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Numbers Game: Analyzing DeMar DeRozan’s Hot Start

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DeRozan has been great, but how much of it is sustainable, and how much is just a hot streak?

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

DeMar DeRozan has had an incredible start to the season for the Raptors. He’s posting career highs in points per game (33.7, currently leading the league as well), field goal percentage (52.4%), free throw attempts per game (9.2), and rebounds per game (4.8). He’s posting an incredible .261 WS/48 to lead the team and has a 31 PER. These are superstar numbers. But how much of it is real? And how much is just DeRozan catching fire with his jump shot to start the year?

Heavy Usage

To start, DeRozan is currently carrying a usage rate (the number of the team’s possessions while he is on the court that he finishes by shooting, drawing a shooting foul, or turning the ball over) of 37%. This contributes a lot to his raw point per game totals and skews his PER up. In the history of the NBA, there have only been 18 player seasons with a usage above 35%. Including only 5 over the past 7 seasons - and only one hit 37% (Westbrook two years ago when Durant was hurt). It is safe to assume his usage will drop throughout the year - this team has a lot of offensive weapons and DeRozan will likely drop closer to his career high number of 30%. Assuming he does, that should alone account for a drop from 34 PPG to about 27 PPG.

So that explains some of the raw scoring we are seeing from him. But he’s been more efficient than ever - and a drop in usage should in theory make him even better there.

Getting Inside

So, the obvious place to start: is DeRozan getting to the rim more? That’s the easiest way to raise a shooting percentage - more layups, more dunks, less long jumpers. Well, no. He’s not.

2015-16:
Percentage of FGA’s in restricted area: 27%
Percentage of FGA’s in paint: 49%

2016-17:
Percentage of FGA’s in restricted area: 16%
Percentage of FGA’s in paint: 43%

So that’s fewer attempts in the paint and far fewer attempts at the rim. One down, let’s try another.

Getting Open Looks

So, if he’s not getting inside more, maybe he’s getting more open looks. We’ll focus on shots taken outside of 10 feet here (as shots close to the rim are inherently more closely defended) to see if he is creating more separation on his jumpers.

2015-16 (2 point FGA’s from >10 feet):
Percentage of FGA’s with defender <4 feet away: 63%
Percentage of FGA’s with defender >4 feet away: 37%

2016-17 (2 point FGA’s from >10 feet):
Percentage of FGA’s with defender <4 feet away: 71%
Percentage of FGA’s with defender >4 feet away: 29%

Practically no change there, if anything a bit worse. Running out of options here.

His Kind of Shots

It is a sort of accepted truth in basketball that shots taken right after a pass, with your feet set, are better shots than those created off the dribble. Looking at last season’s numbers, though, DeRozan breaks that mold badly.

2015-16 (2 point FGA’s from >10 feet):
FG% on catch-and-shoot FGA’s: 32%
FG% on pull-up FGA’s: 41%

Now, neither of those numbers are great, but the pull-up number is pretty average for mid-range shots, while the catch-and-shoot number is disastrous. And this year he has taken even more pull-up shots than ever.

2015-16 (2 point FGA’s from >10 feet):
Percentage of FGA’s that are catch-and-shoot: 17%
Percentage of FGA’s that are pull-up: 83%

2016-17 (2 point FGA’s from >10 feet):
Percentage of FGA’s that are catch-and-shoot: 14%
Percentage of FGA’s that are pull-up: 86%

That still obviously won’t explain a >50% FG%. But it’s a start. Now, what about the most obvious explanation?

Just a Hot Streak?

Which shots he’s taking don’t seem to tell much of a story. We can go through a bunch of other examples - his shot attempts in isolation versus off of pick and rolls versus in transition are basically the same as last year. His FG%’s at various shot clock times are pretty flat across the board both this year and last. There’s just no discernible reason, statistically, why he should be shooting better.

He looks like he’s getting more mismatches on his jumpers, taking more over bigs who are not doing a great job contesting even when close to him. He looks more confident and aggressive, and like he’s getting his legs into his shot more, and going straight up and down even on shots off the dribble. Maybe that’s really making all the difference - because there is a real difference. Let’s take a look at those shot attempt break downs we looked at above, but now we’ll look at how many he is converting this year versus last.

2015-16:
FG% in restricted area: 61%
FG% in paint: 52%
FG% on 2 point FGA’s >10 feet from rim with defender <4 feet away: 39%
FG% on 2 point FGA’s >10 feet from rim with defender >4 feet away: 39%
FG% on catch-and-shoot FGA’s: 32%
FG% on pull-up FGA’s: 41%

2016-17:
FG% in restricted area: 65% (+4%)
FG% in paint: 60% (+8%)
FG% on 2 point FGA’s >10 feet from rim with defender <4 feet away: 58% (+19%)
FG% on 2 point FGA’s >10 feet from rim with defender >4 feet away: 48% (+9%)
FG% on catch-and-shoot FGA’s: 50% (+18%)
FG% on pull-up FGA’s: 56% (+15%)

DeRozan is hitting everything far, far better than he ever has before. Leaps and bounds better. Unfortunately, that probably means at least a big chunk of this is just him being on a hot streak, and bound to come back to earth. We saw some of this in the Sacramento game, as he had a pretty strong regression to the mean on his jump shot.

There is a chance he really has become a much better shooter, but a more likely progression of his skill set would be for him to become a somewhat better shooter. We’ll keep an eye on this moving forward, but for now, might as well enjoy the ride.