Raptors Weekly: DeMar DeRozan improved (again)

I spoke with DeMar DeRozan for the first time this summer, and my first question came from a place of fandom.

I asked him what he worked on over the summer. We knew he was in the gym (this man famously skipped New Year’s festivites to watch game tape like Blake Murphy), practicing jumpers at midnight in the dead of July, and that he was terrorizing Drew League (mostly in a good way, save for that ref).

I asked the question as if it were a given that a decorated athlete with an Olympic Gold Medal, an All-NBA nod, a handful of All-Star nominations, and a maximum contract, would work tirelessly to improve every offseason like some undrafted player swinging pecariously between 10-day deals.

I knew he had something in store for us, and more than getting a meaningless scoop for some retweets, I wanted to know as a fan how the franchise player got even better. Would he come back with a 3-point shot? A new go-to move? What gifts did Santa Crip have in store?

DeRozan paused to consider the question, then said, “I always let my actions speak for themselves … it’s on the fans to figure it out.”

So what did DeRozan improve upon? Just about everything.

After dropping a career-best 45 points to complete a 22-point comeback over the Philadelphia 76ers, DeRozan is shooting a career-best 49.4 percent from the field and 32.2 percent from deep. He’s also getting to the line as often as ever, even though the league instituted a stricter whistle.

Defenders have no idea what to do with DeRozan since he keeps developing counters to everything they throw at him. Put a smaller guard on him and he just goes into the post. Put a bigger forward on him and he loses them around screens. Switch a big against him and he crosses over before getting to the rim. Double team him and he’s finding the open man, or better yet, he’s splitting defenders with some balletic footwork before finishing through contact.

I mean this shit is ridiculous, and he does it game after game.

Left- and right-handed floaters, post-up moves from the left block, up fakes and step throughs, reverse layups, catching alley-oops off the pet play with Kyle Lowry, turning every one of Lowry’s post-game interview into a buddy cop movie, busting out the stepback jumper whenever he needs room to shoot. He’s unstoppable.

And of course, he still has that pump fake that every defender needs to respect since he’s always a threat to shoot in the midrange. Nobody ever blocks that shot, they only end up fouling him. He is drawing shooting fouls on 17.7 percent of his shots, which puts him in the 97th percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass.

But these days, DeRozan rarely resorts to foul-baiting. It’s hard to catch him pressing in any regard. The game comes naturally to him, especially since the revamped offense and retooled roster features more shooters for him to pass to when he draws a crowd in the paint. Those are the perks of working with capable and confident shooters in Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby instead of the bricktastic duo of Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll.

DeRozan no longer needs to force as much of his offense, and he has options to work with off the high screen. Ibaka is drilling nearly 40 percent of threes in the pick-and-pop, while Anunoby is hitting nearly 50 percent off kickout passes in the corners.

DeRozan is in the 97th percentile in assists among shooting guards, and more than half his assists are leading to threes. It all speaks to DeRozan’s maturation as a playmaker.

Dwane Casey has also installed more sets where DeRozan is the trigger man at the elbow. The bigs set screens along the baseline, while shooters like Lowry and C.J. Miles try to negotiate daylight. If nothing comes from it, DeRozan can face up and go to work.

Any threes he makes are gravy. It’s not the best use of his talents to just station him in the corner, but any easy points are welcome. I don’t quite trust him coming off a screen just yet, nor is he a legitimate threat to pull up off pick-and-roll, but he’s deadly even without those options.

In the modern age of pace and space he is the lone exception that bucks convention. DeRozan has more 30-point games without a three (21) than any other player over the last two seasons, and when he does make a few triples, that’s when DeRozan has his 40-point explosions.

He does most of his damage around the rim, but the bread and butter midrange moves have been money. DeRozan is making 48 percent on midrange shots, which ranks in the 88th percentile for shooting efficiency. Criticize him all you want for taking the hardest shot in basketball, but at least credit him for making them.

It all adds up to DeRozan being a more well-rounded player. DeRozan is mere fractions away from becoming the 10th player since 1979 to average 25–5–5 while shooting 50 percent from the field. The other nine are either Hall-of-Famers (Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin, Alex English) or future Hall-of-Famers (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry).

“The growth of him over the last six years has been tremendous. He’s been an amazing basketball player,” Lowry said of DeRozan after Thursday’s game.

It was always his team since he tweeted out “I got us … “ but DeRozan is no longer sharing it with Lowry.

The shift in power started last season. DeRozan started the year on a Jordan-esque scoring binge and took control once Lowry went down with the wrist injury. The playoffs only reaffirmed those changes, as DeRozan was the only one who could score while Lowry struggled.

It used to be a 1a, 1b situation, where Lowry received more praise for being more vital, but the hierarchy is now clear. Lowry sets the table, spots up for threes, and does all the dirty work. DeRozan is the star player with all the big-time responsibilities of closing out games, but he also serves to elevate his teammates.

Raptors games are ultimately decided by DeRozan, not Lowry. He has taken twice as many clutch shots (31 to 16) and it’s not even close when you factor in free throws (27 to 8). The pet play when they need a basket sees Lowry screening for DeRozan, no the other way around.

And for the first time since they became teammates six years ago, the Raptors are outscoring teams more with DeRozan than with Lowry. Toronto is plus-6.7 with DeRozan, plus-6.4 with Lowry. Last year it was DeRozan 2, Lowry 6. Before that it was DeRozan 2.2, Lowry 4.9, so on and so forth.

It’s only a minor distinction since they’re both on the same side. But the Raptors are having their best season with DeRozan as the clear-cut leader, and that’s no coincidence.