How Dejounte Murray Found His Way

How Dejounte Murray Found His Way

After a childhood filled with brushes with the law and street violence, the guard could become the new face of the league’s most esteemed franchise.

The first time Gregg Popovich watched Dejounte Murray play basketball he saw chaos, for better and worse. It was 2016, the Spurs were title contenders coming off a 67-win season, and in front of their revered coach stood a 6′ 4″, 170-pound teenager who had just been drafted with the 29th pick to one day replace the irreplaceable Tony Parker as San Antonio’s floor general.

“He looked wild as hell,” Popovich remembers. “He looked skinny and weak and long and talented and energetic. Not a great shooter but really great in the fast break and loved playing the game. So there was a lot to like.”

Almost five years later, Murray is an integral part of San Antonio’s present and future, a lanky, old-school quarterback who uses his panoramic view of the court to routinely make the play his team needs instead of the one he wants.

He’s also one of the league’s most refreshing and effective anomalies, a lead ballhandler who doesn’t take or make a bunch of threes; most of Murray’s damage is inflicted from the midrange—a space defenses are typically happy to concede—where he’s tirelessly honed a reliable jumper. “His pull-up now is basically automatic,” says Spurs guard Derrick White.

Murray organizes half-court sets with precision (his turnover rate is down significantly this season), crashes the glass like an old-school bruiser, and has a serious understanding of what it means to lead, qualities that contradict the Baby Boy sobriquet his grandmother gave him when the John Singleton film Baby Boy came out. (To this day, pretty much everyone who knew Murray before he reached the NBA still calls him Baby Boy.)

Further separating him from most at his position is Murray’s second-to-none defense. Opposing coaches legitimately worry about the pressure he puts on their point guards. “I gotta warn LaMelo [Ball] about him, make sure that LaMelo knows you can’t take a play off with Dejounte,” says Hornets coach James Borrego, who spent two seasons as Murray’s assistant coach in San Antonio. “He’s hunting you down. He’s looking for one mistake that you’re gonna make, and he’s gonna pick you or really turn the game.”

Murray’s progress has yet to eclipse some of his game’s holes, including the fact that he’s yet to bloom as an efficient scorer. But given the route he took to get where he is, the win-now situation he was drafted into and the adversity he’s endured since he made it (most notably in the form of a torn ACL in Oct. 2018), blemishes are understandable. Each year, though, the gap between Murray’s strengths and shortcomings narrows significantly.

He spent most of his rookie year slow-roasting in the G League and getting DNP-CDs. The next season he became the youngest player in NBA history to crack an All-Defensive team (Kobe Bryant, Anthony Davis and Tim Duncan are the only other players who also qualified during their age-21 seasons).

Today, he’s San Antonio’s most vital building block, with present-day two-way production that still barely sniffs what his ultimate ceiling can be. “This is my first year in the NBA being free to just, you know, play,” Murray says. “Coach Pop, he let me off the leash a little bit.” To compare Murray to the rest of the league, heading into this season only 11 players in the last 10 years averaged at least 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game for an entire season. All have made an All-Star team. Murray will likely finish his fifth season on the right side of that threshold, hinting at a very near future where triple doubles (of which he’s accrued four this year) are a regular occurrence.

NBA folk hero Jamal Crawford, a longtime mentor and close friend who grew up in the same section of Seattle, believes Murray deserves to win Most Improved Player. “He can do everything on the court, and the smoothness with which he does it, like, I love watching him,” Crawford says.

With Patty Mills—a 32-year-old backup on an expiring contract—as the only Spur who’s been there longer, Murray has not only grown to embody the organization’s cultural tenets—long marked by sacrifice, accountability and unpretentiousness—but positioned himself as a torchbearer, someone who can teach, lead and guide the younger players on today’s team, along with those who enter San Antonio’s ecosystem in the years to come. The timing, for a proud franchise that’s currently shifting from the postscript of a ludicrously prosperous era into whatever happens next, could not be more ideal.

