It’s very early in the 2016-17 NBA season, but there’s already an abundance of intriguing storylines to follow.
Russell Westbrook has carried the Thunder to a 4-0 start while averaging a triple-double (37.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10 assists). The Warriors are must-see TV due to the talent on that roster and their exciting brand of basketball, even though they’re still getting everyone on the same page. Anthony Davis is posting monster numbers and carrying the Pelicans on his back. LeBron James continues to fill the stat sheet and make super-human plays look routine. James Harden is a perfect fit in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, and he has a legitimate shot to lead the league in points per game and assists per game. Kawhi Leonard’s offense is quickly catching up to his dominant defensive abilities, making him one of the NBA’s most talented two-way players. Damian Lillard continues to solidify himself as one of the world’s best point guards and Steve Kerr recently predicted that he’d win this year’s MVP award. These are just some of the subplots from around the league.
Because so much is going on, you may have missed one of the most surprising (and, perhaps, most impressive) early developments of the season: Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan is playing the best basketball of his career and looks like a legitimate superstar.
After being labeled as an inefficient volume-scorer in recent years, he looks like a completely different player now. He’s taking smarter shots, and he’s averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, steals and field goal percentage while cutting back on his fouls.
The two-time All-Star is currently averaging 36.3 points, while shooting 55.4 percent from the field and 82.1 percent from the free throw line. He’s doing an excellent job of getting to the charity stripe too, averaging 9.8 free throw attempts per game. Over the course of his eight-year NBA career, he has shot just 44.3 percent from the field, so 55.4 percent is an extremely impressive increase – even if the sample size is very small. He’s also averaging 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals (which, again, are both career-highs).
Toward the end of the preseason, DeRozan was scoring the ball with ease and posting some gaudy numbers. In the preseason finale against the Washington Wizards, he had 34 points, which seemed to increase his confidence and allow him to enter the regular season with some momentum. Sure enough, he picked up right where he left off in Toronto’s first game against the Detroit Pistons, hitting five of his first six shots and finishing with 40 points (a Raptors franchise record for a season opener). In the three games since, he has scored 32 points, 33 points and 40 points (again).
DeRozan is currently ranked second in the NBA in points per game, trailing only Westbrook. It’s not like this is a contract-year mirage either. He went through the free agency process in July and re-signed with Toronto on a five-year, $139 million deal. Some pundits criticized the deal at the time, but he’ll earn every penny if he continues to produce at (or near) this level. We’re witnessing the 27-year-old DeRozan in his prime, and it’s everything the Raptors could’ve hoped for and then some.
While the eye test and traditional stats show DeRozan’s effectiveness, his advanced analytics are terrific as well. He’s ranked first among qualified players in points per touch (.556), third in player efficiency rating (35.4), fourth in win shares (1) and fourth in estimated wins added (1.8).
DeRozan’s teammates and coaches have raved about him after each of his stellar performances. Kyle Lowry recently said that he has one job when DeRozan is playing like this: “Get him the ball.”
“I’m just trying to get him some help,” Lowry added. “That’s all I’m trying to do – get him some help. This guy is playing unbelievable basketball, averaging over 30 points. … He is playing on another level right now and making my life a lot easier – making everybody on our team’s lives a lot easier. He is saving possessions, he is creating possessions, he is creating offense.”
“It’s one thing to watch somebody on TV and see what he does every single night, [but] actually being there and seeing how effortless it was, it was amazing,” Raptors rookie Pascal Siakam said. “It was just like poetry. He was just out there, getting to his spots, shooting over people. It was just like, ‘How does he do that?’ It was amazing. He’s an All-Star and that’s the way he’s supposed to play. It was awesome. It felt great to be on the court with him.”
“He’s carrying us,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “DeMar’s been great. His offensive force he’s playing with right now is unreal. … DeMar’s playing at a very high level offensively. We have to maintain that and not wear that out, but he’s been doing a great job. His leadership and Kyle’s leadership have been big time.”
DeRozan has been doing his damage with mid-range pull-ups and drives to the basket. He ranks first in the NBA in points per game off of pull-ups (15.8) and shoots a very efficient 58.5 percent on those attempts. By comparison, Westbrook ranks second in points per game off of pull-ups, but he makes just 35.4 percent of those attempts. DeRozan is the only player in the top 15 in pull-up points per game who’s shooting above 56 percent. Also, DeRozan ranks second in the NBA in points per game off of drives (12.3) and he shoots 58.6 when he’s attacking the basket.
Rather than forcing things, DeRozan is sticking to his strengths and playing within the flow of Toronto’s offense. It’s working exceptionally well. Believe it or not, DeRozan has attempted only six three-pointers through four games and has made just one. He’s not settling for those shots, as he sometimes did in the past. And honestly, his 36.3 points per game is even more impressive when you consider that he’s doing it solely with two-pointers and free throws.
Toronto is currently 3-1, which is tied for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers (who handed Toronto their lone loss in a close game). But keep in mind that the Raptors aren’t at full strength. Jared Sullinger, a key free agent acquisition this summer, is out because he needs surgery to have a screw inserted into the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. Lucas Nogueira has also missed time due to an ankle sprain. The backcourt is a bit banged up too, with Lowry recently getting three stitches after taking an elbow to the face and DeRozan dealing with ankle issues. The squad is doing their best to get through this short-handed stretch.
“It’s still an adjustment with losing Sully, not having Lucas and guys going down,” DeRozan said. “We knew it was going to be tough, but we need to find a rhythm and play when guys are down. We’ve been doing it the last couple of years and we hope that everybody gets back healthy.”
As DeRozan mentioned, this core has a “couple of years” of experience together. In today’s NBA, with so much player movement and coaching changes, it’s pretty rare for a team’s key players to stick together for this long. But Toronto has done a good job of keeping their core intact while adding complementary pieces around their stars. Because of their continuity, the team has very good chemistry and they have experience dealing with obstacles together too.
“It’s always been our advantage, the last couple of years,” DeRozan told Raptors.com when asked about the team’s continuity. “The camaraderie, knowing the coaching staff, not too much changed. We lean on that a lot.”
In addition to entering his prime, DeRozan believes his offseason training helped him make these significant strides. He tries to expand his game each summer – working out in his hometown of Compton and competing in the famed Drew League, which features quite a few NBA players every year.
“I’m just a student of the game and I work extremely hard in the summer time,” DeRozan said. “I just try to put everything together, be a student of the game. [I’m] always feeling like I’m new to the game, so I can soak up as much as possible. I try to release it once I get out there on the court.”
While this is obviously a small sample size, it’s promising for Toronto since they went all-in on DeRozan over the offseason. If he can permanently shed the inefficient, volume-scorer label that has been attached to him in recent years, we could see him make the leap from All-Star to superstar at some point in the near future– while also making the Raptors a much scarier contender.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN