There has been a lot of humming and hawing over the first week of the NBA season over DeMar DeRozan's supposedly ineffectual game. His production in the first three quarters of games against Cleveland and Indiana stood out, as did his meager 11-point outing in a loss to Dallas. DeRozan finally had a game breakout against the turnstile defense offered by New York on Monday, but overall fans are turning up their nose at his production early in the season.
Looking at his numbers from last year, though, DeRozan is averaging the same 17.2 ppg, the same 3.8 rpg, the same 1.0 spg and is shooting an improved .470 from the floor and a wildly improved .626 from three-point range. So why, then, are so many so frustrated with his production early this season?
It's a tricky road to navigate. First of all you're contending with expectations. DeRozan had a stellar run after January 1st of last year, and looked like he was ready to explode onto the scene this season, inflating the expectations of fans across the country. The problem is that the coach that gave him the environment to produce that success is now in the front office, and his new coach has different expectations for not only DeRozan but the entire team around him.
To that point, DeRozan not only has to find his spots in an offense that is far more geared to getting Andrea Bargnani looks (coincidentally, Bargnani is averaging an identical 16.2 attempts per game to what Dirk Nowitzki - the man Dwane Casey is emulating Bargnani's looks after - averaged last year), but DeRozan also has to expend far more effort on defense than he ever did last season. Last year, Jay Triano was rather lax in disciplining DeRozan and Bargnani for their defensive miscues, Casey is decidedly not. More effort at that end of the court means more energy expended which means tired legs syndrome kicks in a lot earlier in games than it used to. For a guy like DeRozan, that relies so heavily on his ability to jump (both on jump shots and on finishes at the rim) that means learning to fight through fatigue while staying efficient is another item on his to-do list this season. It'll happen, especially as his young body adjusts to the increased demand being placed on it, but it will take time and that will delay any overt breakout performance for at least a few weeks.
That's the easy explanation, though. The more nuanced reason for DeRozan's perceived struggles lies far deeper, where a fan's idea of what development should look like and what development really entails diverges.
Progress in developing an NBA player is slow. It takes a lot of time for something to be taught to a player, for the player to repeat it endlessly in practice, for the player to try it in games and for the player to then be successful enough at it in games to make it a weapon. That's why coaches are always preaching about guys they send to the D-League needing game action. They're being fed all of this training in practice, but are never getting the chance to apply it in games, effectively stagnating their development. It's also why some end-of-the-bench types are more eager to find playing time overseas than sit at the end of some bench rotting in the NBA. The development cycle is long and arduous enough as it is, without consistent playing time it's basically stuck.
For guys that do get consistent minutes, though, it still takes time to adapt to new techniques and learning how to apply them. A frequent criticism lobbed at DeRozan is that his ball handling is poor. Perhaps it is, but that is like saying that a meal tastes bad; you're describing the overall experience, but you aren't really considering the 'how' or 'why'. A meal is the sum total of dozens of steps and techniques. It's cooking the various components, sure, but it's also settling on the amount of food to prepare, how to pair flavors together, how to assemble various sauces and seasonings and finally how to make it look appetizing on a plate. Mess up any one of those steps and the end result is "this meal tastes bad". Well, it's the same principle as picking apart DeRozan's ball handling.
Ball handling is actually the sum total of dozens of various moves and techniques. Just about any NBA player can dribble a ball up the court uncontested. What we're really talking about here are various methods of attacking with the ball to gain an offensive advantage. Use of crossovers, hesitations, sizeups, spins, stepbacks and attacks gives the player an arsenal of tools that they can use to gain an offensive advantage, so learning all of those moves is the first key. Once you learn them all and repeat them ad nasuem in practice, however, you still need to learn how to perform them against NBA caliber defenses, against ball-hawks like Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant (this is where DeRozan is right now). Once you've got that stage down, you then have to learn what to use when, and why, and to what advantage. Just because you can perform any of those moves at the NBA level doesn't mean you know how to use them. Being able to read the situation is as important as the technical side of any of those moves, and the only way you can improve that part of your brain is to play and play and play until you start recognizing patterns that you can exploit with your arsenal of tools. That's one of the reasons that GMs and coaches love young players, because they can put them through this development cycle and have them come out the other end still young enough to make the most of them.
That's part of what helps determine what makes a good young prospect, too: how developed are they by the time they reach the NBA? Looking at LeBron or Paul or Howard or Griffin right out of the gates, you can tell that they were highly developed youngsters, far farther along the developmental path than DeRozan was on draft night, which means that a lot of their teaching consisted of nuances and timing, ways to take their already effective games and make them unstoppable. DeRozan has proven quite adaptable in his first two years in the NBA, but one has to remember how raw he was on draft night when considering how far and how fast they expect him to develop as a 22-year-old pro. He had precious few useable skills when he first laced 'em up with the Raptors, and the team's investment in him will continue to bear fruit (as it has already in two seasons), it just might not happen at the pace that everyone is looking for.
The good news is that DeRozan, through five "disappointing" games is holding his production up to last season's output, while significantly improving upon one of his greatest weaknesses (three-point shooting). He hasn't taken a step back; he just hasn't leapt forward yet, either. He's not a guy you can effectively evaluate yet in small sample sizes (the same goes for the struggling Ed Davis, by the way), he's a guy you take a look at at season's end and track the overall progress of his game from Year 2 to Year 3. Remember, this is a developmental year for the club, a chance for Casey to push his young troops to improve with teaching, playing time and discipline. Individual improvements will be gradual and need to be taken in over a long period of time. Don't fret week-long or even month-long slumps. Save your worry for the end of the year when a guy has shown no improvement from game one to game sixty-six. Or, more optimistically, wait until the end of the season to see how far the players have come from where they started out in late December.