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Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray hasn’t forgotten where he’s been, from Seattle to the Spurs

The 26-year-old standout guard still communicates with incarcerated friends

Dejounte Murray says good morning to his friends immediately once he wakes up.

These, however, aren’t some buddies on a text thread. Rather, the Atlanta Hawks newcomer guard is saying good morning to his incarcerated friends to continue give them hope that their lives will change for the better just like his did.

“I message each one individually, ‘Good morning. How you doing?’ ” Murray told Andscape recently. “They message me after every game. So, it’s a great thing. It’s keeping me in contact with them and giving them hope. I was once in the same situation as them. And they get to see me on TV, they get to see me on Slam magazine, in all that stuff. And they’re like, ‘Man, you give us hope.’

“Every morning I wake up, I go to the [website] page each morning to log in, see who all messaged me. And if they didn’t, I’ll message them. That’s how I keep in touch with all my brothers.”

After scoring a career-high 40 points against the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday, Murray is averaging 21.2 points, 6.1 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals in his first season with the Hawks. The Seattle native was a first-time NBA All-Star with the San Antonio Spurs last season. Murray and the Hawks visit the Phoenix Suns Wednesday night in a game to be televised on ESPN.

But before Murray, 26, was an NBA star, he was incarcerated during his youth and in need of words of wisdom.

University of Washington guard Dejounte Murray plays against Oakland on Dec. 19, 2015, at Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle.

Jesse Beals/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Murray grew up around gang violence, drugs, addiction, and drive-by shootings in Seattle’s South End. His mother was incarcerated several times during his youth.

Murray isn’t comfortable talking about the details. He didn’t have much of a childhood to remember and once told Sports Illustrated that “selling drugs or doing whatever in the streets, it was normal to my family.” He first went to juvenile detention in Seattle when he was 11 years old, and between his freshman and sophomore years in high school.

“Just a young, wild teen just living the fast life,” Murray said. “Surrounded by love, but obviously not the guidance that you know the right from wrong. But I wouldn’t change not nary one day. It was my environment and what I was around … even the people that are in prison or died, or the ones that are doing good for themselves, everybody played a part in who I am today.”

Murray called his uncle, Terry Thompson, from juvenile detention for help and settled his life down after moving in with him. The close-knit Seattle basketball community guided Murray as well.

Former NBA players Jamal Crawford and Will Conroy, and Rainier Beach High School assistant coach David King kept strong tabs on Murray, who went on to lead Rainier Beach to three Washington Class 3A titles before signing with the University of Washington.

Murray feels very fortunate to be alive and to have found the right path, thanks to his family and basketball family.

“It’s deep, man. It’s a lot,” Murray said. “Knowing that could’ve been me [dead]. We buried a bunch of people. My mom could’ve buried me. It’s so much. And when I’m comfortable to really let out my whole story, I’m going to.”

After Murray spent a successful freshman season with Washington, the Spurs selected him with the 29th pick in the 2016 NBA draft. His NBA start wasn’t easy, as he spent time in the G League and played sparingly for the Spurs as a rookie. He also missed the 2018-19 season after tearing his right ACL.

Through all his struggles with basketball, Murray never lost sight of how blessed he was to be in the NBA.

“It’s a real big deal walking into these arenas,” Murray said. “Still in contact with all of my brothers in prison, all my people that’s still out, that got they freedom that’s fighting for their life in the same environment that I was in. I just happened to make it out. And obviously, my family, close friends, meeting all these new people, building relationships, it’s really surreal.

“I don’t think people understand, man. I’m so thankful and grateful, but it still doesn’t seem real to be here.”

Dejounte Murray of Team Durant (left) speaks with NBA commissioner Adam Silver (right) during the 2022 NBA All-Star Game at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on Feb. 20, 2022, in Cleveland.

Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The highlight of Murray’s NBA career so far took place on Feb. 7, 2022, as he was selected as an injury replacement for Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green in the 2022 NBA All-Star Game. It was Murray’s first career appearance. At that time, he was the only player in the NBA averaging at least 19 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists.

After being selected, Murray tweeted, “10 Years Ago I Was In Juvenile And That Whole Month In There I Told The Guards Ima Get Out And Change My Life And Never Come Back And They Told Me I Will Be Right Back. 10 Years Later Them Same Guards Asking For Pictures And My Autograph!! Look At GOD!!!”

