for Murray.
He tore his ACL during the preseason in 2018 and missed the entire 2018-19 campaign. He’s had to work his way back this season, but is only averaging 24.0 minutes per game–for precautionary reasons, I’m sure.
His per 36 numbers look great–15.0 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.4 steals. His jump shot has looked much improved. He’s shooting 36.7 percent on threes on a career-high 1.4 attempts per contest, and he’s posting a career-high in true shooting at 53.9 percent.
Fans had hoped for an explosive season from Murray. It hasn’ been explosive per se, but I’m still confident Murray is a future star.
He just needs the rest of the season and the offseason to be “officially back” after his knee injury.
Spurs fans should rejoice; Murray remains one of the most intriguing players in his age group. He doesn’t back down from anyone, a coveted trait in a lead guard. At the age of 22, with less than 100 games under his belt, Murray looked LeBron right in the eyes and dared him to make a move.
The acknowledgment Murray received was the ultimate win for the young guard. Let’s not forget the night Murray earned our respect.