SAN ANTONIO — Ladies and gentlemen of the Basketball Court, how do you define an All-Star?
Dejounte Murray is playing like an All-Star this season, and just about anyone around the Spurs will tell you that. The spindly point guard has shown explosive growth in his sixth (really fifth) NBA season, putting up eye-popping and downright historic numbers. More than that, he has become the point guard and leader that San Antonio desperately needed in a rebuilding year.
"Dejounte's taken more and more responsibility, like I've said in the past," Gregg Popovich said recently. "His leadership, his decision-making, setting the tone at both ends of the floor for the team... it's important."
Murray's NBA career trajectory has been reliably arcing upward since age 19, when the Baby Boy was drafted onto a team with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and a few other title winners. In addition to making an honest-to-goodness case for the All-Star Game this year, he's near the top of the board for Most Improved Player considerations midway through the season.
"He always had the athletic skill, but the decision-making took a little more time, and he was injured a couple of those years when he lost a lot of time," Popovich said, thinking back on the skinny kid from Seattle whom they drafted in 2016. "He's come through it all and become a real pro."
Ridiculous, historic production
Murray's statistical accomplishments are numerous and impressive, and he's among the league leaders in a variety of categories. He's best in the NBA with 2.0 steals per game, and only Chris Paul, James Harden and Trae Young are ahead of his 8.9 assists per game. He's notched eight triple-doubles, second only to Nikola Jokic.
The last time a Spurs player averaged more assists was Avery Johnson in the 1995-96 season. Bob Hill was coaching San Antonio, and Murray was in utero.
This season, six players are averaging 18+ points, 7+ assists and 7+ rebounds: Murray, Jokic, Harden, Westbrook, Luka Doncic and LaMelo Ball. In the last 20 seasons, just five players have hit those marks a total of 25 times. 24 of those were All Star seasons (*), and five ended with an MVP trophy (**).
James (11x): 04-05*, 07-08*, 08-09**, 09-10**, 10-11*, 12-13**, 16-17*, 17-18*, 18-19*, 19-20*, 20-21*
Westbrook (7x in a row): 14-15*, 15-16*, 16-17**, 17-18*, 18-19*, 19-20*, 20-21
Harden: 16-17*, 20-21*
Jokic: 18-19*, 19-20*, 20-21**
Doncic: 19-20*, 20-21*
In all of those seasons, none of those players had more steals or fewer turnovers than Murray, and that goes for this season's impressive group as well. Murray is hitting 34% from deep this year, a steady improvement on his highest volume yet and right there with Harden's accuracy in the first half of the year. He's hitting a higher percentage from the floor than any of the five guys currently matching his production outside of Jokic.
If you go back as far as Stathead has records, the list includes Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek, Grant Hill, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Fat Lever and Oscar Robertson. Lever is the only one on the entire list to do it with fewer turnovers than Murray, making for an interesting comparison both statistically and stylistically.
One knock on Murray may be that he isn't the most dominant scorer, or even one of the top 40 in the league right now. He is, however, one of the more impactful offensive engines in the NBA. He leads the Spurs with 19.2 points per game, and he creates about 22 points with assists.
Between his own points and the ones scored on his assists, Murray creates over 41 points per game for his team. The list of players who do more is short and distinguished: Trae Young, LeBron James, James Harden, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry.
He's right there with Ja Morant and Chris Paul, and just ahead of probable All-Stars like DeMar DeRozan, Bradley Beal, Donovan Mitchell, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, LaMelo Ball and Fred VanVleet.
People will inevitably attempt to discredit all of the numbers above as mere stat padding on a struggling team. But I ask the court: If it were that easy, where are all of the other players doing it? There aren't any, this year or historically. His production is All-Star level, period, and it touches every area of the game.
Importance to team
When Murray went into the league's health and safety protocols, the Spurs' only win came against the lowly Pistons. The team struggled to defend or find any sort of direction.
