DeMar DeRozan, a high-flying All-Star and top-ten scorer, will be the most celebrated star of NBA London 2016. Just how good is he? And how much better has he become since his last trip here in 2011?
I’ve spent the last several weeks finding out, so let’s take a look – as always, with detailed analysis and the aid of in-game screenshots and advanced stats.
He comes to us in fine form.
Over his last 17 games, DeRozan is putting up 25.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists on 47.2% shooting from the field and 35.1% shooting from 3-point range. His Toronto Raptors have gone 11-6 over that time as they navigate a noticeably improved Eastern Conference and currently occupy the No. 3 seed.
He has come a long way since NBA London 2011, when he was a raw 21-year-old shooting just 9.6% on threes and struggling to find ways to make his 17-44 team better. That trip was something of a coming out party for him though, as he dropped 30 points in back-to-back games on back-to-back nights against the Nets. His potential was clear as he took it to the Nets at the rim and forced the first of three overtimes in the second game:
His competitive spirit in those games was clear. They were poorly-played late-season affairs between two sorry lottery-bound teams in a far-away land, but he was desperate to win them both. As a long-time body language enthusiast who was seated in Row 3, I can confirm that no one was as focused than him in timeouts and no one’s shoulders shrugged more than his when the Raps ultimately lost both games.
Those were the third and fourth 30-point games of his career. He now has 39 of them. Now 26, he continues to improve every year, and according to The Sun he is excited to show us crazy Brits how much better he is.
How is he doing it? By channelling his competitiveness, work ethic and all-world athleticism to become a more intelligent, efficient scorer.
First and foremost, he is doing to everyone what he did to the Nets – driving on them and getting buckets – at a relentless rate. There is no one better in the league at getting to the hoop. In a league where defenses are complexly designed to deny penetration, he is penetrating at will and finishing:
According to NBA.com’s Player Tracking stats, DeRozan is driving 11.9 times per game and scoring 8.9 points on 52.4% shooting on those drives – insanely good numbers. Better than LeBron James, better than Russell Westbrook, better than anyone.
As a result of his rim attacks, he is third-best in the league at getting to the free throw line, where he shoots an excellent 84.5%. He takes 8.4 foul shots a game – something only LeBron, Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and James Harden have done among perimeter players in the last five years. That he does so with a usage rate under 30% is rarer still. In the last seven seasons, only he and Harden (in ‘13/14) have shot more than 8 foul shots per game with a usage rate of under 30% – and DeRozan does it without the vexing Harden histrionics.
He has also developed a very strong back-to-the-basket game, and he is routinely bullying smaller defenders in the post, backing them down and either forcing a double-team or finishing at the hoop like he did versus Chicago a week ago.
Among all two-guards, he is second only to Harden in scoring, averaging a career-high 22.9 points per game on the year. But unlike Harden, who is good for three three-pointers a night, DeRozan’s range is shorter. Even in this, his best season to date, he has knocked down multiple treys in a game just four times, and teams are happy to leave him open out there if need be.
For years now, this has been one of the most frustrating aspects of DeRozan’s game, and it has become more obvious as the league has moved further away from low-percentage shots like these. By last season, he was almost a caricature of bad ‘90s basketball at times, a relic of the past. He shot the sixth-most pull-up jumpers in the league in ‘14/15 despite shooting just 36.4% on them.
He reasoned in an ESPN interview last April: “I grew up watching all the big-time two-guards back in the ‘90s, and to this day I still watch a lot of old basketball, and mid-range was the style of basketball they played.”
But the league has moved on. And thankfully, to some extent, so has he so far this season.
This year, he is down to 17th in pull-up jumpers taken and shooting an improved 38.9% on them.
Equipped with one of the best pump fakes in the game and bolstered by endless hours shooting in the gym, the mid-range game will always be there for DeMar, and it is a useful weapon when used properly. Indeed, if he was to drive or post up on every possession he would be exhausted by halftime. But it is the hero-ball fall-aways over good defense with 10+ seconds on the shot clock that he needs to take less of – and he clearly recognises this.
When DeRozan was asked why his field goal percentage has improved recently, a playful Kyle Lowry interjected: “Because you’re not shooting dumb-ass shots.” A lot of truth is said in jest.
A look at DeMar’s shot tracker makes it clear he is working for better shots. This year, 43% of his shot attempts are coming from within 10 feet of the hoop – up from 32% last year and 28% the year before.
