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Spurs: How Murray and Poeltl Evolved into the Ultimate Pick and Roll Pair

Jakob Poeltl, Dejounte Murray
Jakob Poeltl, Dejounte Murray / Jason Miller/GettyImages
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Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl have both taken major steps forward in their development for the San Antonio Spurs this season. Their improvement is due in large part to them playing alongside one another and evolving into an elite pick and roll pairing.

It didn't happen overnight, but the two have managed to form an increasingly effective pick and roll one-two punch. That has helped Murray evolve as a playmaker and Poeltl become a legitimate scoring threat. With that being said, let's take a closer look at how Murray and Poeltl have done this over the season.

While Murray and Poeltl have excellent pick-and-roll chemistry now, that wasn't the case just a few years ago. After all, Poeltl's first season with the Spurs was the same season in which Murray tore his ACL and missed the entire year. Murray returned the following season, and when the two played together, it didn't always work on the offensive end.

It was perhaps a result of Murray being used to playing more with floor-spacing bigs like LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol and less with roll men like Poeltl. Thus, when the two ran pick and roll together, Murray would sometimes hit him with a pass too early or in bad spots, leaving Poeltl with the ball in a tough position to finish the play.

With more reps came results

That's obviously changed now, with the two having run hundreds of screen-and-rolls together and building up the necessary chemistry. It's resulted in Murray having a better feel for when to pass to Poeltl and how to best deliver those passes. Poeltl isn’t much of a lob threat, so instead of throwing it up for him to go grab, Murray has mastered the pocket bounce pass. 

That's not exactly easy, considering he throws a bounce pass between a gap in defenders and hits Poeltl in stride on his way to the rim. Poeltl, to his credit, has excellent hands and is an even better finisher. He’s even developed a reliable floater that has allowed him to expand his range further than before.

Murray's improvement as a passer has directly led to Poeltl averaging a career-high in scoring. In fact, 19.2% of Murray’s passes are directed at Poeltl, including 1.6 of his 9.3 assists per game. That might not sound like much, but his dimes to Poeltl account for at least 3.2 of Poeltl’s average of 13.5 points per game.

On the other hand, Poeltl ranks 2nd in the NBA in screen assists, with many of his screens leading to teammates scoring. Murray has definitely benefited from those hard picks, and they've helped him by consistently freeing him up for open mid-range jumpers. That, combined with all the work he's done to improve his shot, has made him one of the better mid-range shooters in the NBA.

Being able to get those shots off whenever he wants also gives him a reliable shot option that he can fall back on, particularly in late-game situations. Even when Murray misses, Poeltl is often able to grab an offensive rebound, sometimes as a result of him forcing his defender to switch onto Murray and Murray’s defender onto him. Poeltl is difficult to box out anyways, particularly if a guard has to do so, leading to plenty of put-back opportunities.

Murray doesn’t always settle for mid-range jumpers, and he’s certainly gotten better at attacking the basket in the halfcourt, which is also partially a result of Poeltl’s presence. Additionally, he’s converting on nearly 66% of his attempts at the rim, yet another sign of his development as a player.

As of now, 9.2% of Murray's passes per game lead to 3-point attempts, with a number of them coming out of Murray-Poeltl pick and rolls. Considering the Spurs take 31.8 threes per game, that accounts for a large percentage of the team’s attempts.

Individually, Murray scores an impressive 9.2 of his 20.8 points in pick and roll situations, which is 8th in the NBA behind players like Luka Donic, Ja Morant, and former teammate DeMar DeRozan. Taking into account that this is his first season as the Spurs' primary ball-handler, that’s amazing. 

It's also reasonable to expect that he’ll get better in that regard, particularly if he’s ever able to reliably shoot threes off the dribble. As for Poeltl, it's hard to imagine him becoming a better finisher than he already is, but he could theoretically continue to expand his range out to 15 feet. That would make an already great pick and roll tandem even better.

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Overall, Poeltl and Murray have evolved into a dangerous pick and roll pairing -- one that will only get better as they both continue to improve. That's great news for the Spurs, considering that it could be a source of reliable offense going forward, particularly with shooters around them.

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