If it were up to the Toronto Raptors, DeMar DeRozan would be a legitimate candidate for the Most Valuable Player award this season. Talk to people outside of the Raptors organization and it seems as though DeRozan’s chances at winning the award are pretty slim at the moment.
What seems to be low odds for DeRozan can almost certainly be attributed in part to the unprecedented play by Russell Westbrook so far this season. After all, Westbrook is the only player to average a triple-double this late in the season since Oscar Robertson did it during the 1961-62 season.
Of course, it’s still early in the season and there is a lot of basketball left to be played, so things can change rather quickly. Regardless of how well Westbrook is playing, DeRozan’s run to this point can’t be ignored. He’s currently third in the league in scoring at 28.4 points per game, and was the first player since Michael Jordan in 1986 to start a season scoring at least 30 points in five consecutive games. He was named today as the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week for games played Monday, Dec. 12 through Sunday, Dec. 18. He led the Raptors to a 3-1 record last week, averaging a league-high 31.5 points on 60.5 percent shooting from the field. It’s the second time this season he has been named Player of the Week.
“[His start] is super impressive,” teammate Kyle Lowry told Basketball Insiders. “This is a guy who has worked on his game and continues to get better every single year. I know he’s not satisfied with being a regular player. He wants to be great so I know he’s going to push himself every single night. He’s a hell of a player at the end of the day.”
DeRozan is in his eighth season in the NBA and is having his best season to date. His averages of 28.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.2 steals are all career-highs. His points per game have improved from 23.5 points last season to 28.4 points this season and his rebounds are up from 4.5 to 5.2.
Perhaps the most impressive part of his career year is where he’s scoring his points from. He’s shooting only 28.5 percent from three-point range, but has attempted only 45 three-pointers. The majority of his scoring has come inside the three-point line, where he’s shooting 50.6 percent.
DeRozan became the first player in franchise history to score 40 points on opening night. That performance was also notable because he was the first player in the NBA since Kobe Bryant in 2012 to score 40 points without a three-pointer. He has scored at least 30 points in four straight games now and recorded 31 points last night against the Orlando Magic while sitting out for the entire fourth quarter. His 31-point outing last night was his 15th game with at least 30 points. He had 14 all of last season.
What’s been different for DeRozan this season?
“One thing is just his maturity,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “The game is slower for him now. He’s taking what the game is giving. His teammates are doing a good job of getting him open. The offensive spacing has been good to allow him to get open. He’s playing through contact. He’s creating contact. He’s gotten stronger in his body. All of those things together have helped him. His confidence level of playing with the Olympic team this summer [is also higher].”
“I just always try to get better every year,” DeRozan said. “That’s just my main goal – be better than the year previously.”
DeRozan has been a key part of the Raptors’ success this season. The team is currently second in the Eastern Conference, just one game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They have won 11 out of their last 13 games and are flat-out scoring a lot of points. In fact, the Raptors are scoring at a record pace the NBA hasn’t seen before.
As our own Ben Dowsett noted last week, the Raptors are on pace to have the best offensive rating in NBA history. According to Basketball Reference, the Raptors are currently scoring an estimated 118.97 points per 100 possessions. That number would be the best in NBA history. In addition, the team ranks second in field-goal percentage, third in three-point percentage and are committing the second-fewest turnovers.
“We’re just playing together having fun,” Terrence Ross told Basketball Insiders. “We don’t care about who is scoring the most. We just play together and we’re really just sharing the ball. When that happens, we reap the benefits of winning I guess that’s what happens.”
Given that the Raptors seem destined to flirt with having one of the best offenses of all time, it seems reasonable to think that DeRozan will hang around in the MVP discussion. While it remains to be seen what sort of odds he has to ultimately win the award, he has elevated himself to a status as one of the best players in the league.
The improvements DeRozan has made over the years are tremendous. His production has improved in each season, and it’s clear he’s miles ahead of where he is now compared to when he first came into the league. What also helps DeRozan manufacture points is his ability to get to the free throw line. He currently ranks sixth in the league in free throw attempts per game.
“It’s fun [to watch him],” Ross said. “It’s historic. You don’t see too many guys playing at that high of a level as he’s playing. To see him doing it night in and night out, it’s really impressive. It’s fun to watch. I enjoy it. I kind of get lost in being a fan because he’s so good at what he does. It’s amazing. He’s an integral part of our team that we rely on. He’s really one of the best players in this league so he should definitely be looked at as an MVP candidate.”
DeRozan is also making an impact for the Raptors off of the court as well. While the Raptors have several veterans on the team in DeRozan, Lowry, Ross and DeMarre Carroll among others, they also have a couple of rookies in Jakob Poeltl and Fred VanVleet that look up to those players and see how they handle the game.
“DeMar is DeMar,” VanVleet said. “Being able to play with him and a guy that’s that great, he could easily be shaking his head or waving me off if I make a bad play. He’s just embracing and very supportive. I think those guys have been through it so they kind of feel where I’m at.
“He’s one of the top talents in the league. It’s fun to watch him. Any time I get my chance in practice I’m trying to get up under him and try to play defense on him just to groove my game. You want to play against the best.”
While Westbrook may be stealing all of the headlines early this season, DeRozan has been putting together quite a year as well. Heading into the season, he wasn’t being mentioned as one of the best players in the league, but he has elevated his game and is proving he belongs in the same conversation as all of the other top players.
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