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The Myth of DeMar DeRozan's Athleticism

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Is DeMar as athletic as we make him out to be?

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I've thought DeMar DeRozan's athleticism was overrated for a couple of years now. From the time DeRozan won the dunk contest as a McDonalds All-American, he's been billed as an all-world athlete. There's a discrepancy between what my eyes tell me and what his reputation is.

What is athleticism? As basketball fans, we intuitively associate a player's "athleticism" to his ability to gather momentum, jump high and slam the ball through the hoop. That's the type of raw ability that has player evaluators in awe during workouts, in an empty gym, on fast breaks, and at dunk contests. But what is functional athleticism in the natural flow of a game situation? Is it the ability to jump high in traffic? Is it end to end speed? Is it fluidity of movement? I took to Twitter to get some opinions on what constitutes an athletic player.

The NBA Draft combine looks at three primary metrics for athleticism -- max vertical, lane agility, and a full-court sprint. Luckily, DraftExpress has a database of combine results dating back a decade for us to look at. Here's DeMar compared to some similar 2009 NBA Draft class draftees:

Player Vertical (in) Standing Vertical (in) Agility (s) Sprint (s)
DeMar DeRozan 38.5 29 11.88 3.31
Omri Casspi 32.5 25.5 11.15 3.28
James Johnson 35 30.5 11.21 3.23
Gerald Henderson 35 31.5 11.17 3.14
James Harden 37 31.5 11.10 3.13

And here are some other wing players with varying levels of athletic reputation:

Player Vertical (in) Standing Vertical (in) Agility (s) Sprint (s)
Terrence Ross 37.5 31 11.78 3.28
Otto Porter 36 27 11.25 3.40
Dwyane Wade 35 31.5 10.56 3.08
Gordon Hayward 34.5 30.5 11.73 3.22
Klay Thompson 31.5 26.5 10.99 3.24

Of the players listed above, DeRozan has by far the most impressive running vertical, but grades out poorly across the board. He has the worst lane agility and sprint speed, and a middle-of-the-pack standing vertical. In case anyone thinks there's a selection bias with the players I've chosen, there are plenty of big men from the 2009 draft who had better agility and sprint scores than DD: Taj Gibson, Dante Cunningham, Tyler Hansbrough, Earl Clark, Blake Griffin, and more. In fact, only four players at the entire combine had lower agility scores than DeRozan. Here's what NBADraft.net had to say about DeRozan's performance in 2009:

Demar Derozan is an elite jumper, not an elite athlete. His max vertical of 38.5" was good for 3rd best at the combine, but his bench press (5 reps), agility (11.88 – terrible for a wing), and sprint (3.31) left much to be desired.

It might seem odd to rehash all of these perceptions years later, but the interesting thing to me is that DeMar's reputation as an elite athlete persists to this day. Granted, combine numbers aren't always representative of a player's in-game performance. Jerry Rice notoriously ran a poor 40-yard dash, but ended up as the greatest wide receiver in NFL history.

The problem for DeRozan then, is that the eye test completely aligns with the idea that he lacks the requisite quickness, first-step and fluid mobility that all great athletes should have.

First, let's talk about what he does do well.

Body Control

Body control is an important aspect of athleticism. Finishing through contact, craftily knifing through the lane, using pockets of space most wouldn't find are all rare athletic skills. Steve Nash and Stephen Curry aren't prototypical athletic point guards, but in my opinion, they are/were adept at using a tight handle, keeping low, and having great balance in order to maintain effectiveness when probing the paint.

DeMar DeRozan shows similar characteristics, albeit in a different fashion. His propensity to draw fouls is a testament to his ability to attack the rim. When DeRozan commits to getting all the way to the rim, he has a funky bag of tricks at his disposal.

DeRozanBodyControl

Two things happen here -- DeRozan's hesitation dribble gets him some room to attack Joakim Noah, but Noah does a good job of pinning DeRozan to the baseline. Now, where he finds that sliver of space to convert that layup, I'm not really sure, but it's effective. Nothing flashy, but crafty and effective. That's DeMar at his best.

When DeMar's guarded by smaller defenders, his post-up game can be a force. Take a look below:

DeMarPostUp1

DeMar PostUp2

I suspect that if we saw this DeRozan on a game to game basis, we'd have a much more efficient player at our disposal. Unfortunately, most teams are smarting and realizing that the key to neutralizing DeMar is to defend him with a big, lengthy wing (Otto Porter, Jimmy Butler).

Now, unfortunately, here are the scenarios where DeRozan's limited athleticism becomes a glaring weakness:

Creating Separation off the Bounce

DeRozan struggles to space himself from defenders off the bounce facing up. It's why he's liable to take contested mid-range jumpshots with a defender draped all over him. Take the play below from the preseason game against the Clippers, for example.

