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.
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