Said Murray recently: “The honor for me is to be able to walk and be comfortable in my own skin. Knowing where I come from and knowing where I’m at today, walking in these arenas, it’s surreal. Everybody that knows me, my city, the people that know what I’ve been through, they know it’s surreal and it’s crazy. So, for me, I’m just trying to grow, grow and give back to the ones that need help.”

Murray is now giving back by keeping in touch daily with about 20 incarcerated people.

Murray wrote letters to his mom when she was incarcerated. His method of communication to the incarcerated now is an online e-mail service called JPay, which allows him to write electronic letters that inmates usually receive within 24 to 48 hours. The recipients can respond as well. Murray noted that it wasn’t an exaggeration that he goes on JPay to correspond with his friends every morning.

“They all got tablets in there, so that’s how I communicate with my brothers every day,” Murray said. “Every morning I say good morning. We talk throughout the day. [Moving on] ain’t who I am, though. I wouldn’t feel right moving on, away from my brothers. That just ain’t in me. I ain’t come from that.”

Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray is introduced into the starting lineup before the game against the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 4 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Murray credited the Spurs for having faith in him and taking a chance on drafting him while other teams may have been scared of his background. It also appears that the Spurs also had his best interest in terms of knowing when it was best for him to go elsewhere, too.

The 6-foot-4, 180-pounder averaged 21.1 points, 9.2 assists, 8.3 rebounds and an NBA-best 2.0 steals during the 2021-22 season. He became the first player in NBA history to average more than 20 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, and two steals for an entire season. Murray told Andscape he wanted to spend his career in San Antonio. The Spurs, however, appeared focused on rebuilding after a 34-48 record last season and failing to make the postseason.

With trade rumors rampant last off-season, Murray said that he and longtime San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had an honest and emotional two-hour meeting. A mutual decision was made to trade him to a playoff team. On June 30, 2022, the Spurs traded Murray and center Jock Landale to the Hawks for forward Danilo Gallinari, three first-round picks and a 2026 pick swap. Murray will play the Spurs for the first time on Feb. 11 in Atlanta and will be back in San Antonio for the first time on March 19.

“I wouldn’t say I wanted out. I wanted to be there my whole career. I love San Antonio,” Murray sad. “[Popovich] brought it up. It was emotional. Obviously, there was some little trade rumors and stuff, but it didn’t get real to me and Pop. Pop would see stuff, trade interest in such and such or blah-blah or Spurs looking to trade this guy. Pop don’t get into that, no.

“He wanted to hear it from me. ‘Would you want to be able to go play on a bigger stage? Do you want to stay, or you want to go?’ But he also gave his opinion on if I stay, he doesn’t want me to waste my talent, waste years of not making the playoffs. So, it really came down to that.”

Murray is thriving with the Hawks as an elite defender and a leader with stellar backcourt mate Trae Young. Hawks coach Nate McMillan says he has looked for Murray to establish the offense and defense. Atlanta as a team, however, has been underachieving, entering Wednesday’s game with a 25-26 record.

“He is the guy that we really look to help us establish our defense,” McMillan said. “He has drawn the assignment of guarding the best [point guard or shooting guard] sometimes [small forward] out on the floor. He has been a guy that we have looked at to really bring that leadership and energy to establish a style of play and tempo to the roster.

“Playing with Trae, they’re both point guards. But they have been able to work together to play with and without the basketball throughout the game. I like what he brings to the team.”

Atlanta is known for its great nightlife, restaurants, hip-hop scene, and Southern charm. Murray, however, can’t tell you much about “The A” since he is a self-proclaimed homebody and hasn’t gotten out much.

“I don’t go nowhere. I don’t party. I don’t drink, don’t smoke, I don’t do none of that, man,” Murray, the father of a young daughter, explained. “I’m a homebody. I come from all that stuff, been done with all that stuff, so it’s like, I’m a homebody, I’m focusing on basketball. They got good food at the restaurants, but I like being to myself with my family. A lot of people in my family cook good food, too.

“I don’t really like being outside, man, I like being in my own bubble with my family. It’s a lot going on in this world, so it’s really to me, being smart, moving smart.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.