AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – DeMar DeRozan admits he’s a terrible planner.
“Don’t ask me, are we going to go to dinner next week and what time?” the Raptors wing said. “Because I don’t know. You’ve got to ask me an hour before. … A hour before I’m hungry, I decide.”
That blind spot makes it easier for DeRozan to focus on the task at hand, especially with so much – Sunday’s All-Star game in Toronto, an opportunity for playoff redemption and a max contract in free agency – ahead of him.
DeRozan, already an All-Star and two-time 20-point-per-game scorer, is having his best season by a decent margin. His Raptors are 35-17 and looking increasingly capable of challenging the Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference title many already handed Cleveland.
And it’s because DeRozan never got too comfortable with what he already accomplished nor too caught up in what he could accomplish. Calling himself the “most mellowest person,” DeRozan just tries to stay in the moment.
Toronto coach Dwane Casey credited DeRozan for working on one aspect of his game each offseason, including “just handling the ball in the post and not throwing it in the fourth row” when they first worked together. But saying DeRozan polished only one skill since last year would be selling him far too short.
DeRozan has transformed his offensive game, becoming more effective than ever.
Start with his ability to get to the basket. That had long been a strength, but DeRozan has taken it to another level this year. He ranks seconds in the NBA in drives per game (11.6):
And third in free-throw attempts per game(8.3):
How does someone so mellow find the aggression to play a style that generates so much contact?
“I grew up different from a lot of people,” said DeRozan, a Compton native. “I grew up in an aggressive area. I had an aggressive lifetime for a long time. I just felt like, I’ve seen a lot of stuff and did a lot of stuff at a young age that make you mellow now, but once you grow up in that aggressive nature, it’s just always going to stick with you.”
DeRozan’s one year in college helped make him the No. 9 pick in the 2009 NBA draft, but he entered the league with one glaring deficiency: outside shooting. DeRozan made just six three pointers at USC – and even fewer, four and five, his first two NBA seasons.
Still not quite to league average, DeRozan has at least become a credible threat beyond the arc this season, shooting a career-high 33.7%:
These shots at the rim and from beyond the arc are coming at the expense of long 2s. After peaking at 36.5% three years ago and remaining a far-too-high 33.8% last year, DeRozan is taking just 24.4% of his shots between 16 feet and the 3-point arc:
For someone who declared just last year, “I don’t care about analytics at all. I could give a hell about them,” his game has sure become more analytically friendly.
The previous two years, DeRozan had the second-lowest true shooting percentage among 20-point scorers – ahead of only Kobe Bryant last season and LaMarcus Aldridge the season prior. Now, DeRozan’s true shooting percentage (54.8) is above league average for the first time since his rookie year, which – not coincidentally – was the only time his usage percentage fell below league average.
There’s a tradeoff between volume and efficiency, and DeRozan was on the wrong end of it. He was increasing his scoring by taking more bad shots.
His improved efficiency hasn’t come with shifting the shooting burden to less-capable teammates, either. DeRozan’s usage percentage (29.7) is a career high and ranks above Carmelo Anthony‘s, Kevin Durant‘s and John Wall‘s.
The turnaround is all the more stunning considering how limited DeRozan looked as an inefficient gunner.
A whopping 74.5% of his long 2s were assisted in 2010-11. That number fell 47.5% last season, which look more ridiculous if not for the great height from which it fell. For perspective, Isaiah Thomas – another player on both the drives and free-throw attempts leaderboard – has just 34.2% of his long 2s assisted.
Essentially, DeRozan was taking too many bad shots – and needed help getting them.
This year, DeRozan looks much more in control with the ball in his hands. Only 26.8% of his long 2s are assisted, not that he’s taking that many shots from that range, anyway.
He’s also using his greater control to dish a career-high 4.7 assists per game. Continuing the trend, it’s a substantive improvement. DeRozan isn’t throwing foolish passes in the hopes of upping his assist numbers. His turnovers remain characteristically low, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is a career best.
DeRozan has looked the part of a star the previous couple years. This season, he has produced like a star, too.
Lowry has watched the process unfold.
“It’s just being comfortable in your own skin,” Lowry said. “He doesn’t worry about what anybody says. He’s going to be comfortable in his own skin at all times.”
Lowry and DeRozan have developed a fun bond in their four seasons together, and it’s special they’ll represent the Raptors together in the Toronto All-Star game.
DeRozan was an All-Star in 2013, when the Raptors became good enough to warrant an All-Star but reserve-voting coaches still seemed bitter at Lowry, a superior player who’d clashed with his coaches when younger. Lowry got his first All-Star appearance last year, fans voting him a starter.
This year, both deserve to be there.
The next step is turning their individual success into team success. Despite holding home-court advantage the last two years, the Raptors were bounced in the first round – by the Nets in 2014 and Wizards in 2015. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001, which was also the last time it produced two All-Stars (Vince Carter and Antonio Davis).
With DeRozan playing like a true star, this could be the year the Raptors break the drought.
Individual riches for DeRozan should follow.
He reportedly and logically plans to opt out of a contract that would pay him $10,050,000 next season. The upside? A max deal projected to be worth more than $145 million over five years if he re-signs or $110 million over four years elsewhere.
DeRozan always probably could have pulled at least one max offer in what will be a player-friendly market next summer. But this improvement makes it far more likely he’ll have his pick of max options, and not just from teams as desperate as the Lakers.
Despite not looking ahead often, DeRozan says he has one plan for handling free agency: Calling Lowry.
“I’m putting it on Kyle,” DeRozan said. “I don’t know. I’m going to put in on Kyle when that day comes. So, whatever he says, that’s where I’m going to go.”
So, that means DeRozan will return to the Raptors?
“At the end of the day, I’m his friend first,” said Lowry, who spurned heavy outside interest to re-sign in 2014. “He’s going to make a decision on what’s comfortable for him, and I’m going to support everything he does – just like he did for me.”
That’s very nice, but doesn’t Lowry at least hope that process leads DeRozan back to Toronto?
“At the end of the day, I’m going to support my friend – no matter what it is,” Lowry said.
There was long reason to doubt the relative emptiness of DeRozan’s numbers. But what’s clear: The people around him believe in him.
“He hasn’t reached the ceiling of his game yet,” Casey said, “and that’s the great thing about him, because he is a worker.”