Can Dejounte Murray be the next great Spur?

Dejounte Murray, right, has taken over as San Antonio's starting point guard. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

SAN ANTONIO -- Nicknamed "Baby Boy," second-year San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray presides over a maturation process that needs him to transform into a man in a hurry.

"Where I come from, people don't make it to this," Murray told ESPN. "Of course, it's enjoyable. But I can't be out there with that type of mindset. I take the game differently. I want to be as great as I can as soon as possible. I'm not really out there thinking, 'Oh, I'm playing against [Stephen] Curry' or 'I'm playing against [Kevin] Durant.' They're just another basketball player that have already established themselves."

That's precisely what Murray will be trying to do when the Spurs face the Cleveland Cavaliers (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) and his mentor, LeBron James, at Quicken Loans Arena on Sunday.

The Spurs have played only one game in 60 with their entire roster available due to this year's rash of injuries, and coach Gregg Popovich doesn't anticipate star forward Kawhi Leonard back in the fold at all this season. Murray has been a bright spot for San Antonio, which named him as the team's starting point guard in January.

During a rookie year that featured stints in the NBA G League and just 38 appearances during the regular season, Murray first logged meaningful minutes as a starter in Game 4 of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals against the No. 3 seed Houston Rockets due to veteran Tony Parker tearing a quadriceps tendon in Game 3 that ended his season.

The first time Murray touched the ball, Patrick Beverley nearly took it. Then a few possessions later, Beverley snatched it away, leading many to wonder whether Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would pull the 20-year-old rookie.

"I don't go out starstruck, surprised, nervous or fearing anything," Murray said. "If he pulls me, he pulls me. He left me in the game, and as the game went on, I got more comfortable."

"I didn't grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. This is a bonus. ... And I didn't just plan to make it to the NBA. I want to be established, I want to be great."
Dejounte Murray

Kyle Anderson saw Murray's postseason debut as the point guard's first steps toward solidifying the team's trust in him, a process that needs to continue during the stretch run toward this year's playoffs.

"We knew he was a tough kid, but he just proved it that whole playoffs," Anderson said. "It's not easy to not get the minutes you want all season, and then [they] say, 'Hey, you're starting in a playoff game tonight.' That's not easy for anybody, especially a 20-year-old kid. He proved he was tough and could handle it. That's just only going to help him down the line. That put [the team's] trust [in him]. The whole team trusts him now."

That playoff experience, including a 4-0 sweep by the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals, set up Murray for his current situation as San Antonio's starting point guard.

Parker, who had been the team's starter since 2001, said Popovich informed him before a 94-86 loss against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 21 that he "thought it was time" to go with Murray as the starter. The veteran took the news in stride, saying he would "try to help out as much as I can. All the knowledge that I have, I'll try to pass that on."

Two days later, on the same night James moved into the 30,000-point club, Murray would produce his coming-out party in front of a national TV audience by scoring 19 points to go with 10 rebounds and a career-high seven steals in San Antonio's 114-102 win over the Cavaliers.

Having groomed a 19-year-old Parker at the point guard spot, Popovich expects ups and downs from Murray.

"Learning how to run the show takes a little bit of time for a young person," Popovich said. "That point guard position is the toughest one on the court, and has an infinite amount of responsibility. You just start at the beginning, and roll. Each player that's young like that has different strengths, both mentally and physically that you work on. But most of it is situational. So, they have to be out there in all sorts of situations and learn how to react and what to do.

"We've done it at this point because there's a lot of the season left, and it's going to give him a great opportunity to grow. I'm fortunate that Tony Parker has the character he has -- to accept it the way he has, and to be a leader and be a mentor for Dejounte. It's worked out well."

San Antonio drafted the then-19-year-old Murray with the No. 29 selection of the 2016 NBA draft with an eye toward making him the heir apparent at point guard to Parker, a future Hall of Famer.

The Spurs saw the 6-foot-11 wingspan, the athleticism, toughness and rebounding ability, but came away most impressed by Murray's pre-draft interview.

"We got an appreciation for who he was more after interviewing than we would have if we had not been able to sit down with him," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford told ESPN. "We walked away from that interview wanting to ask more questions, and with a deeper appreciation."

Murray decided going into his sophomore year at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle that an all-in approach to basketball would help him escape "a lot of stuff that goes on around there: gang-related stuff, killings, people selling drugs" at a school described by The Seattle Times in 2015 as "Seattle's smallest, most troubled high school."

The school had produced Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jamal Crawford, as well as Doug Christie, Terrance Williams, Nate Robinson and C.J. Giles. Murray viewed himself as next in the school's basketball lineage -- an idea bolstered only through a relationship with Crawford dating back to when Murray was in sixth grade.

