DeMar DeRozan has become a divisive player for many Raptors fans over the past few years. With his contract potentially up after this year (he has a player option he would be a fool to opt in to), this seems to be a make or break season for his future with the Raptors.
DeRozan is a tantalizing talent for a few reasons. He's a top 10 draft pick. He's an athletic freak who wins dunk contests. He's a hard worker. He's a great teammate. He's a community leader. He's vocal with his praise for the city. He's an all-star. He's the team's leading scorer. He goes to the line a lot and knocks them down.
He has had negatives over the past couple years, which I'll touch on in a minute, but for now, let's just say his efficiency has been very poor, and in spite of his gaudy point totals, he's come under fire for taking way too many possessions to get those points, and not doing enough defensively, on the boards, or getting his teammates involved to make up for that.
Hope comes in the form of his 2013-14 season. He posted his best efficiency in years (53 TS%) with a very high usage (28%). While that efficiency is still nothing special, it is high enough that in combination with his high usage, it makes him a positive contributor offensively. He rebounded the ball well, and he made a giant leap in his passing game, going from a complete black hole offensively to simply a below average but adequate passer for a guard. And he made the All-Star game.
Last season saw his efficiency plummet while his usage crept up even further. His assists dropped (though not to his early career levels). Many saw this as a side effect of the isolation-heavy offence the Raptors ran. With the team hopefully returning to the horns sets and ball movement we saw in 2013-14, there is some hope that he could return to his more efficient and team-oriented ways. And could possibly even reach greater heights of efficiency than he did in that all star season.
And this is where, sadly, I land on the DeRozan discussion. He's simply never been able to translate his consistently improving skill set into any real, lasting improvement on the court. His improving percentages from the corners (he shot near 40 percent for the corner three last season) are matched in step by his increasingly poor shot selection from 3 (a full third of his attempts beyond the arc were above the break, where he was an abysmal 10 percent shooter - yes, 10 percent, that's not a typo).
Then there is his improved passing game. Yes, he got better these past two seasons, but consider that, 1) his starting point was a terrible passer, and, 2) his assist rate (17 percent last year) improved right when he had a massive surge in usage (going from 24 to 28 percent or more). Looking at the top usage players in the NBA last year, DD was ninth in usage. Of the eight players above him, only two had a lower assist rate - both were big men, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marreese Speights. Of the top 30 usage players, the four closest to him in assist rate were Jamal Crawford (14.9%), Klay Thompson (14.6%), Rudy Gay (19%) and Lou Williams (13.6%). That's not exactly "passer extraordinaire" company. Side note: every one of those four guys with similar high usage and poor passing rates shot between 53.2% and 58.9% TS% - a range DeMar barely touched in his 2013-14 season and has never fully entered since his rookie year, sitting at a truly horrendous 51% last season.
There is his slightly sub-average defence, which has been steady in its mediocrity for a few years now. That seems unlikely to change, and places him in a situation where if he guards the lesser wing player, he's not hurting you much. Which is good, as he should be playing beside Carroll a lot this year.
Now for the truly scary part. All the hope lies with him being able to up his efficiency with a lower usage rate. If the offensive system this year involves more ball movement, DeMar's usage should in theory drop. Probably closer to his pre-all-star usage of 24-25%. And his FG% may well increase. In 2012-13, he posted a 44.5% FG%.
But that high usage has put the ball in his hands and allowed him to force his way into the teeth of the defence play after play. With the very nice side effect of driving his free throw rate through the roof. Over his first four seasons, his free throw rate (FTA/FGA) was pretty steady around 0.35. The past two, with his excessive usage? 0.45 and 0.44. A massive jump up, especially considering how much more efficient he is from the line (a consistent 80%+ free throw shooter) than from the field.
We've all seen it play out live--DeRozan curls off yet another screen, either taking a hand off from the screening big in horns or a pass from the point guard up top. He drives into his defender, extending his arms way out in front. If he gets his man to swipe at the ball, he moves into a shooting motion, and usually gets a foul call. If he doesn't get a swipe, he either drives into the lane for a layup past a late-rotating big, or if the big is on time, pulls up for a semi-contested jumper (which he usually misses). Or he gets more resistance than he expects rights at the screen, in which case the play often degenerates into an isolation against his man and a helping big.
Lower usage and a lesser role in the offence should mean less of the above plays from DeRozan. This could provide the better shooting numbers from the field we have all been pining for. But sadly, it could also remove from him the one thing that has made his offensive game even somewhat acceptable over the last year, his prolific free throw production.
I know it's pre-season, but...
Small sample, pre-season means nothing, etc, etc. But early returns in this offence are not pretty for DeMar. His usage has dropped to 24 percent--right in line with his pre-all-star usage. His assist rate is holding up nicely, at 20 percent. But that TS% is plummeting, right down to 44.4 percent. Only four minutes-qualified players last season had a TS% below 45% - the ghost of Vince Carter, the quickly-becoming-hilarious Rajon Rondo, Robert Sacre (seriously), and Lance Stephenson, who had his basketball abilities stolen by the little aliens from Space Jam.
The strange part is, he's so far maintained that free throw production, to the tune of a 0.59 free throw rate (this is insanely good). Sadly, it has been achieved along with a 29 percent FG%. It appears that contrary to the expectation, he has kept all the possessions I described above, where he forces the ball into the teeth of the defence, while shedding his more efficient catch and shoot opportunities that kept his (admittedly poor) efficiency even close to acceptable, even with all those free throw attempts. Which is not really what you would call fitting into the new ball movement offensive scheme.
Again, though: Pre-season. Kyle Lowry probably won't maintain his current 83% TS%. So it is hard to project much. Just a quick look at early returns.
So, what does this season hold for DeMar? Can he find new levels of efficiency? Can he maintain his free throw production while reducing the number of forced and contested shots he takes? Can he finally develop a consistent three point shot? Can he become a better passer in a year when that is the theme for the offence?
Or has his career to date been descriptive of his talent? Was his All-Star season an anomaly, his peak, his best case moving forward or a sign of much more to come?
There are parts of his game that can be elite, and can be very useful to a team. The question is: Can DeRozan decouple those parts of his game from the parts that sink an offence, that kill ball movement, and that feed right into what a good defence wants you to do? Because there is no sign so far that he can, but if he could, he just might prove worthy of the price it will take to keep him next summer.
All stats from NBA.com or basketball-reference.com.