As we look toward the matchup between the world champion Golden State Warriors and the wounded San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, I am filled with questions. How do the Spurs stay perpetually dangerous, year after year? Why do they never fall off into the abyss of irrelevancy like most NBA franchises? How do they keep reloading without having to rebuild?
One part of that answer is their renowned ability to both identify and develop diamonds in the rough. Future hall of famers Tony Parker (28th pick), Manu Ginobili (57th pick), and Kawhi Leonard (15th pick) were not draft board monsters in the majority of NBA GM’s eyes during their respective rookie years. Yet, the Spurs braintrust (PATFO) developed them into elite players and ruthless champions.
The Spurs are grooming a new weapon
Their latest project is the 29th pick of the 2016 draft: Dejounte Murray. He’s a 6 foot 5, 170 pound point guard with a 6 foot 10 wingspan. He has the quickness to chase small guards, the lithe body to slip through screens, and the length to switch defensively on wing players. NBA fans received an alarming glimpse into his bright future last spring when the Spurs unleashed him to help eliminate the Houston Rockets out of the playoffs.
Murray would finish this statement win with 11 points, 10 boards, 5 assists, and 2 steals. As a rookie in a road elimination game, he showed no trepidation in the task of firmly choking the life out of the Rockets. Offensively, he got to every spot on the floor he wanted to, finishing with a deft touch or smartly distributing to open teammates. Defensively, he was a ball hawk, preying on any lazy or unsure passes.
Now in his second year, he has shown some flashes of brilliance as a replacement starter for injured point guard Tony Parker. The Spurs poor health (including MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard missing the season to this point) has forced Murray into a primary playmaking role. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has thrown him into the fire, where the young man is averaging 8 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 turnovers per game on 40% shooting from the field. Not great, but also not bad for a 21 year old PG missing his All-Star teammate.
Here’s another glimpse at his true power. Ask the Raptors about the damage this newbie can do.
He reminds me of a larger, young Rajon Rondo in the way that he uses his athleticism and wits to make up for an untrustworthy shooting touch (0 of 2 from beyond the arc this season, 64% from the free throw line). He can put pressure on opponents with his handles, he’s an active rebounder, and he has a nose for springing momentum swinging defensive plays.
Stephen Curry will be up for the challenge
Steph, Murray’s point guard counterpart, is in the prime of a hall of fame career. He leads the champs in scoring this season at 28 points a game. He is also putting the “fear of God” in defenses according to his head coach Steve Kerr.
Even still, the two time MVP occasionally has inexplicable mental lapses that accrue foul trouble or create horrendous turnovers. Too many of either of these mistakes against the calculating Spurs can kill the Warriors momentum and evaporate some of their magic synergy.
Steph has to be careful not to unnecessarily reach in on Murray and give the refs a chance to whistle dumb fouls. It’s hard to dominate the game if he’s on the bench saddled with foul trouble. He must fight the urge to poke for steals, keeping his hands out of the cookie jar, despite how tantalizing it may be to force a turnover.
Speaking of turnovers, Steph has to remain disciplined with his own ball handling. The Spurs will most likely use a combination of Murray and rangy wing Danny Green to defend Steph. They will endeavor to take away his air space, and force the Warriors hero to put the ball on the floor to make him do anything but shoot open jumpers. If “Unanimous” takes care of the orange, the depleted Spurs won’t be able to keep up with the Dubs high-octane pace.
One battle of many to come
I expect Steph to outplay Murray and show the young fella that there are levels to being an NBA point guard. However, I do believe Murray will learn valuable lessons about battling Steph that could prove most important down the road in the playoffs. It will be a blast watching the king of point guards square off against a potential future rival for the throne.