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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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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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