DeRozan silencing critics by continuously improving his game

DeMar DeRozan scored a career-high and franchise-record 52 points as the Toronto Raptors opened the new year with a thrilling 131-127 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in overtime, their 12th win in a row at the Air Canada Centre.

TORONTO — So, maybe DeMar DeRozan is even better than anyone really thought?

Check that. He’s already a lot better than a lot of experts have thought. They’ve been getting him wrong for years.

It’s bit of a tired point to make – anyone who has been watching the Toronto Raptors all-star closely this season and last has known that he’s a better player than either Sports Illustrated or ESPN or anyone else has managed to capture in their player rankings.

But in the wake of DeRozan’s epic 52-point, eight-assist masterpiece against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night it is always instructive to remember how a lot of the NBA looks at the Raptors all-time leading scorer.

Even as a three-time all-star and a third-team all-NBA player last year DeRozan was projected to be the 39th best player in the NBA this season (a drop from 30th a year ago) by ESPN.com, which placed him not only miles behind the game’s true luminaries in the top 10 – the James-Curry-Durant-Harden crowd – but also, inexplicably, behind Myles Turner (36th); Kris Middleton (35th) and Jae Crowder (38th).

Over at Sports Illustrated they had DeRozan at 36 which again put him behind Middleton (35) but well behind the likes of Blake Griffin (22), Gordon Hayward (16) and Paul George (12).

Bit by bit DeRozan has been laying waste to perceptions. His big night may have put an exclamation point on it, but DeRozan has been improving in ever more rapid increments for about 13 months now – remarkable in itself given he’s already in the ninth season of his career, a stage where most of his peers plateau if not began declining.

In a 630-game career, DeRozan’s past 100 or so starts have been significantly better than what came before.

The most noteworthy aspect of DeRozan’s explosion in the Raptors’ overtime win over the Bucks was that it wasn’t an isolated event.

Sure it was the best regular-season performance in Raptors history, at least according to basketball-reference.com’s ‘GameScore’ measure, a single number that captures a player’s overall statistical impact.

DeRozan’s 52 points, eight assists and five rebounds on just 29 shots and against only two turnovers translated into a GameScore of 44.1. The next best on record by a Raptor was Kyle Lowry’s 43-9-4 (with four steals) against the Cleveland Cavaliers two years ago in February. For context there have only been six 40-plus Game Scores ever recorded in the 1,791 games the franchise has ever played.

But more important is that DeRozan is putting up milestone games with increasing frequency.

His second-most statistically dominant game was just two weeks ago when he lit up the Philadelphia 76ers up for a then career-best 45 points on 21 shots and a GameScore of 39. The week before that DeRozan had a GameScore of 28.5 after a 37-point night against Phoenix.

In his career DeRozan has had 10 games with a GameScore of 30 or more, but seven of them have come in his past 106 starts, dating back to last season. By way of comparison, LeBron James has had ‘just’ 13 of the 154 he’s logged in his career in the past season and bit.

Similarly, DeRozan has scored 35 points or better in a game 34 times but 19 times in the past 13 months.

Already very good, DeRozan has become great right beneath our noses.

"His year-to-year growth has been subtle things," said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. "One year it was passing. One year it was handling out of the double team. We’ve been emphasizing the defensive part, and that’s been slower. But it’s still coming. It’s better. Now it’s his three-point shot. Every year it’s been something that’s come back in a subtle way. Nothing ever [mind-blowing] or glaring that’s totally different."

Well, there are a couple of things that stand out. DeRozan’s passing has transitioned from ‘rare’ to ‘when needed’ to ‘competent’ to something close to a weapon seemingly overnight.

In his first seven NBA seasons DeRozan compiled six or more assists about once every 10 games. Last season it was once in every four games; this year it’s one in every three.

Similarly his three-point shooting, long a back-burner project DeRozan would tinker with off the side of his desk, is beginning to look like a sustainable feature of his game that could make him an even more lethal scorer, given how he’s been able to carve up defences inside the arc in recent years.

He’s made at least two threes in 12 games this year compared with doing it seven times all of last season and he seems to have unlocked a level of confidence with the shot and how to integrate it into his game that he never had before. He’s shooting a career-best 34.9 per cent for the season but intriguingly 53.6 per cent for the past seven games while taking 5.4 a game.

"That was my biggest challenge, just understanding that if I do shoot them it won’t take away from the other part of my game," he said Tuesday before the Raptors departed for a three-game road trip through Chicago, Milwaukee and Brooklyn that begins Wednesday. "That’s one thing I was always trying to juggle with the last couple of seasons, trying to show that part but not take away from the other parts of my game. Once I figured that out, obviously, you see now, [I’m] putting it all in play."

Shooting over 40-per-cent from three – the threshold for elite shooters – is almost certainly unsustainable for a someone who came into the season shooting just 28.1 per cent from three for his career, but even being a league-average three-point shooter (about 35 per cent) would make DeRozan more difficult to guard.

The total package puts DeRozan very firmly among the very best players in the NBA, rather than someone barely in the top 40 as the pre-season rankings have had him in recent years. He’s averaging 26.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists since the beginning of last season. There are only six players matching or exceeding those averages and three of them – LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden – have dominated the league MVP chatter.

Could DeRozan nudge his way into those discussions as the crowd at the ACC was wishing as they showered him with ‘MVP’ chants late in DeRozan’s masterpiece against the Bucks?

It’s unlikely given the race for MVP this season looks like it will be focus mainly on Harden and James.

But according to Basketball-Reference’s MVP tracker DeRozan is seventh at the moment and likely nudging higher if his play this past month is any indication. That the Raptors are on pace for a team-record 58 wins would certainly require some recognition.

Where exactly he ends up will be fun to watch as the season plays out, but it will be a long way from 39th.

It’s clear DeRozan is going to make sure of that.