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NBA Saturday: DeMar DeRozan Now a Multifaceted Player

DeMar DeRozan has improved his game significantly and will have plenty of interest this upcoming offseason.

Jesse Blancarte

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DeMar DeRozan Now a Multifaceted Player

Toronto Raptors teammates DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were recently named the co-Eastern Conference Players of the Month for January. Over 14 games played in January, DeRozan averaged 23.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists and one steal, while shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from beyond the arc. He also recorded eight straight games with 20 or more points, scored 30 points or more three games in a row and had a season-high 35 points against the Washington Wizards on January 8.

With an impressive January and what has so far been his best individual season, DeRozan was selected to be an Eastern Conference All-Star for just the second time in his seven-year career. Making the All-Star team in the East speaks volumes about how well DeRozan is playing when you consider that players like Kemba Walker, Reggie Jackson and Khris Middleton, all of whom are having great seasons, didn’t make the cut.

The evolution of DeRozan’s game this season has been impressive and multifaceted. DeRozan has always been a gifted athlete and effective scorer, but has had some significant limitations in his game. The biggest limitation for DeRozan has been his inability to shoot from three-point range consistently. In the pace-and-space era of the NBA, most starting shooting guards are at least a threat to hit the occasional three-pointer. However, DeRozan is a career 27.7 percent three-point shooter, though that number is up to 31.9 percent this season. Lacking a three-point shot can be debilitating for a shooting guard in today’s NBA, but DeRozan has improved his overall offensive game to the point that it almost doesn’t matter.

One of the first things that has to be addressed when discussing DeRozan’s game this year is his ability to drive to the rim off the dribble. DeRozan leads the league in drives to the rim per game at 11.8. Specifically, DeRozan has shown major improvements in his ability to go off the dribble and attack defenses working out of pick-and-rolls, which many of the league’s best 3-and-D shooting guards are incapable of doing. DeRozan has been the ball handler in 361 pick-and-roll sets this season, which is the 11th most in the league and five more than even Lowry. DeRozan trails only the most ball dominant point guards in the league like Reggie Jackson, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Isaiah Thomas. The only shooting guard DeRozan falls behind in this category is C.J. McCollum, who plays the point guard position frequently. He is also ahead of other notable shooting guards like James Harden and Dwyane Wade, both of whom handle the ball like quasi-point guards.

More importantly than how often DeRozan is the ball handler in pick-and-roll sets is how effective he is. DeRozan is generating .99 points per possession, which is the seventh highest mark in the league (among all players who have been the ball-handler in 30 or more pick-and-roll sets this season) and places him in the 94th percentile. In these three clips, we see how DeRozan has learned how to use picks in various ways to attack the rim. In the first clip, DeRozan passes up on the pick and takes the open lane to the rim. Two defenders converge, but DeRozan is able to split through them and finish at the rim while drawing a foul. In the second, he uses the pick to sneak into the lane, where he patiently uses a pump fake and step through to get an easy layup. In the third clip, DeRozan loses his man on the pick and goes straight into Meyers Leonard, probably expecting to get two free throws.

 

DeRozan had shown flashes of his ability to attack the rim out of the pick-and-roll in past seasons, but not this consistently or effectively. He is more patient as a ball-handler and takes what defenses give him. When he can’t make a clean drive all the way to the rim, he often will pull up for a midrange jumper – a shot he has gotten quite good at making.

 

 

Now that DeRozan can consistently get into the lane, he is bending defenses with his midrange jumper more than ever. The common thought is that midrange jumpers are inefficient and should be taken in small doses. But when a player can knock down shots from that range at a high rate, it forces defense to adjust since most modern defenses are geared towards contesting three-pointers and shots at the rim. As we can see in this shot chart below, DeRozan is taking a lot of shots in the midrange areas. He is shooting roughly league average or higher in most of these areas, but is shooting particularly well at the free throw line area, which is where he often ends up out of the pick-and-roll.

 

 

DeRozan’s improved driving abilities are also helping him get to the free throw line a staggering 8.2 times per game, which is another career high. In fact, DeRozan has taken 412 free throws total this season, which is third most overall in the league. Only James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins have taken more free throws this season. Getting to the free throw line consistently is one of the easiest ways to score points and DeRozan is converting an efficient 83.7 percent of his free throw attempts – another career high.

Additionally, DeRozan has been effective in the post this season, which is another offensive skill that sets him apart from most other shooting guards. DeRozan is in the 69th percentile in scoring efficiency of all players that have posted up 60 times or more this season. This places him ahead of notable post players like Thaddeus Young, Chris Bosh, Greg Monroe, Karl Anthony-Towns, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin and Jahlil Okafor.

 

 

While DeRozan had Aaron Brooks defending him in this particular play, it is encouraging to see DeRozan looking for the ball when he has such a huge advantage to exploit. DeRozan shouldn’t have let Brooks push him so far away from the basket, but DeRozan showed patience, backed Brooks down and used solid footwork to get the bucket and foul.

While DeRozan’s expanded ability to score is encouraging, his improved skills as a passer are perhaps even more significant. DeRozan has never been the best passer at shooting guard, but has shown some skill in that area in recent years. However, this season, DeRozan is actively looking for teammates cutting to the basket, which is leading to easy points.

 

 

DeRozan is also running coast-to-coast off of defensive rebounds, drawing the defense towards him and then dumping the ball off to teammates for open shots.

 

 

DeRozan is also capable of playing off of the ball, running through screens and cutting to the basket as Lowry runs the offense. Combine his scoring and passing skills out of the pick-and-roll, his ability to score in the post and his constant off-ball movement, and we can see why several teams will reportedly line up to sign DeRozan to a max-level offer this offseason.

At age 26, DeRozan is in his physical prime and has shown the kind of growth that only comes through discipline and hard work. He has turned himself from an inefficient volume scorer into a dynamic, efficient shooting guard who can play quasi-point guard. DeRozan insists that he is comfortable shooting three-pointers and will continue working on that to round out his offensive game. If and when he does so, he will truly be one of the most difficult covers in all of basketball. However, as physically talented as DeRozan is, he is at best an average defensive player and probably worse when you consider that he is often given easier assignments – especially when DeMarre Carroll is healthy. DeRozan could improve in this regard, though it’s not clear just how much he will moving forward.

Some teams that could use a top-level talent like DeRozan at shooting guard this offseason, and who could have at least one max free agent slot, are the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers and the Sacramento Kings. That list of teams could change somewhat after the Feb. 18 trade deadline, but what is certain is that multiple teams will take a run at DeRozan. However, the most likely scenario is he stays with the Raptors, where he has developed a strong chemistry with Lowry and where the team’s offense has been tailored to maximize his strengths.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA

David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.

David Yapkowitz

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Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.

But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.

“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”

Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.

He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.

VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.

Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.

“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”

VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.

Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.

“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”

The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.

Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.

“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”

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G-League

NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard

On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.

Dennis Chambers

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Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.

In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.

Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.

Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.

Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.

Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.

For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.

“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”

Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.

Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.

“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”

After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.

During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.

Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.

For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.

“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”

New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.

On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.

After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.

Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.

“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game,  more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”

It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.

“I know it’s coming,” he said.

When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.

“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”

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NBA

NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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