In the first of a weekly Summer series, RaptorsHQ takes a look at key players who could have a big impact on the success of the Toronto Raptors this coming season. Leading off, the youngest in charge, Mr. DeRozan.
Remember when you first saw Vince Carter play?
That impossibly fluid crossover, quick first step, and explosion to the rim?
A thing of beauty and something fans of the Toronto Raptors, let alone basketball itself, hadn't seen in a long time.
The inevitable Michael Jordan comparisons began and while we all know how the Vince saga turned out in TO, it's hard to deny the impact he had on not only the franchise, but the city itself.
Suddenly basketball was ushered onto sports bar big-screens across the city, the Raptors began to get local and national pub, and the NBA began seeing the marketing possibilities in the man Shaquille O'Neal dubbed, half-man, half-amazing.
But why bring up all these painful memories you ask?
For starters, with the expectations of the upcoming season perhaps marking a return to the Raptors' albeit brief glory years, those which prominently featured VC, it was inevitable that Carter's name would pop up more than usual next year.
As well, when the Orlando Magic replaced Hedo Turkoglu, Toronto's key free-agent acquisition this summer, with Carter, you knew that this would ratchet up the Carter talk even more as he returned from NBA oblivion in Jersey.
And when Bryan Colangelo made DeMar DeRozan the ninth pick in this past NBA Draft, this was the final nail in the coffin. DeRozan's athleticism and breathtaking dunks alone brought comparisons to Carter from fans and NBA personnel alike and when DeMar himself post-draft twittered that "Air Canada's back in Toronto," the link was set in stone.
Carter of course took the league by surprise in his rookie season averaging 18.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3 assists, and over a block and a steal a game. Considering the other offensive talent on the Raptors at present, it's hard to believe DeMar will repeat those offensive stats but this doesn't mean a solid rookie campaign from him is any less important to the team's success. In fact I think you can argue that along with a few other Raptors, DeRozan is indeed one of the main X-Factors going into the 2009-10 season.
As we've discussed on the site ad nausea, there are a few key areas that Toronto still appears to need some serious help in; defence, rebounding and attacking the basket. With the loss of Shawn Marion, it's imperative then that whoever mans the Raptors' starting shooting guard spot, provides assistance in some of these areas.
To me, Antoine Wright is the front-runner for the starting 2-guard spot.
He has more experience then the other options, has the size and length to give Toronto a very large starting unit, and had some success in a defensive stopper role with the Mavericks last season. He's not Ron Artest or Shane Battier, but he's still only young and honing his craft, and the fact that a defensive-minded coach like Rick Carlisle trusted him in that role should speak volumes.
However it's no lock that Wright is the eventual choice there.
DeRozan has a much higher skill set and could provide the offensive balance at the 2 that Wright could only dream of.
That's of course a lot of "coulds" and while DeRozan was impressive in Summer League, he is still a rookie, and a young one at that, and therefore who knows what fans can expect from him in his first NBA campaign.
So is there any way to gauge what his production in year one will be?
Statistically he was panned of course by both John Hollinger and to a lesser degree, Draftexpress. His shooting woes in college coupled with some unimpressive rebounding, and free-throw attempt numbers for someone with his athleticism, served as red flags, although both parties admitted these numbers were skewed by such a small sample size.
Myself, having watched a handful of USC games last year, I wasn't exactly enamored either when it sounded like he was a frontrunner for Toronto's top choice at 9. At times I could see flashes of brilliance but until the NCAA tournament, he just didn't dominate the way I expected someone with his skill set would.
However since the draft, I've revised my thoughts on DeRozan after seeing him up close and personal in Vegas. Instead of the meek, ill-shooting player who at times seemed lost at USC, DeRozan was one of the most impressive players in Summer League play. He shot much better than expected, picked his spots offensively, and threw down a few very impressive and aggressive dunks.
What really impressed me though was his footwork. Several times DeRozan got into the paint only to be met by the opposing team's big man. However instead of forcing the action, DeRozan would pick up his dribble, pivot, and turn and fire a fairly sleek looking fade-away jumper, a nearly unblockable shot considering his hops.
And for someone who was maligned for his ball-handling, DeMar looked just fine in this department and his crossover time-and-time again shook defenders on the perimeter.
In fact sitting in the Thomas and Mack Center, I found it hard myself not to make the comparisons to Carter. Both players display uncanny athleticism, and an incredible smoothness to their games. And both with their physical tools, have the ability to be solid defensive presences.
So can we throw the college stats out the window?
After all, many players excel in the NBA, free from the confines of rigid NCAA sets and systems.
I'm not going to go that far but I will say that my expectations for DeRozan have gone from virtually zilch, to averaging about 8 to 10 points a game along with a few boards. Some nights I'm sure he'll struggle shooting the rock, but on others he'll have fans out of their seats with his above-the-rim skills.
And really I think that's the most important thing here.
Even when the Raptors "gun-from-everywhere" style was successful a few seasons ago, they lacked that elite athlete who could change the pace of a game. (And no, Joey Graham doesn't count.) They lacked someone who could not only attack the rim off the bounce, but also come out of nowhere to collect offensive rebounds or throw one down. These are both things I witnessed DeRozan doing in Summer League play and while the competition of course was inferior to what he'll be facing in a few months, a lot of those plays translate regardless of the level of competition. Someone who can jump 40 inches off the ground is going to be able to do that no matter who they're playing against.
Having set my expectations, should he surpass them then this changes everything. If DeRozan starts putting up Carteresque numbers, then suddenly this team becomes VERY dangerous.
Suddenly not only do defenders have to worry about Hedo creating off the bounce, but also DeMar breaking opponents down, or flying in on the weak side for open dunks and lay-ups off of the double teams created by Bosh. And unlike Toronto's last freak athlete Jamario Moon, it seems like DeRozan knows his limitations offensively. He was a terrible 3-point shooter in college, but in Summer League play, barely took any long-distance shots, preferring to look mid-range or attack from in close.
And one final point offensively. The Raptors are already one of the top free-throw shooting teams in the league. Should DeRozan be able to get to the line six or seven times a game, that puts the Dinos in the bonus that much faster enabling Toronto's ace shooters to rack up free points.
On the defensive end, I really feel that Shawn Marion's rebounding prowess will be missed. However should DeRozan exceed expectations in this capacity as well it will be a huge boost. And with his quickness and athleticism, perhaps DeMar gives opponents enough trouble that they can no longer blow by Toronto's perimeter like a hot knives through butter.
To put it simply, a huge rookie season from DeRozan would make the difference between a 42 win team and a 50 win team in my books.
This is not my expectation, but "the gifted one" could really make this upcoming season for the Toronto Raptors, one of the best in franchise history.
We're still months away from seeing any sort of results, but I'm ready right now to see the new Air Canada take flight...