• Jonathan Ebrahimi

Looking at DeMar DeRozan’s Blistering Start

DeMar DeRozan has always been a good NBA player.

In seven years as a pro, the USC product is a two-time all-star and has complied career averages of 18.5 PPG and 4.0 RPG, shooting 44.4% from the field and 82.4% from the free throw line. He has been the one constant for a Raptors organization that has transformed from a bottom-dweller in the Eastern Conference to last year’s 56-win title contender that came 2 wins shy of their first appearance in an NBA Finals.

Fresh off of signing a 5-year, $139 million contract, DeRozan is posting career highs in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Points Per Game (PPG), Rebounds Per Game (RPG), Assists Per Game (APG), and Steals Per Game (SPG). And we’re not talking about small improvements. Posting a PER of 25.6, his previous career high was 21.5 and he’s scoring an additional 5 points per contest than a year ago. He is focused throughout each game and looks comfortable taking over down the stretch when the Raptors need to grind out a tough win.

It’s very rare for a player in his seventh season to make such a significant improvement in on-court performance. However, that is exactly what DeMar has somehow managed to do. But where did such a vast improvement come from?

Well the answer to that question isn’t black and white. For DeMar, it really has been a perfect storm of circumstances coming together, materializing at the perfect time. So let’s take a look at the circumstances contributing to DeRozan’s ascension to the NBA’s elite.

The NBA Playoffs & Team USA

The difference between young talent and savvy veterans is one thing, experience. Last season, DeMar DeRozan not only led the Toronto Raptors to a franchise record in regular season wins, he also led them to their longest playoff run in franchise history. For the first time since 2001, the Raptors advanced passed the first round of the playoffs and eventually made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals where they were defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games.

The significance here is the confidence that such a successful run instills in young players. After leading his team to within two wins of a Finals berth, DeMar DeRozan has established himself as one of the NBA’s elite talents. He now sees himself as the best player on one of the league’s best teams, and that confidence has carried over to this season.

The playoffs, however, were not the only experience that had a profound effect on DeRozan’s psyche. Immediately after their long playoff run, DeRozan and fellow teammate Kyle Lowry joined Team USA in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics. There they would spend the summer with established NBA superstars such as Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, an experience just as valuable as their run to the Conference Finals. Being named to the team alone would give any player a confidence boost, but the fact that DeRozan contributed significant minutes en route to an Olympic Gold Medal gives him all the more reason to believe that he has earned a place as one of the league’s elite.

The Sports Illustrated Player Rankings

Admittedly, the SI ranking of the top players in the NBA likely had little to do with DeMar’s improvement this season. With that being said, there is no doubt that being ranked the 46th best player in the league really upset him. To put his No. 46 ranking into perspective, that put him below the likes of Rudy Gobert, Khris Middleton and Serge Ibaka. Don’t get me wrong they are all good players, but DeRozan was coming off a season where he was the best player on a 56-win team. Khris Middleton and Rudy Gobert were not even the best players on lottery teams.

Of course, DeRozan’s low position is partly due to the fact that NBA players contracted to the Toronto Raptors do not get the same exposure to American media. But that is not a good enough excuse for such a prolific media outlet to overlook one of the most talented guys in the league, and DeMar DeRozan likely feels the same way.

He expressed his disappointment in the rankings multiple times during the offseason and when asked recently if the ranking had provided him with the motivation behind his hot start he simply replied, “That has a lot to do with it.”

Improved Efficiency

Now that we’ve discussed what has motivated DeRozan to improve, let’s talk about how he has improved.

Every year DeMar comes back from the offseason an improved player. Maybe one year he improves his outside shooting, maybe another year he improves his ball-handling, but every year he gets noticeably better by adding something new to his game.

This year was different.

Instead of trying to add something to his game, instead of trying to force himself to be something he is not, he took a different approach. This year DeRozan improved on his already established strengths.

For example, DeRozan has always been able to get to the free throw line with ease. In each of the last 4 seasons, DeMar has finished among the league’s top ten in Free Throw Attempts. This year, he’s only gotten better as he ranks 7th in the league in Free Throw Attempts, averaging a career high 9 attempts per game. More attempts at the line means more easy points for DeRozan, which leads me to my next point.

The reason DeRozan has been able to get to the line at a career rate so far this season is due to where he is taking his shots. DeMar is taking 46% of his shots between 3 and 16 feet, which is a new career high, and he has limited the number of threes taken each game to the lowest amount since his sophomore year. Better yet, he is shooting a blistering 56% on shots taken within 10-16 feet from the basket. So while the rest of the league is removing the mid-range game from their arsenal entirely, DeMar has recognized that it may be his greatest strength and is focusing on using it to his advantage.

He is also abusing smaller guards in the post. At 6-foot-7 and 220 lbs. DeMar is one of the bigger guards in the league, but up to this point he has always been more of a finesse player. This year, however, DeMar has continuously taken smaller guards to the block and bullied them down low for easy baskets near the paint. He has an array of post moves at his disposal including a step back jumper, a deadly pumpfake and a Jordan-esque fadeaway. But what is even more telling is that former MVP, Kevin Durant, recently credited DeRozan with having some of the best footwork he’s seen in a long time.

Instead of trying to be something he is not, he’s simply focusing on what his greatest strengths are.

DeRozan has taken his game to an entirely new level, and it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time for the Raptors. With so many teams in the East bolstering their roster over the offseason, Toronto needed to make a big move. Unfortunately their big free agent signing Jared Sullinger has been injured and unable to play so far this season. But that hasn’t stopped the Raptors from having a strong start and a large part of their current success has to do with DeMar’s transition into an NBA elite.

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