In addition to staying in contact with Murray throughout that time, Crawford often communicated with the point guard's mother, Shameka Thompson, as well as uncles Terry Thompson, who lives with the point guard in San Antonio and competed in high school against Crawford, and Reuben Thompson. Murray's family often showed him Crawford's messages of encouragement to keep him on track.

"And then, he ended up going to my high school, and our relationship just really took off," Crawford told ESPN last December.

Murray remains reluctant to discuss the specifics of his troubled childhood. But one NBA personnel executive described Murray's situation as "unimaginable."

"But I understood being around Jamal Crawford how important it is to come play an 82-game season, and hopefully be able to play in the playoffs," Murray said. "As a sophomore, that's when I started taking it seriously, because I had bigger dreams than a lot of people on my team, and felt like I had the potential to make it to the NBA. I had to start doing those types of things early."

That approach paid off with a scholarship to Washington, where he averaged 16.1 points as a freshman, before making the jump to the NBA.

Still, San Antonio didn't anticipate Murray would be available when it made its selection.

"The anticipation was that he was going to go significantly ahead of us," Buford said. "So, when you're in that moment, as that's going on, there was activity in trying to move to get him as he became more realistic."

Neither Murray nor Buford knows exactly why the point guard fell in the draft. Neither cares at this point.

"If you could redo it, I would want to be in San Antonio," Murray said. "I'm blessed and thankful to be here, and couldn't have asked to be in a better place. I'm not a guy [who worries], 'Oh, I didn't go No. 1. I didn't go No. 10.' I don't care. I got drafted. I didn't grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. This is a bonus. This is a reward to my family. I'm in. And I didn't just plan to make it to the NBA. I want to be established, I want to be great. So, I'm trying to do everything I can to reach that level."

In a loss to the Utah Jazz on Feb. 3, Murray reached 500 career points, becoming the first Spur since Leonard to score 500 points or more and tally 300-plus rebounds over his first 100 games. Murray pulled down 11 rebounds two days before that against the Houston Rockets, marking his ninth game with 10-plus rebounds this season, which ranks as the most double-digit rebounding performances by a Spurs point guard in a single season.

Popovich often describes Murray as "fearless" and "unimpressed" by the competition, a sentiment shared by Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone.

Murray became just the third player in NBA history to record 13 rebounds in a game in which he didn't score a point on Jan. 30 during San Antonio's 106-104 win over Denver.

"I see a very long, athletic, attacking guard. I think he's a good rebounding guard offensively and defensively," Malone said. "His ability to get into the paint and finish. Obviously, his jump shot is a work in progress. But we've seen them work their magic before with guys that come in not known as shooters, and under the tutelage of a guy like Chip Engelland, they wind up becoming really good shooters.

"Last year, he had a game against us where he put up big numbers. He was a very young player. He's not afraid of the moment, and whether that's his upbringing, his background, the tough life he's had, but when he's on the court, he's playing downhill. He's not going side to side. He's an attack player. He gets after it on both ends, which is what I like. He's a guy that plays both ends of the floor, and he has all of the tools to be a hell of a defender. I think they see the same things in him."

"I'm just trying to perfect my craft at both ends of the floor, work my ass off, and just get better and better. And I know that I'm going to, because that's all I want to do."
Dejounte Murray

Ginobili said in October that he views Murray as a potential All-Star.

"You know it's going to happen now or in five years," said Ginobili. "It depends a lot on him, but he's a very talented kid."

What Murray sees, however, is a raw, unfinished product, which is why he's constantly in critical self-evaluation mode. Footage from basketball games are the only images you'll see flickering across the point guard's iPad screen and all the TVs in his house, which is 10 minutes from the Spurs' facility.

Murray focuses mainly on himself, before zeroing in on teammates "to see what I could've done to get them the ball, see if they were open, little stuff like that. If it's not me or my teammates, I'm watching another team. All I want to watch is basketball."

For Murray, making the NBA wasn't enough. Neither was landing the starting point guard position in his second season.

Anderson called Murray "a gym rat," a description the point guard won't deny.

"When I come here, I feel like this is my drug. This is my party," Murray told ESPN, pointing to the court as he leaned against a wall of an empty gym at the Spurs' training facility. "Because I understand being a black male in this world, you don't really get chances. You're already a target, no matter who it is, what situation it is.

"I want to be great. So I come in here, play my music, and get tons of shots up, everything -- just working on my game. Some people may say it's weird, or you've got to get out and enjoy life sometimes. I get out sometimes with my family. But that doesn't mean it's got to be a club, or going out to drink or smoke. I just try to eliminate all the other stuff that can happen, and stay focused. I just want to be great. ...

"I'm just trying to perfect my craft at both ends of the floor, work my ass off, and just get better and better. And I know that I'm going to, because that's all I want to do. When the playoffs come, I know it's another atmosphere. But I fear nothing, and I'm prepared and ready for everything."