SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan is keenly aware it is not going to be easy to keep up this season.
The Western Conference is once again flooded with talent, but that isn’t what concerned DeRozan entering training camp. No, DeRozan was not sure how he is going to keep pace on a fastbreak led by the returning Dejounte Murray.
“I just know Dejounte is fast as hell, so we’re not going to have a choice as soon as he has the ball,” DeRozan said.
While the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz remade their rosters through trades and free-agent signings, Murray’s return from injury could be a key for San Antonio this season.
Murray’s defense and leadership were expected to ease the final transition from the Big Three era that produced five NBA championships to one that featured Kawhi Leonard. Instead, the Spurs suffered an inconsistent and enigmatic season after Leonard demanded and was granted a trade and Murray’s season ended before it began due to a knee injury.
Murray returns to a roster built to take advantage of his speed and playmaking. Coach Gregg Popovich has transitioned his team from a plodding, defensive-minded squad to something different. Entering his 24th season, Popovich now has the pleasure of adapting to a fast, athletic team spearheaded by players such as Murray, DeRozan, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV and centered around veterans LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay.
“It’s just fun to watch these guys come out and play,” Popovich said. “I’m watching Dejounte and, my gosh, I haven’t seen a guy that fast in five, six or seven years. His speed is incredible and then you see Lonnie and he might be faster. Seeing that speed and athleticism is going to be fun to add to the program. So, pace and that sort of thing becomes pretty important.”
The Spurs offense transformed from a more deliberate, relentless attack to a faster-paced one when Murray succeeded franchise stalwart Tony Parker at point guard midway through the 2018 season.
“I don’t really care about scoring,” Murray said. “I know I could score but I want to make my teammates happy. That’s one thing me and Coach Pop always talk about, make your teammates really love playing with you and that’s something that stuck with me.”
Murray averaged 8.1 points, 2.9 assists and 1.2 steals while starting 48 of 81 games and was named to the NBA All-Defensive second team in just his second season. The lanky, 6-foot-5 guard spent the following offseason improving his mid-range jumper and 3-point shooting but never got a chance to show off the hard work. Murray tore his right anterior cruciate ligament Oct. 7, 2018, in a preseason game and had season-ending surgery.
He seems to be at full speed and planting hard on his surgically repaired right knee to start a “Eurostep,” proof of his recovery.
“He feels confident and he looks confident,” Popovich said. “He’s not holding back or anything like that, so it’s good he’s being aggressive.”
PACE OF PLAY
The Spurs averaged 111.7 points per game, 18th in the league, as a predominantly mid-range shooting team last season. San Antonio finished 23rd in points per possession. That pace is expected to quicken considerably.
“Pushing the ball, using his quickness, getting up and down the floor, getting steals and turning those into easy baskets,” Aldridge said of Murray. “Just using his energy out there.”
Aldridge, DeRozan, Gay, Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli all averaged double figures last season and White and Patty Mills both averaged 9.9 points.
Losing Murray did result in an unexpected bonus with White’s emergence. He averaged 3.9 assists and 3.7 rebounds while starting 55 games. He capped his second year in the league with 36 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block in a Game 3 playoff victory before the Spurs fell to Denver in seven games.
White also earned a place on the USA Men’s National Basketball Team, which finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup this summer under Popovich. White has not started for San Antonio during the preseason despite his success and could be used as Manu Ginobili was, essentially a starter coming off the bench.
Either way, the Spurs have the enviable dilemma of great depth at the wing. Murray, White, Forbes and Walker will vie for minutes along with veterans DeRozan, Belinelli, Mills and newly signed DeMarre Carroll.
“We have a lot to prove and we’re going to expect a lot out of these young guys,” Gay said. “They’re going to have to bring it, as we (veterans) do, too.”
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