These are the subtle differences that can turn an inefficient and irresponsible gunner into a winning player, and he is now in the same neighbourhood statistically at age 26 as three of the greatest scorers of the ‘90s era that he (and I) so loved watching:
Mitch Richmond (‘91/92): 22.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 5.1 APG, 46.8% FGs
Reggie Miller (91/92): 20.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.8 APG, 50.1% FGs
Glen Rice (‘93/94): 21.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 46.7% FGs
DeMar DeRozan (‘15/16): 22.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.1 APG, 44.6% FGs
Though they got their points in different ways, Richmond, Miller and Rice are good comps for DeRozan in the sense that none of them were able to dominate games in ways other than scoring. DeMar has only put up 20, 7 and 7 in a game just two times in his entire career – by contrast, Harden, the current gold standard at the shooting guard position, has done so 37 times.
DeRozan has made impressive strides as a playmaker though. As we established, he gets into the teeth of a defense as well as anyone in the league, and he is increasingly doing so as a passer as well as just a scorer.
See how he draws two, three and sometimes even four defenders and hits Lowry and Scola for wide open jumpers:
He is not a natural creator for others, but he seems to be grasping that these plays are there for him on a nightly basis. If he can keep improving his court awareness and poise as a passer, look for the Raps to improve on their already-impressive 104.3 points per 100 possessions scoring average.
And this may ultimately be the best argument for DeRozan as not just a star but a potential superstar: Toronto, with him as their leader in shot attempts and usage rate, is an elite offensive team. A year after finishing third in offensive efficiency, they are right back up there among the league’s best. And as much as defense wins championships, the last three teams to win a title have all been offensive juggernauts too.
Per Basketball Reference, with DeRozan on the floor the Raps are putting up 108.0 points per 100 possessions – a higher mark than the vaunted offenses of the Clippers, Cavaliers and Hawks. He’s come a long way since Zach Lowe called his 4-year, $40 million contract extension “absurd” in 2012 and (correctly) noted that “very few statistics of any kind paint him as a productive player.”
DeRozan has got here with hard work and subtle year-on-year improvements. He is also durable, ranking in the top-five in minutes played this season for the third time in four years.
He is not the finished article though. His shot selection can still get better, and he needs to become a viable threat from beyond the arc to become a true superstar. He is still just 29th in PER, far below teammate Lowry. And, crucially, he still hasn’t led the Raptors past the first round of the playoffs, where he shot 38.5% in 2014 and 40.0% in 2015, twice losing to a lower-seeded team.
It would be remiss of me not to note that like most high-volume perimeter scorers, he has never been an impactful defender.
His slight build combined with the fact he saves most of his energy for offense means that he dies on screens easily and can be pushed around in the paint. Against the Nets in the 2014 Playoffs, the Raps had to take him off Joe Johnson so that he wouldn’t get bullied in the post.
This season, although the Raps are improved defensively, teams are scoring an extra 7.6 points per 100 possessions against them when DeRozan is on the floor than when he is off. His focus is just not there consistently on that end, and he is caught ball-watching too often, leading to open shots:
Check out his awful positioning against Jimmy Butler during Butler’s 40-point second half in Toronto a week ago – Jimmy’s easiest bucket of the night came on this play:
DeRozan is not the two-way player that Butler is – and must rank slightly below Jimmy Buckets on any shooting guards list because of it. With their matchup in the balance the Raps defended Butler with the 6’0” Lowry and the 6’3” Cory Joseph for multiple possessions whilst hiding DeRozan on E’Twaun Moore and Nikola Mirotic.
If DeRozan is a lesser version of prime Kobe on offense, he is a lesser-still version of prime Kobe on defense. But that is no insult. Prime Kobe was a top-ten player of all time; DeRozan is working on becoming one of the top ten-to-fifteen players in the league today. I would not bet against it.
Despite his imperfections, DeRozan will be eligible for a monster new $25 million-a-year contract this summer under the new cap – and with several teams undoubtedly pursuing him, he’ll probably get it.
Is he worth the dough? Probably. He is just entering his prime, and his team has the third-best record in the conference and would be nowhere without his scoring and play-making. He is 12th in the league in ESPN’s Estimated Wins Added stat, which, though flawed, is a good overall indicator of value. He is one of just four guards averaging 22 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds and a steal, and he is a top-three two-guard at a time where there aren’t too many great ones around.
And he can do this:
A bona fide star, we will enjoy him this Thursday in London.
We should appreciate how good he has become since the last time he was here.