Happy Holidays, Raps fans. Your gift is a glimpse into the possible future of DeMar DeRozan.
During the holiday lull between Christmas and the New Year (or rather, the first working Monday of the New Year), DeRozan put together a string of games that finally hinted at the player he could become: a useful NBA player.
Right up to last week, the biggest issue facing those who followed DeRozan was trying to figure out what kind of player he was going to develop into. Was he going to be a guy like Rip Hamilton, who runs off of screens to get open, mid-range shots? Was he going to be like Corey Maggette, who uses his size and athleticism to pile up the free throw attempts each game? Was he going to be like Courtney Lee, who tries to affect the game defensively, while reserving his explosiveness for the open court? Was he going to create for himself, or did he need to be set-up for each shot? Would he try to stop guys one-on-one or patrol the passing lanes looking for steals? Would he play inside or outside? Could he set-up or could he only finish? Would he rebound? Block shots? No one had any idea because DeRozan refused to show anyone who he was with any consistency.
Part of the reason is that DeRozan has worked so hard to fit in over the course of his first one-and-a-quarter years in the NBA that no one could tell where the team's needs ended and he began. He was so deferential to players like Bosh, Turkoglu, Bargnani, Jack, Calderon, Barbosa and Kleiza that he wasn't showing anyone how he could impact the game himself. He was so concerned with fitting in that the coaching staff looked like they were having trouble figuring out what to do with him.
Then came last week.
With Andrea Bargnani and his 21.2 ppg out of the lineup, along with Sonny Weems, Peja Stojakovic and, eventually, Jerryd Bayless, the team was hurting for some scoring. Not only that, but Amir Johnson was hobbled and teams were getting wise to Linas Kleiza, not leaving him open in the mid-range or allowing him to post up smaller opponents. Out of sheer necessity, DeRozan could no longer lurk in the background, but it wasn't even that that finally got him to stand up and get noticed.
Instead, it was Jay Triano's insistence that the ball find DeRozan and that he makes plays with it. Too often he'd been giving control of the offense to Barbosa or a two-man game between Johnson and Calderon, leaving DeRozan as a passive observer. Prior to last week, DeRozan had only taken 13 or more shots seven times in his career. Seven. The former ninth-overall pick and purported future of the team on the wing had only seven times taken 13 or more shots. By comparison, Terrence Williams, taken two spots after DeRozan, has twenty-two games with 13 or more shots, and he's played in 21 fewer games than DeRozan has. Sometimes a guy comes into the league ready to make his mark (for good or ill) and sometimes a guy has to be pushed to (again, for good or ill). Last week, it looked like the coaching staff was finally shoving DeRozan into the spotlight.
Fortunately for them, he proved to be up for the task.
In the last four games, DeRozan has averaged 24.5 ppg on 60% shooting and exploded for a career-high 37 points against the Houston Rockets on New Years Eve. His team was active in getting him the ball and he was aggressive in making plays with it. Was his execution flawless? No. More often than not it was loping and clumsy, especially when he tried to use fakes and pivot moves to get free, but it was so important that he was trying those moves in games. The fact that he was focused on asserting himself in the game was far more important than whether or not he can drive, half-spin and elevate with the precision of a Kobe Bryant. He finally wasn't waiting for the offence to come to him, he was taking control of it and, regardless of the lack of refinement, he was finding ways to be effective in that role.
That is why the most impressive game of the week was not the 37-point outburst, but the 27-point follow-up on Sunday. Just about any NBA wing player can simply get hot and ride momentum to one huge scoring game. However, what do they do the next game? What do they do when they are in a different building, against a different defence, with their momentum gone and a different officiating crew? When DeRozan returned to Toronto after back-to-back 20-plus-point games against Orlando and Miami in November, he strung together a series of unremarkable follow-ups. People thought that maybe he'd had a breakthrough, only to see him fall back into old, passive patterns days later. On Sunday though, DeRozan stayed aggressive at home, took a season-high 25 shots, shook off the bevy of non-calls he felt went against him and poured-in what would have been a career-high had he not scored those 37 two nights earlier. Some argue that needing 25 shots to get 27 points devalues the effort, or that his five turnovers and the fact he was blocked three times says more about where he's at than his point total.
That would be an erroneous conclusion.
At this point in his career, the Raptors need to see DeRozan in attack mode more than anything, even if that means taking 25 shots to get 27 points. His willingness to take 25 shots is a greater sign of growth for him than his ability to drop 37 points. The Raptors need to see him willing to go out trying to apply what he's been practicing in real-game situations, and often that means taking shots. That's how you improve. Practice a move, try it in a game, see how you can refine the move with practice, try the refined move in a game, etc. If you don't try what you're practicing in games, why practice them at all? If DeRozan picks up charges trying those moves out, great! That means that you can now work on making those moves more efficient by figuring out the counter to a man stepping in front of him. If he gets blocked trying to get to the basket, fantastic! That means the coaching staff can show him what his tendency is and what kind of alterations can make the move more effective. Maybe he needs to re-direct the shot in mid-air. Maybe he needs to go into the body of the shot-blocker to take away his angle. Maybe he needs to lay the ball off to a cutter after attracting the defensive attention. Either way, he and the coaches will only learn how to improve those aspects of his game if he's constantly working on them on the court.
At this point, DeRozan is still a MAJOR work-in-progress. He needs to show that he can string more than four positive outings together. He needs to show that he can stay aggressive when Bargnani returns, and then the coaching staff needs to figure out how to mesh both of their games to be more effective. However, last week showed a glimpse of the kind of player DeRozan can be: a slashing guard that keeps defences honest with an easy mid-range jump shot. That helps to figure out how to prioritize what he works on, namely, his first step and evasive moves around the basket. He needs an effective hop-step, he badly needs a Euro-step and Kobe's turnaround jumper would be killer – especially if he can use some of his elevation to see over his defender. All of a sudden the need for a three-point shot looks less desperate and would be better found with a companion wing player that hits from outside at a high percentage (in other words, not Kleiza), so that DeRozan is kept operating in areas of the floor where he's most effective.
Games this week against weaker opponents like Cleveland and Sacramento will be very interesting to watch to see how aggressive DeRozan is in asserting himself, because no one should be comfortable saying that he's entered a new phase of his career yet. What he's done is show people what he's capable of doing when he's aggressive, which would make a regression that much harder to stomach. It's been exciting to see signs of life from DeRozan, but what those signs precede is still anyone's guess.