“When I talk to Spurs people, there’s a belief about Dejounte,” Borrego says. “They really believe ‘This is the guy that’s gonna lead us as our point guard into the future.’ ”

When the Spurs draft a new player, Murray immediately asks the front office for his phone number. Dinner at Murray’s home is an unofficial part of the onboarding process. He goes out of his way to impart lessons, from why it’s O.K. to spend time in the G League early on to steps they can take to earn the coaching staff’s trust and know what’s going to be expected from Day One. Murray isn’t shy about assuming that burden, and when San Antonio missed the postseason in 2020 (for just the second time since he was born), he felt responsible.

“I was hurt last year when we didn’t make the playoffs because I felt like I let them down,” Murray says. “As far as carrying the legacy on, the winning culture, yeah, I think I’m responsible for that. I’m part of it. It’s a team game, but I’m a natural-born leader.”

The Spurs are on a path to qualify for the Play-In tournament as a 10 seed, which means they will need to win two single-elimination games before they actually make the playoffs. The odds aren’t in their favor. But Murray’s extraordinary focus, selflessness, unique physical build, and eagerness to learn have not only accelerated his development, but made San Antonio a spirited underdog that shouldn’t be written off, now or beyond this season.

“His age belies his maturity,” Popovich says. “Sometimes I’ve been too hard on him—not nearly as hard as I ever was on Tony Parker, that’s for sure. But he handles coaching. He’s not affected by criticism.”

Former Spurs teammate Danny Green can speak to that experience firsthand. “I was in the Tony category when I was there as well,” he says. “San Antonio will humble you quickly … and it’s not for everybody.”

The resilience that helped Murray push through a trying professional start wasn’t entirely organic, though. It was molded through heartbreak; a glimpse at why he is the way he is only fortifies the belief that Murray is a person worth investing in. Years before he was a Spur, when even the thought of playing in the NBA was a different universe over, Murray faced a nightmarish adolescence, perfused by grief, terror and harrowing uncertainty.

“It’s a story that’s never been heard before because I was in the streets for real, for real. I didn’t live off of nobody’s name,” he says. “It ain’t nothing to brag about. This s— is crazy when I wake up. I’m playing in the NBA. I’m on a video game. I have fans that buy my jersey. It still don’t feel real. I’ve been here five years; I feel like it’s a dream still.”

It’s a background that can either breed languishing cynicism or unbreakable conviction. Murray embraced the latter, along with a perspective that helps explain why he’s so devoted to not letting the talent he was blessed with go to waste—why the torn ACL, on the eve of a breakout season, was almost immediately seen as an opportunity to attack rehab. One year later, the Spurs signed him to a $64 million extension before knowing how his knee would respond to even a second of live action.

“There is just an approach that he has. And I think people see that and gravitate to that,” Spurs general manager Brian Wright says. “In the spot that I sit in, you’re betting on the human, their willingness to work and how much it means to them. I know that he has all of the attributes, all of the desire and all of the commitment to be an incredible player in this league for a long time. And that’s what we expect him to be.”

Every player who makes the NBA is a miracle. Every story is spruced with dabs of luck, a trail of serendipity, cosmic happenstance and mounds of adversity that were eventually cleared. For Murray, the mere fact that he’s still alive and free is its own tall tale. “I feel like the path I took to get here,” he starts, “what I had overcome, nobody ever overcame. Nobody’s ever been in my situation and made it to where I’m at today.”

One of the best iso defenders in the game, Murray is sixth in the league in steals.

Sitting in an aspen-colored New Balance hoodie inside his spacious San Antonio home, graced by a firepit and glass-walled pool in the backyard, Murray’s current reality is a world removed from the South End Seattle neighborhood he grew up in, where desperation and ruthlessness went hand in hand.

“When people hear or talk about the South End, it’s like, ‘I’m not going to the South End,’ ” says Terry Thompson, Murray’s uncle. “If you’re not from there, that’s not somewhere you want to be.”

The neighborhood is notorious for gang violence, drive-by shootings, drug dealing and addiction. David Crisp, Murray’s high school and college teammate who currently plays professionally overseas, remembers attending a Pro-Am organized by Crawford. “One of our teammate’s dads got his car broken into during the Pro-Am.” While attending Rainier Beach High, Crisp would sit in class every day and listen to police sirens wail across the street. According to The Washington Post, in 2016 more than 75% of the school’s students were economically disadvantaged and 95% were students of color.