"He's our floor general out there. He's making plays for us, so we definitely missed him," Poeltl said after Murray's return from COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Popovich said he wouldn't play more than 30 minutes before the game, but the Spurs wound up needing him to go 33 against the Celtics. DJ came in toward the end of the third and stayed until contesting the final shot at the buzzer, turning a 3-point deficit into a chaotic 99-97 win. He notched 22 points, 12 assists, 8 boards, and 3 steals, and once again gave Dennis Schroder the "too small" treatment.
Dejounte has played nine games in January, averaging 23.7 points, 9.3 assists, 8.4 rebounds, 2.1 steals, and 2.7 turnovers with some special performances sprinkled in.
Murray is putting up numbers that put him among the league's elite, both currently and historically, but he takes no pleasure in doing that in a loss. The most recent game against the Rockets is a perfect example.
Dejounte piloted the Spurs to a third quarter lead, leaving with an 86-81 advantage late in the third quarter. Derrick White was out, and San Antonio felt it in the four minutes Murray sat on the bench, giving up a 14-4 run.
Murray scored 19 points in the final quarter, doing all he could to power a comeback. He dribbled into threes late when he knew the team needed them, going 3-for-5 and getting a four-point play. He was a man possessed, but the other Spurs shot just 4-for-13 in the final period, and the comeback bid came up short.
"He's an All-Star. He's playing amazing. He's doing amazing things for us. Anything you could ask, he's doing for us. Big-time basketball. I think Dejounte Murray is definitely an All-Star," said Keldon Johnson, who has been on the receiving end of 55 DJ dimes this season.
"He creates a lot of offense for us. We've seen him take control and hit some big shots; it's just, we didn't have enough toward the end. If we had a bit more time or things went differently... but he's been amazing, every game we play," he said.
Murray's performance wasn't one for the win column, but it will make the history books. He finished with a career-high 32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds, 3 steals, and no turnovers. A select few have hit those numbers with fewer than two turnovers, and Nikola Jokic is the only player to do it without one, and do it multiple times. The rest of the list is Gary Payton, Isiah Thomas, Kevin Durant, Clyde Drexler and Chris Paul.
He followed up his first-ever 30-point game with his second, adding 14 rebounds, 8 assists and just 2 turnovers to his 30 points against the Cavs. Cleveland bullied the Spurs 60-40 in the paint and won the game by five.
Derrick White returned against the Clippers and led San Antonio in scoring, and Murray led the team with 9 assists in a win with seven guys in double figures.
After a decent showing in a loss to the Suns, the NBA's Point God and another All-Star from Phoenix spoke glowingly about Murray's complete game.
“The thing I like the most about Dejounte is he’s not just a one-way guy,” Chris Paul said. “He plays both ways. He’s going to defend, he can score, he can do it all. He’s a leader, and he’s going to continue to get better and better.”
“He has that confidence and he plays the game the right way,” Devin Booker said. “He’s shooting the ball better than he ever has. He just asserts himself in so many different ways so it makes it tough on the opponent.”
Murray asserted himself A LOT at the expense of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He made sure everybody ate in a blowout buffet, and he put up a stat line only ever matched by Magic Johnson and Gary Payton.
Murray notched 23 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds, 3 steals, and just a single turnover, and he needed just 30 minutes in three quarters to do it.
"Like I say after every game, he’s playing All-Star basketball," Popovich said of his point guard. "He would be in consideration if we had a better record. He’s growing by leaps and bounds in every way."
Pop brings up something that certainly will hurt Murray's case: San Antonio isn't winning a ton of games this year.
The Spurs are 16-24 with Murray in, and they certainly aren't making a push for a title this season with a roster full of promising players who mostly aren't yet old enough to legally rent a car.
However, I submit to the court that there is precedent allowing teams with poor records to be represented by their best player in the All Star Game.