DeMar Separation

DeRozan comes off a pick from Scola and finds himself confronted with Josh Smith, someone you'd assume an elite wing player should be able to drive by in 2015. He's unable to get by him, and after a failed spin move, kicks it back out and resets. When he gets the ball again, there's no quickness on the crossover, and because he fails to turn the corner on Smith, he takes a turnaround contested jumper.

There are several problems here, and while the decision making and tunnel vision is among them, the inability to create any sort of separation only exacerbates matters.

Compare this to the crossover that Gerald Henderson hits on the Raptors below:

HendersonDrive

If you're thinking Gerald Henderson able to make that cut because he has a head of steam, you're right, but that's exactly the point. Where DeRozan takes the ball and needs to slow the pace down and ease into pockets of space, Henderson sees Lowry sitting at the top of the free throw circle and hits him with a vicious crossover that leads to an and-1. This part of DeMar's game is severely under-developed.

DeMarPullUp

DeMar has a tendency to operate in slow-motion, which is perplexing for a player renowned for his explosiveness (hint: he shouldn't be). There's absolutely no burst, as he aimlessly wanders around the screen and eventually decides to pull up.

Here's Andrew Wiggins, probably among the finest athletes in the NBA at the moment, establishing ridiculous separation on a step-back jumper.

WigginsStepBack

The differences between some of the elite wing athletes and DeMar Derozan in finding space while facing up are stark. The tendency to slow the game down has been an absolute killer for his own efficiency.

Gather Time

DeRozan is an elite jumper. But situationally, the conditions need to perfect for him to exhibit breath-taking athleticism. If you give him enough time to get into a sprint, sure, he can cram it on you. Otherwise, he's not really a threat to do so.

DeRozanDunk

DeRozan's career-best dunk is a perfect microcosm of how amazing he can look when circumstances allow him to be. Given time to start his dribble uninterrupted and gather, his body control allows him to finish through contact over Timofey Mozgov. The key here is that DeMar is basically untouched until he starts his jump -- look at Andre Miller's matador defence. These are the parameters needed for DeMar to shine athletically.

Here's how he reacts when faced with contact on the dribble and prevented from taking off at max-speed.

DeRozanMissLayup

When they aren't mid-range jumpers, DeRozan's portfolio of shots is littered with slow moving drives like this. As he turns the corner on Kobe Bryant, and is confronted with help defenders in 8,326-year old Metta World Peace and Nick Young, just watch the lack of foot-speed and agility. I'm not suggesting that play should have resulted in a dunk -- there are defenders in the vicinity. But there's no explosion to how he moves, there's no counter move to free himself, and there are no quick cuts.

Even a polarizing figure like Terrence Ross gives you these:

RossPutback

RossDunk

In one there's a weak-side dunk around the hoop, which is absolutely absurd. In the second, he drives against his body, plants with his right foot and goes up on a 2-foot jump for a right-hand dunk.

Leo Rautins once described Ross as a "quick jumper" and I find that description increasingly apt as I nitpick over this issue. Being able to jump quickly is the primary measure of explosiveness, along with quality of first-step.

I'll put it this way, DeMar's the Solar Beam of dunkers -- he needs time and space to gather, but if he gets it off, it's generally extremely powerful.

Open Court Awareness

DeMar rarely finds himself with transition opportunities to score. Here's an example of him trotting the ball up the floor and running himself into a difficult shot.

DeRozanTransition

Now compare that to the top-speed John Wall helps Bradley Beal reach on this transition opportunity.

BealTransition

Again, the problem for DeRozan is two-fold. He doesn't seem to recognize opportunities to create easy baskets like these -- that part is certainly true. But some of that is rooted in his inconsistent ability to get end to end as quickly as we Beal go here. The evidence above isn't just anecdotal. If you go through his field goal attempts from last year, and you'll rarely see the type of burst displayed by some other wings.

***

DeMar DeRozan has the tools to be a solid player, but we've reached a point that we need to acknowledge that he isn't among the premier functional athletes in the league. If he can't put himself in the positions to use his freak-ish leaping ability, or can't recognize opportunities to do so, what's the point? Are we satisfied with just speaking glowingly of his dunk contest potential?

When face-up dribbling, gathering on the jump, and utilizing transition opportunities, DeMar shows woefully average explosiveness. DeMar has great body control, he's very effective at attacking the rim when he sets his mind to it, and his ability to draw fouls shouldn't be discounted when talking about his athletic feats.

In that sense, DeMar's that much closer to emulating his idol, Kobe Bryant. The only problem is, we're talking 37-year-old on-the-verge-of-retirement Kobe. It's time to put this DeMar DeRozan athleticism myth to bed.

What do you all think?