Murray’s complete childhood story can’t be told in full because he isn’t ready to tell it. But even the slightest overview can clarify how dreadful the backdrop was.

“I’m in the stage right now where I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to tell my story to motivate the world and allow the world to know who Dejounte Murray is,” he says. “I’ve been real quiet and to myself about it, because it traumatized me. To this day it haunts me still. If you just think of the streets, a young kid in the streets, gangbanging, around drugs and just doing anything to get money, that was what it was. That’s what I was. I wouldn’t even say I was taught that. It was that or it was no way.”

When Murray was first arrested in middle school, it didn’t phase him. “Juvenile? That was nothing to me at 11 years old. I wasn’t scared; I wasn’t nervous, because I knew what to expect from going to jail.” His relationship with violence was frequent, felt in the body-numbing sensation that takes over after hearing a close friend or cousin has been fatally shot. His mother was in and out of prison and his father wasn’t always around. “I love my mom to death. My dad, me and him are still working on ways to become closer,” Murray says. “He wasn’t a deadbeat, but neither one of them were full-time parents.”

Looking back, Murray says that lifestyle was less a choice than a fate he was born into. “As crazy as it sounds, I’m not the only one in my family that went through the worst. My whole family, from my grandma … I heard stories about my great-grandma being a part of gangs and being crazy and doing the worst. You hear the word cycle, like it’s just a cycle; it’s passed down from generations. Everything was passed down to us. Selling drugs or doing whatever in the streets, it was normal to my family.”

Murray bounced from one apartment to the next, one hotel room to another. Couch to couch. His mother was kicked off state housing the first time he was arrested. Evictions weren’t uncommon. “I don’t even have a favorite cartoon. That’s how much I was in the streets. You know what I’m saying?” Murray says. “I can’t even tell my daughter I had a favorite cartoon growing up, and that f—- with me. That bothers me a lot.”

(Murray’s daughter lives in Seattle. He sees and talks to her as often as he can. In the middle of an interview for this story, Thompson received a text from Murray reminding him to pick her up new fish for her tank.)

If they aren’t dead, almost everyone who was part of his life during that period is in state or federal prison, some serving sentences that will last most of their lives. These were Murray’s two possible fates when he was detained again, while living with his great aunt, around the time he was transitioning from freshman to sophomore year. He called Thompson from jail, and a plan was laid to move in with his uncle as soon as he got out. Murray spent the next few years there, along with nights at the apartment of Thompson’s friend Mitch Johnson. (Johnson is now an assistant coach with the Spurs.)

“He was tired of having to watch his back. When you’re in a gang or you’re hanging out with people from the streets, you gotta watch your back,” Thompson says. “And so you can’t do both. Do you want to be a gang member? [Or] do you want to be somebody that’s successful in life?”

Along with so many others in Seattle’s tight-knit basketball community Thompson, who played professionally overseas before a knee injury ended his career, saw enough potential for a college scholarship. All Murray needed was structure and advice from people whose own success couldn’t be argued with.

“You can’t let a kid like that slip through the cracks,” says Will Conroy, a former NBA player from Seattle who coached Murray at Washington. “Basketball wasn’t on the forefront of his everyday survival. A lot of people were able to help him.”

Those names include Conroy, Murray’s uncles, Rainier Beach assistant coach David King and, crucially, Crawford. Murray started receiving text messages and phone calls from the NBA star after they first met when Murray was in the sixth grade. “Baby Boy is special, man. You could see the look in his eye. He had a genuineness about him and a coolness about him,” Crawford says. “The one thing about Dejounte is, once he locks in and once he gives you his word, that’s it. That’s what always separated him. You didn’t have to say, ‘Dejounte, I already told you that.’ He grasped it immediately.”

Once Murray joined Rainier Beach’s basketball team in the 10th grade, his time on the streets ended. Priorities shifted as he grew to become something of a burgeoning local myth. There was the 33-point, 30-rebound game against current 76ers wing (and college teammate) Matisse Thybulle in the Metro League Championship. Or the night before Crawford’s wedding, when the three-time Sixth Man of the Year invited Murray (then 16 years old) to take part in a Midnight Madness exhibition. Murray, with arms that resembled two guitar strings, dropped more than 40 points in a game that featured a slew of NBA players. Chris Paul was a teammate. “Ask him why he did me like that,” laughs Crawford, who was matched up on the opposite team.

