Popovich sees Tim Duncan in Dejounte Murray’s patient leadership

Spurs All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray had a word with Devin Vassell during a game last week after a possession ended in a timer violation, thanks in part to the player’s indecision second year.

It wasn’t the first time Murray had pointed things out to Vassell while he was wearing a velvet glove.

“I think he’s a hard working kid,” Murray said. “He is not afraid of criticism. He is coachable. I will stay on him. I’m a big fan of him.

Murray’s tender but tough approach to helping the 21-year-old Vassell improve underscored how Spurs’ undisputed leader serves as a big brother to the team’s large collection of 24-and-under players.

And he does it even though he’s only 25 himself.

“He has a tough job,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s young himself, but he’s got a lot of younger guys around him. They’re just learning what discipline is and what it’s like to play with the big boys night after night after night, physique, all that kind of stuff. And through all those ups and downs, he sustained them.

In that sense, Murray reminds Popovich of Tim Duncan, Spurs legend and one of the greatest leaders in NBA history during a 19-season career that included six trips to the NBA Finals and five championships.

“He did his job consistently, was patient with them, kind of like Timmy was patient with the guys we brought in every year,” Popovich said. “He deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Murray, like Duncan, seems more inclined to put an arm around his teammates’ shoulders rather than wagging a finger in their face.

“He’s got a good way of connecting with us young people and getting the message across in the right way to get us motivated,” 22-year-old forward Keldon Johnson said. “He’s an incredible leader. I haven’t had the chance to play with Tim Duncan, an all-time great, but Dejounte is very patient.

Patience isn’t the only thing Murray has going for him as a leader. He also knows the staff around him, which Portland coach Chauncey Billups says is essential to effective leadership.

Billups is another of the league’s all-time great leaders. He played 17 seasons in the NBA and is best known for the clutch play that earned him the nickname “Mr. Big Shot” during his six seasons with Detroit, a run that included winning the MVP award from the NBA Finals in 2004 when the Pistons upset the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal powered Los Angeles Lakers in five games.

“He was a badass,” Popovich said of Billups, also a member of the 2004-05 Pistons squad that lost in seven games to Spurs in the 2005 Finals.

“A hell of a player, a hell of a leader, came to play every night, smart as a whip on the pitch, people respected him,” Popovich added. “He always knew what was going on and he played to win. He had the respect of his entire team and the entire league. When you get that, you are a very good leader.

Billups was asked ahead of Friday’s loss to Spurs what makes an effective leader.

“You have to get to know who you’re leading before you can use the kind of leadership tactic you want to use against that person, because everyone is different,” Billups said. “Everyone is motivated differently. Some people are more sensitive than others. To find out, you have to get to know them first, and you have to go through some things with them first.

“And (Murray) did. I think he does an amazing job.

Good leaders also need to understand that sometimes their interactions with teammates “are not going to go well,” Billups said.

“But if your heart is in the right place, this guy will understand most of the time that he’s trying to help me ‘or trying to win’,” Billups said.

Johnson said Murray’s teammates never questioned his intentions.

“He’s like a real big brother on and off the pitch,” Johnson said. “He always guided me, told me what was right and what was wrong and never let me get out of the way. He’s always a call, a text, a chat away. I know he always wants the best for me and for all of our teammates.

Murray’s commanding presence played a big part in Spurs’ late-season push for a spot in the Western Conference play-in tournament. He set the tone for the charge with his comments after his 31-point, 12-rebound performance that led the Spurs to a road win over New Orleans on Feb. 12.

“Damn, yeah, we’re playing for the playoffs,” Murray told a reporter emphatically. “No one is here to lose.”

Spurs entered Sunday’s game 32-45 after winning five of their last six games. Overall, they’re 10-10 since Murray’s comments at New Orleans.

“The young guys are definitely taking it seriously,” Spurs striker/centre Zach Collins, 24, said of the qualifying run. “And it starts with Dejounte and his mindset in these games. We go as he goes, and his mentality in every game has been a ‘game to win’. ”

Murray, who missed his second game in a row on Sunday with an upper respiratory infection, also has the attention of a few Spurs players older than him, including 28-year-old guard Josh Richardson.

“When he talks, he has your ear,” Richardson said. “It’s rare to see a 25-year-old guy who can really impact the whole team the way he can.”

Murray said he just wanted to see “guys, sophomore guys or dudes who just got traded here or whatever it is” improve.

I have to give them what I’ve been through, step by step, whether it’s good or bad, just all the roller coaster, ups and downs,” he said. “I want to see them succeed, because if they succeed, we succeed.

“And for me, it’s not difficult. I love the game. I love my job. It’s not a question of money. I do this because I really like it. I get frustrated and angry when my team loses, and I try to find ways to be better myself and help the team as well. I watch a lot of basketball movies. I will stick to it. I will continue to improve and learn.

And patiently tries to get his teammates to follow his example.

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Twitter: @tom_orsborn

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