The Continuing Evolution of the Raptors' DeMar DeRozan

Claus Andersen

Advanced metrics have not often been kind to the Raptors' DeMar DeRozan. But his recent play, and the evolution of his game this season, may have critics singing a different tune. My in-depth look...

Right around the start of the Raptors season, I wrote on DeMar DeRozan's journey through the first four years of his career --- his stagnation as an offensive player, how having a wing with a high USG% and middling production is crippling for a franchise, and how he was to that point, an average NBA player:

"USG% 20.0% threshold, DeMar ranked 70th in PER, 51st in TS%, 44th in WS and 41st in OWS. These are middling results and potentially worrisome trends for a shooting guard who's making nearly $10 million dollars over the next four years."

The Raptors were better on offense with DeMar on the bench for the entire season, and the acquisition of Rudy Gay (RIP) didn't change things, with the Raps producing a 101.4 OffRtg while DeMar was on the court compared to the 103.4 when he was on the bench, the difference between a bottom ten offense and a top twelve offense.

As it stands now, the "Raps are better on offense with DeMar on the bench" pattern has continued. This season the Raps have produced a 105.1 OffRtg when DeMar's on the bench, while on the court the Raps have produced a 101.2 Rating, the difference between a top ten offense and a bottom twelve offense. This does carry some sort of an asterisk seeing as 4 games earlier, the Raps offense was exactly the same with or without DeRozan at 102.0, which at that point was the first time since the lockout shortened 2011-12 season that the Dinos had been equal or better on offense with DeMar on the court[1]. The Raps assist metrics are better while DeMar is on the court, as well as their TO%. With a healthier diversity to his game compared to seasons before and a more dependable 3 PT stroke, we've seen more and more flashes of DeMar DeRozan as a dependable NBA player. The following is DeMar's Synergy splits on the offensive end for last season:

Demar_splits_1a_medium

And here's this season coming into the holidays:

Demar_splits2_medium

The decrease in possessions ending in isolations has been really encouraging to see, and with more possessions coming off pick-and-rolls (PnR's), it's freed up DeMar's isolation abilities[2]. Perhaps DeRozan's best ability is his pump fake after using the pick:

Demar1_medium

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Here it is in video[3]:

Players differ in how they use the PnR to their advantage. Individuals like Russell Westbrook use their unadulterated athleticism and attack with the power of an Aston Martin. Steve Nash during his heyday in Phoenix would use the picks set by Amare/Diaw/Marion and shift between gears, mixing looks and keeping defences on their toes[4]. I remember Steve Kerr talking to Bill Simmons about how Mark Price was one the first perimeter players he's seen to split the PnR. Nowadays, splitting the PnR is common place.

In the case of DeMar, the PnR is an avenue to set up his mid-range jumper. DeMar DeRozan is taking 49.7% of his shots from that area at 8.9 per game, an increase from the 7.9 he took last year. For reference, Bradley Beal is taking 8.1 per game and shooting a worse percentage (38.1% to 33.8). More than anything, players like DeMar or Jarrett Jack last season in Golden State, who display above average to excellent mid range proficiency at a decent attempt rate, might soon become the market inefficiency[5]. The value of three-point shots has never been higher, and when harnessed correctly, having someone who can knock down jumpers from 16-20 feet consistently can become an avenue to open up 3 PT opportunities for others[6].

Last year, with DeMar on the court, the Raps had a 104.3 DefRtg with DeMar on the court, equivalent to a bottom 10 defense. This year, it's up to a 101.5 mark, equal to a top 9 defense. Again with the Synergy splits, Here's this year's for DeMar on Defense:

Demar_splits3_medium

Here's last year's:

Demar_splits_3a_medium

While I'll admit that the sample size so far has been pretty small, the Raps have at the very least not been dragged down defensively with DeMar DeRozan on the court, something that's happened in nearly every other season with him. In the past, the ball watching that DeMar exhibited consistently hamstringed the Raps approach on that end and with Casey's relatively aggressive hedging in PnR's, that represented huge problems for the Raps. Coupled with DeMar's lack of lateral movement, and that essentially equates to a below average defender.

For the most part though, DeRozan has kept the ball watching to more of a minimum, not roaming around the court like a lost kid at the mall. His closeouts have been more sharp, and something that's interesting to note is even when DeMar ball watches, with the sharper closeout, he's managing to still do his job on defense:

Demar3_medium

Demar4_medium

Demar5_medium

Again, here's the video.

The Raps have produced the 10th best DefRtg in the NBA overall, and DeMar's restrain in sticking to Casey's system is a big reason for it. Despite the improvements, there's still problems with DeMar defensively. To go along with the suspect lateral movement in isolation situations, DeMar on the PnR still gets hung up on screens, hamstringing whichever of the Raps big man play the PnR. And even when the Raps try to ICE the PnR, opponents can still get to the rim:

Demar6_medium

Demar7_medium

These issues aren't new with DeMar, and the fact that he's doing other things to contribute on defense is a positive. He'll never be anything close to Wes Matthews, Paul George or anyone of that ilk who you can ask to guard the team's best wing player on multiple possessions, but he's so far been steady which is all you really need from him at this point and time.

DeMar's progress as an NBA player this season has created more webs of intrigue with the Raps. The Rudy Gay deal signalled an intent from Masai Ujiri to rebuild through their cap space and the 2014 NBA Draft. The team however have been better Post-Rudy and the 104.2 OffRtg the Raps have produced since the deal would rank in the top 11 in offensive efficiency, a far cry from the 101.0 they had with Rudy Gay, which would rank in the bottom 11. DeMar's season so far, combined with the Raps essentially having an old school garage sale, has probably created suitors for his services, along with a resurgent Kyle Lowry and the always awesome Amir Johnson. With the large "TANK" contingency within Raps supporters, Derozan's contract, once seen as an overpay, has become more palatable to deal out[7]. By no means is DeMar DeRozan perfect or close to an all star player, and it's still concerning that the Raps have never been able to build an above average offense with DeMar having a high USG%, but setting those issues aside, it's arguably been the best 26 game stretch of DeMar DeRozan as an overall NBA player.

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[1] In general, the On/Off splits for DeMar during his career have been interesting to say the least. In the 2010-11 and 2011-12 season, the Raps were either the same with him or without him or exceedingly better with him offensively, though in the lockout season they were below top 10 with him and the second worst offense in the NBA without him.

[2] Achieving a top 30 ranking in Isolations is no small feat I may add.

[3] I decided to not use audio in the clips cause the Synergy clips this season have distorted broadcasting voices.

[4] Here's a 12 minute video package dedicated to Nash PnR's. Good god was his left handed bounce passes otherworldly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FcVuag7KvE

[5] I've always wanted to do an R2 correlation surrounding teams mid range jumpers rate and OffRtg to see if there's a bigger correlation for success than perhaps expected. I really don't have the time nor the work ethic to try it out so hopefully someone does this in the near future.

[6] Having said all of that; even I have to concede that taking 8.9 mid range jumpers per game is too many for a guy who's now posting the worst TS% of his career.

[7] Which perhaps might be a top 3 Christmas present a Raptor fan could have, right behind TANKING!!!! and a 100% Achilles recovery from the Raptor mascot.

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