The Houston Rockets finished with a 28-54 record in 2001-02, and Steve Francis was named an All-Star with averages of 21.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game.
Chris Gatling made the game for the Dallas Mavericks in the 1996-97 season, when they finished 24-58.
These are exceptions, but where is the line drawn? At what point do team losses negate the recognition of spectacular individual play for an honor like this? And how much weight is placed on the context of that team, and expectations for them, and where they might be without said individual?
A recent league MVP averaged a triple-double as he dragged his team to a seventh-seed and first-round exit that surprised nobody. If he can do that in Oklahoma City, can Dejounte Murray earn an All-Star nod for San Antonio? Why not?
The Big Three and Kawhi are long gone, and in the past year, the Spurs have parted ways with veterans DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills, the last player still on the roster from the 2014 title.
San Antonio felt comfortable moving in a new direction and letting Murray take the helm, and it's clear why. Forget about all the numbers and the way he's grown his game. Murray's leadership qualities jump the most, and they have for a long time.
Murray was one of the loudest advocates for DeRozan last year as the national media wrote him off and he missed the All Star Game. Still, he's not banging the drum making the case for himself this year, and that's expected. Even though everything the Spurs are doing this year centers around him, Murray both accepts the responsibility and doesn't make it about himself.
From his storied work ethic to the way he seems to always be communicating with teammates and coaches, he possesses qualities any leader needs. Poeltl gave some thoughtful insight on his leadership style after a recent game.
"DJ, first of all, he's a 'lead by example' kind of guy: He plays very hard and tries to drag everybody with him. He's also a guy that's gonna be tough on you, tell you when he sees something he doesn't like. When he sees you make a mistake, he's definitely not gonna shy away from confrontation, which is good," said Poeltl, who has received 55 of Murray's 356 assists so far.
"I think on a good working team you need a little bit of everything, an emotional leader, a guy that gets in your face that gets a little loud. You need guys that just lead by example, play hard, and show the way for a lot of the young guys," Poeltl said.
San Antonio's roster is full of young, developing talent, and Murray seems to be the perfect balance of what they need from their leader. He's someone who distributes the rock at a high volume, protects it at all costs, and starts the transition breaks this team thrives on with steals and boards. He's an all-league defender, a capable and well-rounded scorer, and one of the best true point guards in the game right now.
More than that, he's a veteran leader at the age of 26. He's someone who takes the new recruits under his wing and teaches them in the ancient "Spurs Way" that was passed down to him by the greats long ago, but really not that long ago at all. How to play the right way, what it takes to win, how to handle a loss: These are all things he knows and cares about.
In the most challenging Spurs season in the past couple of decades, Murray has been the team's rock, their everything, always.
The Spurs may be well under .500, but 95% of the time, they fight their hearts out, and Dejounte Murray is this team's heart. They play smart, and he's their brain.
Before the season, Murray told fans that the Spurs were gonna give San Antonio something to be proud of. He's done everything in his power to achieve that, and in doing so fulfilled his promise in a way.
Spurs fans are proud of you, Dejounte. They are proud of the numbers, the effort, the leadership and the growth. They have reason to believe that a rebuild doesn't have to mean years of hopelessness. People outside of San Antonio are even taking notice of your exploits on a pretty wide scale.
Despite dedicated fans trying to vote and hashtag Murray's way into the game, the fan vote only decides the starters, and he won't be there. He wasn't among the top 20 vote getters in the Western Conference. He was behind Klay Thompson, who just started playing; Damian Lillard, who has struggled and missed a lot of time; Anthony Edwards, who is very cool and good but not yet an All-Star; and several big-name Lakers, all of whom have dubious cases.
Dejounte Murray's hope of making the game rests on NBA head coaches voting him in as a reserve, or Commissioner Adam Silver naming him as an injury replacement.
That exclusive jury must consider whether Dejounte Murray is deserving of a spot in the All Star Game, but the evidence supporting his inclusion is convincing. We rest our case.