Dejounte Murray likes to bop guys on the head. Guys who are lesser basketball players than he is, specifically. When he goes up against such amateurs, as an All-Star professional, in Pro-Am games that happen during the basketball desert of August, he waits while he plays. What he is waiting for is a moment of such profound advantage that he can use it to take the ball in his hands and demonstrate, with a bop to the head, how out of position or athletically behind him his less physically gifted opponents are. Calling this stylistic flourish a “flex” is probably mischaracterizing it—it’s crueler than that. It’s a taunt, a putdown; it’s the imposition of an indignity that, were it not for Murray’s manifesting it, would not otherwise exist.
This is unusual, polarizing stuff. Everyone thinks it’s cool when someone crosses over their defender so badly that they hit the deck trying to track them. Same for when they dunk on someone so violently that their opponent ends up on the floor. What Murray is doing is an escalatory action within similar moments of conquest. The normal amount of evidence for his superiority is not enough, it would seem: everyone needs him, he seems to believe, to get out his highlighter and underline the discrepancy in this campy, arch way. A lot of people dislike this; plenty others enjoy it. Everyone is intrigued. Murray has become a viral attention prince during the NBA’s slowest moments, because sports—while they may not need such characters—do more thrive when they have villains.
Murray couldn’t be this guy until now. Traded to the Atlanta Hawks this June, he spent the first five seasons of his career with the San Antonio Spurs, where the famously ex-military Gregg Popovich has coached and ran the team for nearly three decades, and has not suffered shenanigans at any part of his tenure—you can ask Dennis Rodman or Stephen Jackson how extra-expressive, not-so-formal behavior pans out down there. Personality-wise, Murray has remained relatively anonymous as he developed into a star talent within the rigid Spurs template. It has helped him greatly, but also hidden from us who he is (though, to be sure, there were hints).
But that’s all changed rather quickly. Overnight, Murray has branded himself as one of the most savage showmen within recent memory, necessarily changing the forecast for the vibes, if nothing else, of the 2022-23 Hawks campaign. His new backcourt partner and friend, Trae Young, has been very visibly comfortable playing a heel role since coolly hushing a leering playoff crowd in Madison Square Garden two seasons ago, making Murray’s Pro-Am antics seem more of a new, severe key for Atlanta than any kind of anomaly. Here is a backcourt that could figure to be more committed to disturbing their adversaries than anyone we’ve seen in recent years. The Bother Brothers; Agitation Nation; Annoyance Factory.
Of course, it could be much different than that, because Pro-Am games—and really anything that happens during these basketball-barren months—tell us very little about the NBA. But Murray has also shown a willingness to go after bigger, NBA-level talent this August. In a Seattle-based exhibition, he dribbled into the space of a fellow native of the city: 2022's No. 1 overall pick, Paolo Banchero. Murray pump-faked a pass, got Banchero looking, and then did an alley-oop to himself off the glass for a dunk (if you are as old as I am, it may have reminded you of what Stephon Marbury once did to Vlade Divac in an All-Star game). As if that weren’t enough, he made a “too little” gesture in Banchero’s direction, grabbed the ball, and angrily threw it at him.
This kind of peacocking is not your grandpa’s stuff, or even your dad’s. In previous, fairly recent iterations of the NBA, such behavior would give license to mostly extinct “enforcer” types to, essentially, physically assault a player. Disrespect during modern professional contests is usually limited to speech, sometimes extending to some shoving, and very occasionally to players walking over those who are on the ground. The boppings and the rest of what Murray is doing represents a much greater level of scorn, usually seen from players working in circuits that are as similar to professional wrestling as they are to competitive basketball. If he were to try anything like that in a nationally broadcasted game, it would be a radical act, with unforeseeable consequences. Murray is messing around enough to find out new things about himself and the culture he’s rising in; this season, we’ll see how far he wants to take it.