When Dejounte Murray was 5 years old, his uncles, whom he considers his big brothers, began inviting him to play games of 21. At the time, everyone else 15 or 16 years old, a way to secure possessions and scoring chances against teenagers roughly half a decade older.
As he viewed the situation, three options were presented. He could force an errant shot. He could swipe the ball from their clutches. He could snag a rebound. And so, for the last 20 years, Murray has forged a basketball ethos closely tied to those tenets.
Soon after Murray was born, his uncles ensured a basketball was always nearby. On a late October afternoon in San Antonio, nothing has changed for the 25-year-old guard. As he discusses an array of topics, ranging from fashion to fatherhood to his on-court development, a small basketball stamped with the Spurs logo swirls between his palms.
“They put a ball in my hand,” Murray says, “so it stuck with me to this day.”
While his uncles were the torchbearers behind this movement, San Antonio is the latest to maintain their efforts. Last season, he shared primary ball-handling responsibilities alongside DeMar DeRozan and averaged career-highs in points (23.8) and assists (8.2) per 100 possessions.
With DeRozan now a member of the Chicago Bulls, Murray will seemingly be tasked with even more duties. Through four games, per 100 possessions, he is averaging the most shots (24.6) and assists of his career (12.1). In an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday, he recorded the fifth triple-double of his career.
“When you work hard … opportunity is gonna come,” Murray says. “When it comes to you, you got to just be ready for it. … I don’t ever limit myself.”
Expanding his offensive repertoire has been the most discernible area of growth for Murray through four NBA seasons. But those familial pickup trials as a younger forged a defensive identity that shines through his game. In his second year, he earned an All-Defensive Second Team nod. He routinely assumes the stingiest of perimeter covers and transports his sprawling limbs across the floor in the name of havoc.
Those sprawling limbs cross the T’s and dot the I’s of his defensive signature. He pick-pockets unsuspecting ball-handlers, beams into space to blockade passing angles and detonates dribble hand-offs like few contemporaries around the league. All of it is bred from dexterity fostered from birth — with a dash of well-intentioned selfishness.
“Just being greedy on defense and having that passion about my (assignment) not going by me,” Murray says of his defensive exploits.
Nobody wants to be torched off the dribble. Passion is not solely what distinguishes Murray defensively. Not everyone touts the tools, mindset and wherewithal to prevent such developments, though.
This is where the work he softspokenly, yet pridefully, references peers through. The countless hours spent in the gym, asking questions and watching game film convey to him that he belongs when he steps on the court.
Yet the mindset to separate all that occurs off the floor and the tasks at hand once he clocks in was harbored long before his NBA dream crystallized. Murrays says “his people” consider him to be 35 years old mentally. He says he was mature by the time he was 12 or 13 years old because he was “forced to do a lot of stuff that adults do.”
Years later, his 4-year-old daughter, Riley, is the one facilitating much of his personal growth and providing perspective within a career path that can easily consume its participants.
“My daughter is the one that keeps me grounded. You have nieces, cousins and little brothers and sisters, however you want to put it. They’re your responsibility, but not the responsibility, like them being your own,” says Murray, whose Instagram is plastered with photos of Riley. “So, having my daughter helped me a lot — to this day, still helps me — to keep my stuff together, just for basketball and staying engaged, never getting comfortable, never settling for less.”
More than a decade of balancing basketball with momentous life responsibilities have molded him for nightly battles against NBA superstars and rigorous training sessions. He’s learned to separate off-court problems from on-court problems. When he steps into the gym, the former, at least temporarily, do not interfere with the imminent goals. This is how he masters the mental part of hoops, while also realizing NBA success demands such an approach.
“We’re all human but (when) you’re going to play Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard or Stephen Curry, they don’t have a clue what’s going on,” Murray says. “But if they did, they wouldn’t give a shit when it’s time to get on the hardwood.”
Murray’s early prosperity in the league has produced off-court opportunities that deviate away from the gravity of being a father and other necessities he associates with adulthood. As one of New Balance’s figurehead NBAers, he is “the face” of the company’s 327 Heat Up sneaker collection, which debuts Wednesday exclusively at Foot Locker, Champs Sports, Footaction and Eastbay.
The fifth-year guard says he’s not “like a lot of these guys, where they dress up like crazy,” though notes as he ages, he expects he’ll lean into exuberance more often. For now, he’s content with his various “flavors of sweatsuits” that he complements with a rotation of kicks.
Murray isn’t one to usually rock black or white sneakers. The eye-popping colorways of the Heat Up collection appeal to him and align with his vision for fashion, which he hopes also resonates with others when they spot these shoes in stores.
“When you have all them flavors, you can mix it with anything,” says Murray, who is simply excited for the general public to see the collection. “I can wear orange and wear the shoes or I can wear burgundy, you know?
“Everybody likes a hot shoe. … they stand out.”
He declines to identify a singular, premier colorway among the Heat Up line, refusing to play favorites. Whatever draws the preference of his eye and style, he will don. Yet he also confidently declares “even if they don’t look too good, I still can pull it off.”
Similar to those games of 21 many years ago, Murray will always find a way to make it work.