Hey, Gregg Popovich, Dejounte Murray is the San Antonio Spurs' captain now

Ball Don't Lie

One of the biggest concerns entering this season for the San Antonio Spurs, a machine of a team that always seems to be operated by some well-oiled veterans, was their reliance on second-year point guard Dejounte Murray while 35-year-old Tony Parker rehabs the quadriceps he tore in the playoffs.

Those concerns have dissipated three games in, as Murray has averaged 13.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists while steering a Spurs team that’s also missing injured perennial MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard to a 3-0 start, including victories against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto Raptors.

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What’s more, though, the 21-year-old Murray is exhibiting the leadership skills of a typical Spurs vet.

When San Antonio forward LaMarcus Aldridge got into a staring contest and shoving match with Toronto counterpart and familiar foe Serge Ibaka late in the fourth quarter of a close game …

… it was Murray who reined in Aldridge, getting in the big fella’s ear during the ensuing review, even throwing a hand in Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s smiling face, as if to say, “Let me handle this one”:

Asked what he said to Aldridge, Murray relayed to the San Antonio Express-News, “I just told him, ‘You’re on another level, don’t worry about that, and keep playing your game.’ He is having a hell of a year, he’s having fun, and I just told him to not worry about that. Let’s move on and win this game.”

A minute later, Aldridge put Ibaka in a spin cycle, drawing the Raptors big man’s sixth foul for an and-one that stretched San Antonio’s lead to double digits. The Spurs ultimately held off Toronto, 101-97, joining the Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers as the West’s only undefeated teams left.

A big part of that early success can be credited to Murray’s steady hand through three games. An explosive scorer and coveted prep recruit out of Seattle basketball factory Rainier Beach High, Murray struggled in his lone season at the University of Washington, averaging 16.1 points on 41.6 percent shooting for a team that finished four games above .500, and he fell to the 29th pick of the 2016 draft.

There’s a tendency to dub every late-round Spurs pick the next gem in Popovich’s treasure chest of prospects turned productive players, but it took all of last season for Murray to find his NBA footing.

Save for a 24-point outburst in spot duty against the Denver Nuggets in mid-January, Murray spent long stretches of his rookie year on the inactive list, jumping back and forth to the D-League, and saw most of his NBA minutes in garbage time of San Antonio’s 61 wins. He was thrust into action when Parker tore his left quad in the conference semifinals, and Murray responded with a handful of decent playoff showings, including a double-double in the close-out game against the Houston Rockets.

Murray then spent the summer working out with Spurs teammate Leonard in San Diego, with fellow Huskies product Isaiah Thomas in Washington, with fellow Klutch Sports clients LeBron James and Ben Simmons in Las Vegas, and finally with another Spurs teammate, Manu Ginobili, back in San Antonio.

“He’s been working out a lot,” Manu said of Murray on media day. “He’s been working hard here in the gym getting his shot off and working on his technique. He’s going to be a great player and potential All-Star. You just don’t know if it’s going to happen now or in five years, it just depends a lot on him.”

Somewhere along the line, Murray gained Popovich’s trust, earning a starting role and playing clutch minutes over $50 million backup point guard Patty Mills in Monday’s four-point win over the Raptors.

“It’s in me. I’ve always been a dog, man. I just want to win,” Murray told reporters after the game. “I got that winning in my DNA, and I just do anything to win. If I don’t score a point, I’m going to go rebound. If I don’t rebound, I’m going to try facilitate or I’m going to try to play defense. That’s the thing you’ve got to have. You’ve got to be able to do things that you can when you’re not having a good night.”

And Monday wasn’t the only time Murray has demonstrated his leadership in a Spurs huddle this season. When San Antonio was getting bullied on the glass by the Timberwolves on opening night, Murray again stepped in for Popovich, interrupting the coach to add, “The guards gotta help, too.”

“That’s a great idea, D.J.,” responded Popovich. “That’s coaching right there.”

The Spurs revealed over the weekend that Parker was nearing a return. He was medically cleared for limited practice participation and could get the go-ahead on 5-on-5 action as soon as next week, per the Express-News. Popovich pegged some time in December as a target date. Given Murray’s development, though, Parker may still watch from the bench more often than not once he returns.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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