During Murray’s sophomore year, Rainier Beach was down five with nine seconds left in the state championship when Crawford—an alum who had flown up to watch the game from courtside—left early to catch his flight back to the Clippers. Walking through airport security, Crawford texted the school’s longtime coach Mike Bethea: Man, coach. It’s all good. We’ll be back next year. “I said, ‘Hey, man, we won!’ ” Bethea remembers. A key steal by Murray at the end of regulation made the impossible comeback a reality.

Division I offers poured in from several elite programs, but Murray chose to stay home and attend Washington, where his singular drive precluded him from having anything that resembled the typical college experience. “We would go to parties; we were all freshmen, chasing girls,” says Thybulle, who was in the same recruiting class. “I kid you not, Dejounte was in the gym shooting. We’d ask him to come out and he’d be like, ‘No, I’m staying in tonight.’ And then we’d find out he went and got shots up.”

On more than one occasion, Murray and Crisp strolled back to the gym around 10 or 11 with a box of Pagliacci Pizza, well after a three-hour afternoon practice earlier that same day. Instead of walking back to their dorm when they were finished, both would crash on giant beanbags in the locker room, then wake up at 6 a.m. for another workout.

The routines aren’t too different now. “Dejounte wasn’t the type of kid that was hanging out much,” says Green. “If he did go out once in a blue it was random. You wouldn’t see it much. He wouldn’t be drinking or anything. He was in the gym. He stayed in the gym.”

When Mark Caesar, a Seattle-based trainer, visited Murray in San Antonio a couple of years ago, he was woken up at 5:30 a.m. with a simple question: “You ready to work?” The obsession with basketball is so deep that the Spurs have asked Murray’s roommate to get him out of the house, go on a vacation, and take his mind off the game. There hasn’t been much luck with that. When he’s not playing basketball he’s watching basketball. “Tonight I’m gonna have four [games] on my TV, two on my laptop, two on my other laptop, one on my phone,” Murray says. “Like, that’s Dejounte.”

It’s a way to balance the life he’s living with the one he used to know. Murray has had falling outs with some people in his life when he was younger, but he remains close to others. He answers penitentiary calls from old friends every day and regularly logs into JPay, a service that allows him to transfer funds to inmates. “That’s my life,” says Murray. “Play basketball, take care of my daughter, and I feel like I’m responsible for making sure my brothers that made mistakes are eating good, living good and knowing that somebody cares for them.”

In his lone season as a Husky, Murray averaged 16.1 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game.

There are 20 seconds left in a late-January game against the Celtics when Murray switches onto Kemba Walker and transforms into a booby trap. The Spurs are clinging to a two-point lead, and standing a few feet above the key, Walker starts a left-to-right crossover he usually executes in his sleep. But this time, almost as soon as the ball hits the court Murray’s hand is there to poke it away. By the time Walker realizes what happened, Murray is on a fast break, sealing the game with a dunk on the other end. “Kemba’s probably been ripped maybe five times in his whole life,” Green says. “Those arms, man. He’s got long arms like Kawhi.”

Murray is masterful at baiting his prey. He studies scouting reports and takes genuine pleasure learning and remembering different tendencies. “I’m not going to say I’m going to pick Kemba all the time,” he says. “That mother—— got the ball on a string. I just knew what he was gonna do right there. It’s kind of like how the Kevin Durants of the world and Carmelos of the world were blessed with a gift to be unbelievable scorers. I feel like I was gifted on the defensive end.”

If Murray has a signature move, the way he snatches the ball from offensive stalwarts is it. Those who know firsthand how difficult it actually is are more impressed than anyone else.

“It’s borderline impossible,” Thybulle, an elite perimeter defender, says. “A lot of guys will never even attempt it because they’re like, ‘I don’t want to get beat and get yelled at.’ That’s part of the reason why I don’t do it. I don’t trust that I could get away with it and keep my guy in front of me. These are guys he’s stealing the ball from, getting paid hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s a pretty crazy concept to be able to take the ball away so easily from guys who, that’s their calling card. That’s their thing.”

