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DeMar DeRozan Producing Superstar-Caliber Numbers

DeMar DeRozan is playing the best basketball of his career and carrying the Toronto Raptors.

Alex Kennedy

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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.

demarderozan_insideonly1Because 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.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte

No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.

Chad Smith

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Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.

Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.

But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.

While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.

With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.

Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.

The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.

Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.

Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.

As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.

The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.

Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.

The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.

He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.

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NBA

NBA Standout Player Watch – Jan. 26

Basketball Insiders releases its first standout player watch of the year for the Eastern Conference. Tristan Tucker highlights some of the players that have shown out but are still vastly underrated.

Tristan Tucker

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This season, the All-Star game will not be played, though players will still be able to receive the honor and go down in the record books all the same. While players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and many more are surefire All-Stars, Basketball Insiders wants to give credit to some of the players that are being overlooked around the league.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at Basketball Insiders’ first edition of its standout player watch from the Eastern Conference, in no particular order.

Jerami Grant

When the Detroit Pistons signed Grant, someone that averages 9.8 points across his career, to a three year, $60 million deal in the offseason, everyone around the NBA raised their eyebrows. It was then reported that the Denver Nuggets offered the same deal to try and keep Grant, but he took on a role that would see him be the feature offensive piece in Detroit.

That move has completely paid off and Grant is having a year that almost no one, other than himself, could have expected. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and .9 steals per game, all career highs.

Grant is also having his most efficient season beyond the arc, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 6.9 attempts per game, a fairly high number.

The Pistons are bad, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but Grant alongside other pleasant surprises in Josh Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Saddiq Bey have made the team enjoyable to watch. Grant is playing like a legitimate superstar and should be named to the All-Star team this year, in whatever form that may take.

Zach LaVine

Over the last three seasons, LaVine has continued to improve and this season is no different. Despite averaging 23.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.3 percent shooting from the floor and 37.4 percent from deep across his Chicago Bulls career, LaVine has yet to make an All-Star team.

Perhaps that will all change this season, as LaVine is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, plus close to a 50/40/90 split. The Bulls are decent this season, currently at 7-9, but for LaVine to be an All-Star lock, they’ll likely need to be in playoff position at the time of All-Star selections.

Jaylen Brown

Brown appeared on Basketball Insiders’ week one MVP ladder, and that was no mistake. There’s a reason Brown was never included in any potential James Harden trade chatter, no matter how much the Houston Rockets may have wanted him – and that’s because he’s the real deal.

This season, Brown is the seventh-leading scorer in the league and is putting up an astounding 27.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting 43 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts per game.

The Boston Celtics haven’t been at full strength for much of the season, without Jayson Tatum as he deals with a case of COVID-19, but Brown has his franchise among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference nonetheless.

Julius Randle

Randle had a season to forget last year after signing with the New York Knicks on a three-year, $62 million contract in the summer of 2019, as he took a dip in scoring and efficiency across the board from his breakout season the year before with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Something changed in the 6-foot-8 power forward over the offseason, as he is having a career year with the Knicks and has the team firmly in the playoff picture with an 8-10 record. The main difference in Randle’s game has been his shift in playstyle, transitioning to a playmaking big instead of someone that’s primarily an undersized low post threat.

Randle is averaging career highs in multiple statistical categories, up to 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.

Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic is criminally underrated year after year and this season is more of the same. One of the only reasons the Orlando Magic is able to remain competitive in the face of huge injuries to key players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu is the play of Vucevic.

Vucevic has been giving it his all this season, putting up a career-high in points per game with 23.2 and has put in the work necessary to improve his long-range game. He’s shooting 42.6 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game, by far and away the best deep shooting performance of his career.

While Vucevic has been named to an All-Star team before, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the best bigs in the league, a narrative that he’s doing his all to change.

Domantas Sabonis/Malcolm Brogdon/Myles Turner

So many players have been playing stellar ball for the Indiana Pacers that it was impossible to narrow this selection down to just one.

Sabonis has downright played his way into the MVP conversation, notching a double-double in every single game he’s appeared in this season. Sabonis was an All-Star last year, and his play has continued to improve as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.

Brogdon has also played his way into the MVP race, having been included in Basketball Reference’s ladder in the first month alongside Sabonis. It’s not hard to see why as he’s averaging what is by far a career-high 21.9 points with 7.1 assists on 39.5 percent shooting from deep on 7.1 attempts per game. Brogdon has also improved his on-ball defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game, a career-high.

Meanwhile, Turner may just be the most overlooked of them all, as he’s the heart and soul of this Indiana defense. Turner should be firmly in the lead for the Defensive Player of the Year award, as he’s holding opponents to shoot below league average and has averaged a whopping 4.1 blocks per game.

Honorable mentions: De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward

It was hard to narrow this list down in the first place, with so many notable performances coming out of the Eastern Conference on a nightly basis. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are showing out for the Toronto Raptors and are helping that team back into the playoff picture, Shake Milton looks like one of the best guards in the conference while Tobias Harris is revitalizing his career under Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers.

However, our honorable mentions this week are De’Andre Hunter and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are playing at a near All-Star level.

Hunter made the jump into a lead wing for the Atlanta Hawks after a promising first season and is up to 17.4 points per game, upping his efficiency across the board and fresh off a 33-point performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Charlotte Hornets’ signing of Hayward to a huge deal was widely panned across the league but the Hornets were always going to have to empty their pockets to get a player of his caliber. Hayward is averaging 24.1 points per game and is eerily close to a 50/40/90 shooting split. Hayward, alongside teammate Terry Rozier, have the Hornets in contention for a playoff spot, with both players playing at extremely high levels.

With so many outstanding players in the league, this list will be sure to change on a weekly basis. Be sure to check back at Basketball Insiders to see which players continue to shine!

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NBA

What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4

What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.

But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.

The New Look Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers.  The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.

But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?

You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.

Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.

Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.

Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT

In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.

The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.

But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.

Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.

If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.

The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes 

Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is  8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.

That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.

Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.

No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.

It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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