I think it's officially safe to say that the Raptors have a DeMar DeRozan problem. The third-year swingman was a linchpin for Toronto's future as recently as this training camp, especially after coming off a tremendous second-half to last season. After being something of a non-entity in his rookie year and November and December of 2010, DeRozan turned it around on New Year's Eve and wound up averaging 19.9 ppg on .465 shooting after the All-Star break. He was attempting over five free throws per game (not enough, but an improvement), he was pulling down 4.1 rpg and the Raptors didn't look foolish talking about him as a cornerstone piece for the future. In fact, for many DeRozan had eclipsed Andrea Bargnani as the team's best player and had become the one absolutely untradeable asset in Toronto's arsenal. The assumption was that he'd show up this year ready to improve upon his output of last season and follow in the footsteps of scoring wings like Rudy Gay or Rip Hamilton.
That didn't happen.
Instead DeRozan has regressed in just about every area. He's scoring just 14.1 ppg on a career-low .379 percentage. He's getting to the line only 4.3 times per game, he's turning the ball over a career-worst 2.2 times per game (particularly galling considering his paltry 1.4 apg) and according to 82games.com the Raptors are significantly better both offensively and defensively when he's off of the court. After 23 games the Raptors can no longer call this a slow start to the season. The season is now over one-third finished for the Raptors and DeRozan looks no more ready to consistently contribute than he did a month ago when these troubles started.
The worry lies deeper than just regression, though. As it stands right now, DeRozan doesn't look like anything close to a legit NBA starter, let alone a cornerstone for the future. He is 60th out of 75 shooting guards in PER at just 9.56, which puts him below guys like Randy Foye, Dahntay Jones and Willie Green. His true shooting percentage ranks him even worse, at 62 out of 75 at just .459, and yet because of his lofty position in the Raptors future he's got an outrageous 22.2 usage rate, 16th among all shooting guards, which at this point is only forcing him into more mistakes because he's so often involved. He's basically a turnover waiting to happen on the break (either because he charges into a defender or because he gets stripped, both are a result of his indefensibly bad ball handling) and Toronto's offence is starting to go away from him, as set plays more often see the ball going to a big man on a pick-and-roll or to James Johnson (yes, that James Johnson) to create in isolation. Consider that for a second: Johnson, a power forward in a small forward's body, is a more capable one-on-one offensive player than DeRozan right now (that doesn't mean he scores more or is more efficient, just that he's better at creating for himself than Toronto's starting scoring guard). With that you start to get a real sense of the Raptors' trouble.
DeRozan was never supposed to have an array of NBA skills. He was billed as a scorer and that, in theory, is what he is. The Raptors drafted him to be their scoring punch in the backcourt and former head coach Jay Triano's whole raison d'être in the back half of last season was to get him confident enough in his offence to make him a contributor. After all, he doesn't defend well, he's a bad passer in the very few times he makes a pass and he doesn't have a great feel for the game. His athleticism, though, was meant to translate into strong scoring prowess, but despite last season's uptick, he just doesn't seem to know right now how to be a good, consistent offensive threat for his team.
Is there a "but" in all of this? Of course there is, it's the same one people have been trotting out all season when talking about DeRozan's struggles: he's just 23 years old. He started so far behind the eight ball in terms of his skill development when he hit the NBA that he's simply going to take more time to learn some of the nuances of the game. In time he may well capitalize on all of his potential, but that doesn't really help the Raptors much right now as they plan for the future.
Basically, no one can say for sure what the Raptors should do about their DeRozan situation. Surely it's way too early to even consider severing ties with him, especially not after what he showed last year, but where does he now fit into the big picture? As the trade deadline approaches and the Raptors gear up to make some moves (and they are definitely gearing up to make some moves) how do they factor DeRozan into those plans? Should they be looking for an upgrade at the shooting guard slot? Should they be looking for a veteran mentor for him? Should they be looking for someone who can score in the backcourt to take the pressure off of him? The path is totally unclear.
For instance, say the Raptors picked up a scoring forward that could start alongside DeRozan, taking over the role of primary scorer on the wing to compliment Bargnani in the middle, where would that leave DeMar? If he's not scoring, then he doesn't really have any value to the club. Suppose they get a veteran mentor but he so vastly outplays him that DeRozan - in the name of Dwane Casey's accountability mandate - is relegated to the bench with three superior scorers (Leandro Barbosa, Linas Kleiza and Jerryd Bayless). In all likelihood DeRozan will be only indirectly affected by the trade deadline since the Raptors have some time to be patient with him, but if his struggles continue the club will have to wrangle with this predicament head on and there is no telling how that will go once they've turned that corner.
For now, Casey is imploring DeRozan to use his athleticism to get to the line. He's publicly put that out there, that he needs to see him attack and get into the bodies of his defenders and force the refs to blow the whistle. More often than not these days when DeRozan actually manages to get close to the basket without getting stripped he shies away from contact and not only misses the shot but doesn't get the call. Getting to the line, getting a chance to take some easy shots, to see the ball go in the basket, that can help a slumping player tremendously and Casey is no doubt aware of that fact when he encourages DeRozan to work harder to get those opportunities.
Of course, what we still don't know is if DeRozan is slumping at all. Again, 23 games is a long stretch and this goes way beyond not hitting open shots. By the end of this season the Raptors are going to need to decide for themselves how their future relates to DeMar's future because young or not, he's a free agent after next season. As patient as they may want to be there is a time limit on how patient they can be if these troubles are prolonged.
DeRozan simply needs to get better for the Raptors to make any kind of serious investment in him (whether it be by extending him or augmenting the roster around him to help him out). This downturn in his game has lasted long enough that it has become a real headache for the organization, and they are praying that DeRozan turns it around so they are forced to make decisions that they don't want to have to make before they make a bid for respectability next season.