Murray’s brand of on-ball defense toggles between pesky and intimidating. It makes his high school coach think about Gary Payton. One of his assistant coaches in college is reminded of a cobra. Murray’s arms were built to extinguish a live dribble. Two helicopter blades dangle from his shoulders, always stabbing at the ball with those pencil-stick fingers that are somehow always a centimeter longer than whoever he’s guarding thinks they are. “He was hell in practice,” laughs Grizzlies forward Kyle Anderson, a former Spurs teammate who remembered how another ex-teammate, Mills, was a frequent victim. “Poor Patty.”

For good reason, players don’t actively seek out the situation Walker found himself in. According to Synergy Sports, Murray ranks in the 95th percentile as an isolation defender this season. Taking him on without help isn’t advised and he knows it. “A lot of players are gonna call a pick-and-roll on Dejounte,” he says. “I just have that pride where you’re not gonna beat me one-on-one. It’s not happening.” Before games, Murray’s teammates like to place bets on how many opponents he’ll rip.

The attitude was established on concrete courts in Seattle, honed during games of 21 with his much older, much larger uncles who told him from the start that there wouldn’t be any handouts. If he wanted the ball, he had to steal it or corral someone else’s miss. It’s here where Murray fell in love with defense and what it means to compete. It’s why he is so relentless. “If you get him with a move, you gotta cut him off or get the shot up quick because he’s coming right back,” Crisp says.

In a March 1 loss to the Nets (a game sent into overtime by a gymnastic Murray jump shot as time expired), he helped hold Kyrie Irving to three second-half baskets and an uncharacteristically inefficient 9-for-24 shooting night.

Off the ball he might have an even more devastating impact, if he’s skying for a one-armed rebound—“That dude will go in there and f— around with the biggest people; you see it with guys like Russell Westbrook, but Russell Westbrook’s body is built for it,” says Conroy—skipping into a passing lane and turning an ostensibly harmless pass into a game-changing miscalculation, or stifling another man’s drive before diving back out to his own assignment on the three-point line.

The goal for every offense in today’s NBA is to create space. Murray eliminates it as well as anyone. He flickers in and out of gaps with an advancedunderstanding of timing and angles. Trying to score against San Antonio when he’s on the floor is a maddening five-on-six battle. Just ask the Warriors, who saw Murray steal the ball eight times in a Feb. 8 Spurs win.

San Antonio is known for carefully plotted half-court actions, but Murray’s activity on defense sparks transition opportunities that give their offense a different dynamic. He almost always makes the right decision when the game goes scriptless—an area of expertise that his college teammates used to marvel at. During fast-break drills, his instincts were flawless. They never saw a mistake.

To be most feared when the other team has the ball, as Murray is, subverts what it means to be a franchise player in today’s NBA. But while defense is the first paragraph of his game’s CV, it’s a steadily improving jump shot that’s shredding any preconceived notion about what Murray can eventually become. Entering the league, no part of his skill set created more doubt. Now, with long arms, a high release and a tight-enough handle to get where he’s comfortable whenever he wants, it’s a legitimate weapon. (Only Chris Paul, Brandon Ingram and Devin Booker have made more pull-up twos than Murray this season.)

When Murray first landed in San Antonio, Chip Engelland, the team’s renowned shot doctor, laid out a long-term vision and told him, “You’re either gonna execute the plan or not.” Says Murray, “What he meant by that is, ‘We’re not gonna try to go be Stephen Curry overnight.’ ”

The formula requires sweat, trust and patience. Do you want to be a great shooter or do you want to be a good shooter? is the question Engelland, Murray’s Yoda, asks over and over; it drives their relationship and all his progress.

The two began around the basket then worked their way to the free throw line, where both believe Murray can someday crack 85%. (He’s at 80.3 this year, up from 70.0 as a rookie.) They’ve since ventured out to the midrange and have sights set on conquering the three-point line, where he shoots just 31.8% on 3.0 attempts per game. From how far apart his fingers should be on the ball to where it needs to fit in the palm of his hand right before it’s released, Murray feels confident in his shot because he’s still learning how to do it.

“We still have a long way to go, but we’re on the right road to being what I know I can be one day,” Murray says. “Chip really wants to see me be great. Like, he’s a big reason why I want to wake up every morning and go to the gym and work.”

