The Step Back

Dejounte Murray and the potential of time

It’s summer — popsicles, beaches, campfires and summer love. As the heat rises, time slows and crushes develop. We’re leaning into that amorous mood this week at The Step Back, sharing our sophomore crushes. Last year may have given us an uninspiring rookie class, but we’re feeling pretty enamored with the future.

Dejounte Murray played in 38 games his rookie year for the Spurs. Add up all the minutes he played in those games and you will arrive at a total of 322 minutes. Divide that by 60 and you realize the dude played under five and half hours in an official NBA uniform. That amount of time would fail to satisfy most people’s binge-watching habits. That amount of time isn’t even a full school day. It isn’t even a full night’s rest, not doctor recommended anyhow. All this is to say whatever Murray is I’m much more in love with the idea than the substance.

For the season, he averaged 3.4 points per game and 1.3 assists. I guess you could play around with per 36 minutes or per 100 possessions. You could also delve into the advanced numbers, and I’m sure you would find something.

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But considering you’d be analyzing only five and a half hours of basketball, if we round up, I would suggest finishing this season of Game of Thrones or starting The Leftovers. Watch two David Lean films. Attend a play. Resurface your deck. Run some errands. Go hiking. Murray will still be here when you finish all those things, and he may not be the Murray you found in the numbers. As of today, he is only 20-years-old. He’ll be of legal drinking age in October. Kegs have lasted longer than his NBA tenure, so far.

But there are flashes.

In those 322 minutes, Murray made 50 field goals, each one poetic in its own right. His long strides and gangly limbs allow him to skate through the lane. He glides along the baseline. He departs from the top of the arc and makes runners and floaters. Occasionally, he presents a finger roll, as he finishes with either his right or left. He uses the glass with dexterity. The ball is a teardrop from the rafters. He appears to be sampling all the former poets to wear a black and white uniform. From Kawhi Leonard to Manu Ginobili to Tony Parker, he is all of them in bits and pieces.

But no one knows if these flourishes can be sustained. A brushstroke is not a mural. Five and a half hours is a journalist’s deadline, not a basketball season. The plays Murray did make are slivers in a cocoon more than a winged butterfly, so timing is very much at issue, not just for him, but for the older players waiting on him to develop.

The Spurs will be patient with Murray, as they seemingly are with almost everything. The Spurs work in a candlelit monastery, where they transcribe by hand the rise and fall of empires. They have waited on players overseas. Waited on players in the G League. They have even waited on players at the end of the team’s bench. They can wait for Murray or dragons, whichever comes first or not at all.

That is, until they can’t afford to wait any longer. For once in their long run of success, the Warriors appear to be on a timeline the Spurs did not author. It has always been difficult to tell whether the team is always on the march or simply waiting on events to unfold. Golden State’s talent and pronounced ambitions now suggest only the latter is a viable option.

The team was supposedly searching for a Deus ex Machina to deliver them this offseason, but the roster is much the same as it was last year. So, for the time being, all eyes are on Murray.

Because of his position and his tendency to find crevices in the defense, the natural analog for Murray’s career so far has been Tony Parker. While this comparison is inevitable, it misses the differences between the two. Murray is taller and longer than Parker, and under Popovich’s tutelage, he will probably end up as the better defender. He is not as quick, though. He glides where Parker darted. Murray may also be the better passer and shooter.

But Parker was ready at a younger age than Murray. In 2002, as a 19-year-old rookie, Parker started in 72 games, averaging 9.2 points per game on the season and 4.3 assists. He played 1,945 more minutes as a rookie than Murray did. Perhaps depth charts and the G League’s existence can explain some of that disparity, but they can’t explain all of it. Popovich clearly trusted a young Parker more than last season’s Murray, even as such an observation questions the canonical accounts of Parker’s career and its relevance as a lamppost for Murray.

Parker’s first few seasons under Popovich are often cited for his inconsistencies, as if the Spurs won games and a title in his second year in spite of his youth and immaturity. Such accounts aren’t quite apocryphal, but they’re not the truth either. Still, the organization did at that time lack complete faith in the young point guard, perhaps because doing battle with the Lakers of Shaq and Kobe called for severe introspection. Even after winning the championship in 2003, San Antonio flirted with the possibility of trading Parker for Jason Kidd. But they instead opted to stick with the young Frenchman. The decision is hard to question in hindsight. And, while the addition of Kidd still may have resulted in championships, by 2013 and 2014 when the team was doing battle with the Heat a replacement at point guard would have been necessary.

Perhaps an understanding of when windows open and close and open again is why the Spurs have not rushed to panic this offseason.

As San Antonio’s title hopes broke against the certainty of the Warriors, rumors about the organization’s interest in Chris Paul grew louder. The Clippers ended up trading Paul to the Rockets, and the Spurs settled on a roster that is, for the most part, identical to the one the Warriors defeated. These decisions give off the appearance that San Antonio believes itself either a match for the Warriors at present or that the team can afford to wait inside its cloister until a real solution arrives.

This waiting game is also a bet on Murray and a belief that history repeats. Because the framework of the Murray story is so thin and dovetails with an older player’s vulnerability, it has been imagined in a way that elevates the former and keeps the latter still playing by proxy. In other words, the team is neither younger nor changed, but what they always were. So all stories about Dejounte Murray are also about Tony Parker.

The last time we saw Parker he had crumpled to the hardwood against the Rockets, in the playoffs. He probed his knee with his fingertips. The expression on his face suggested he wasn’t searching for certainty so much as a reason to doubt the seriousness of his pain. Obviously, his body had communicated the grave details to him already. Any medical opinion, whether from a trainer or a doctor, would be nothing more than a matter of protocol. Anyone watching from the top row or at home could have told him his leg was most definitely f—ed. He had just played his best game of the 2017 postseason, but he would miss the rest of the playoffs with a ruptured left quadriceps tendon.

The Spurs will not expect Parker back before the New Year. No one knows what kind of game he will bring with him upon his return. He is 35. He has played in 1,143 games over the course of 16 seasons. His total minutes played are 36,205. Divide that number by 60 and you arrive at just over 603 hours of basketball, or almost all Netflix has to offer.

Parker’s gruesome exit from the fray allowed for the first long gaze at Murray. In the eight games after Parker’s injury, he averaged just over 18 minutes a game, which is 10 more minutes per game than he averaged in the regular season. Murray didn’t have a clear breakout game in the playoffs, but he looked like he belonged in games that pitted him against the likes of James Harden and Steph Curry. Without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker playing against the mighty Warriors, Murray managed to look like a player with courage. That’s a promising sign as the legend of Golden State grows.

Murray was not drafted until the 29th pick of the draft, but because the Spurs drafted him, a strange kind of pressure exists. He needs to be the next Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili, especially as those two ride off in the sunset. To be good enough to have passed on Chris Paul. He needs to be good enough to hang with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. He needs to be good enough that his name is not out of place among these other names. Can he fill a Hall of Fame-sized void? Each minute he plays will be a theoretical step towards solving the rather impossible equation of what comes next.

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