Can Dejounte Murray Eclipse Kawhi Leonard's Peak Soon?

Dejounte Murray
Dejounte Murray / Sean M. Haffey/GettyImages

San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray emerged as a star this season and actually played more like a superstar during the second half of the year. If Murray is indeed on a superstar track, then San Antonio could finally replace former Spur Kawhi Leonard, who became one of the best players in the league before forcing the team to trade him.

San Antonio has struggled ever since, barely making the playoffs in 2018-19 before missing them altogether in each of the last three seasons. Now, with Murray, who had an amazing season averaging 21.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 9.2 assists, and 2 steals, San Antonio has a player worth building around. However, he still has a ways to go to surpass Leonard's peak with the Spurs.

Leonard's best year came during the 2016-17 season when he averaged 25.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.8 steals and led San Antonio to 61 wins and the Western Conference Finals.

Ironically, Murray was a rookie on that team, and he and Leonard even played together, which makes Leonard forcing the Spurs to trade him all the more frustrating in retrospect.

On the other hand, Murray might not have turned into the player that he's become without that happening. The same can be said about DeMar DeRozan, who helped carry the Spurs offensively for three straight seasons after being acquired in the Leonard trade in 2018.

Both players dominated the ball, forcing Murray to spend time off-ball, where he's much less effective. With both gone, however, he's flourished as the team's new number one option, particularly as a passer. In that regard, he’s already eclipsed Leonard, who wasn't nearly the playmaker he ultimately became with the L.A. Clippers. 

San Antonio Spurs
Dejounte Murray, Kevon Looney, Stephen Curry, Jakob Poeltl / Lachlan Cunningham/GettyImages

Murray is quickly closing the gap

Murray masterfully created shots for himself and others out of the pick and roll this season, finding shooters on the perimeter as well as rim runners like Jakob Poeltl. He was also terrific at pushing the ball in transition and getting open shots for teammates. 

As a result, he finished fourth in the NBA in assists per game and should continue to get better as the team adds more shooting around him. That's a scary thought, considering Murray is already well-ahead of where Leonard was as a passer. But on offense, Leonard has Murray beat across the board in both scoring and shooting efficiency.

Back in the 2016-17 season, Leonard shot a terrific 48.5% from the field, 88% from the line, and 38% from three. Contrast that with Murray this season, who shot 46.2% from the field, 79.4% from the line, and 32.7% from 3. 

Murray will definitely need to improve as a 3-point shooter, which weighed down his efficiency like a stone, as did his lack of free throw attempts and a good but not great free throw percentage. Without improving at either, he’d struggle to average more than 25.5 points. 

Fortunately, Murray showed flashes of being able to up his offensive game, averaging 25.1 points and shooting 46.9% from the field, 84.7% from the line, and 34.5% from three post-All-Star break.

That is much closer to Leonard, and while it was only 16 games, nothing he did was unsustainable. In fact, he should be capable of doing it over an entire season -- next season even -- but it may take longer for him to match Leonard's shooting.

Defensively, it's pretty clear that Murray won’t ever reach Leonard's peak despite also being a good defender. Leonard was terrifying on that end of the floor, expertly playing passing lanes and frequently gambling on steals but rarely missing, then going the other way for an easy dunk or layup. Not to mention he could lock down guards and wings alike and physically rip the ball from opponents' hands when they got careless.

Whereas Murray can only shut down guards, which didn't happen as much this season with Murray taking a step back on that end. To be clear, that’s not a knock on Murray, and it's a common issue for players who take on increased offensive responsibilities, Leonard included. Still, Murray is excellent at reading passes and picking pockets. That comes in handy, particularly because it creates transition opportunities, and was part of the reason the Spurs ranked 9th in fastbreak points.

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All in all, Murray's quick development has turned him into an All-Star and his play in the second half of this season suggests that he isn't done improving. Still, it could take another couple of seasons before Murray truly eclipses Leonard's peak.