There’s also a direct throughline here between Murray’s upbringing and self-belief as it relates to the slow erosion of weaknesses in his skill set. “When I came in a lot of people said, ‘He can’t shoot.’ S—, that’s fine with me. S—, I was never taught. My life wasn’t like these kids getting drove to practice, getting drove to the gym, getting drove to games. I wasn’t at the gym with a trainer telling me to lock my elbows, snap my wrists, use my legs,” he says. “It’s insane, the stuff I didn’t know. I was just playing raw in high school and college. The Spurs are the first people to really teach me how to play the game.”

Pop says that Murray now understands “what I’m looking for” in a floor leader.

When asked how he knew his nephew was special, Thompson remembers watching him in the third grade against the best team in Portland. Murray was fouled with no time on the clock and his team down by a basket. “He looks over at the coach and says, ‘I got these. I got these,’ ” Thompson says. “He goes to the free throw line, taps on his chest, and knocks down both free throws. I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ ”

That poise never left. “Most point guards look to the bench every time they make a mistake, they look to the coach to see what he’s saying,” says Green. “He just played. A lot of times Pop would have to yell at him, ‘Hey, we’re gonna run this,’ or tell Dejounte, ‘Look, this is what you need to do,’ and he’s like, ‘All right, I got it.’ He took charge. He made decisions early on and he was comfortable with himself.”

Nothing is promised in the NBA. No player is guaranteed to maximize their ability, or grow at the rate expectations suggest. But as frustrating as last year was, including all the different ways the pandemic kept Murray from working out as aggressively as he normally would (he bought an outdoor hoop when the season was suspended but broke the rim soon afterward), the improvement he’s shown this year in spite of its brevity is exciting. He shines brightest in the summer, when nobody is watching.

“I’m an offseason guy that really likes to take, you know, great, big, big jumps,” he says. “There’s guys who look like stars their first year, they fade away, or they look like stars a couple years, they fade away,” Murray says. “I like Kawhi Leonard’s development, not just because he was a Spur [or] a good friend of mine. I watched him a lot when I got here. If you go check the stats, he got better every year. It wasn’t just one year, then he waited three years. It was a jump every year, every category.”

Murray has done that this season, in part because of his evolving relationship with Popovich, who’s emboldened him to attack the game with a level of freedom that wasn’t afforded in his first two seasons—or ’20, when a minutes restriction stalled genuine betterment.

“At some point a coach and especially a point guard start to speak the same language and understand what’s going on in games,” says Popovich. “Who hasn’t touched it in a while? What’s the score? What do we need? It took a while for all that to sink in because he missed a lot of time. At this point he’s got enough time with me game after game after game to understand what I’m looking for, and, in general, what it takes to run a team and win basketball games.”

There’s one part of Murray’s game that Pop would like to see even more of, too: “He’ll turn down threes from time to time and I’ve got to go to him and let him know that the worst thing that can happen is it doesn’t go in. You know, your family still loves you and you still get a paycheck. The hell with it. Shoot the next one.”

On a franchise that doesn’t give minutes, shots or decision-making opportunities to players who haven’t earned them, Murray is just now holding keys so many were handed right away.

“I know that there’s so much room for me to improve because I’m still playing catch-up with everybody in this league, damn near,” Murray says. “I had to go a whole totally different route than a lot of guys my age. On the basketball side of things I never had a trainer. Nobody knew the game to teach me the game. My uncles, we played it for fun at the parks. We were never taught it. We’d have no male figures around us. Male figures around us was drug dealers.”

The game is its own mental remedy for a 24-year-old who spent most of his formative years instead learning how to survive deadly threats that literally lurked around every corner. But no matter how deep Murray dives into himself on that search for greatness so many in his profession are on; total escape from his past is impossible. A cure for the anguish he feels does not exist. Part of him wishes it did, but the rest knows that he wouldn’t be who he is now having lived someone else’s experience.

“I still deal with a lot today,” Murray says. “The main thing is for me to get in the gym and meditate. I don’t party, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. [The] gym is like my club, my therapy. It’s my life. I’ll be damned to allow these problems to affect my job, affect my work, affect me from being great. I was taught to find a way. That’s why I’m at where I’m at today.”

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