Raptors benefit as DeRozan delivers on vow to evolve as a playmaker

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan says he knows he can score, but he’s having a lot more fun setting up his teammates.

It almost gets old, trying to explain DeMar DeRozan to the world.

At a certain point the greater NBA community, both here and around the league’s biosphere of fans and media, decided what kind of player he was, put him in that box, and have largely refused to open the lid.

The convenient label would be: “One dimensional scorer.” It was slapped on him sometime around his fourth or fifth year in the league, on top of the slightly pejorative earlier label of “athlete” – which implied he had the tools but not necessarily the tool box to reach the ceiling his physical abilities would indicate he had.

That’s how you get ranked as the 36th best player in the NBA on Sports Illustrated’s top-100 list while coming off your first all-NBA selection. It’s an improvement on last season’s 46 but still not in the air DeRozan believes himself to be breathing. DeRozan, to his credit, has never pretended to be unaware of the slights— “F SI …#ProveEm” was his tweet when this year’s rankings came out.

His ninth NBA season is still young, but it would be hard to argue that DeRozan, 28, doesn’t deserve to bumped up the rankings a few spots– maybe several– based on his performance to date.

Sure, it would be nice to seem him a bit more rabid defensively, and he’s going to have to do it in the post-season too, but at this point ignoring DeRozan’s progression as an all-round player is getting harder to do.

He was recognized with his sixth Eastern Conference Player of the Week award for his role in helping the Raptors craft a four-game winning streak. It’s hardly a milestone worth getting worked up about, and DeRozan said he didn’t know about it until he saw it on his Instagram feed.

During those four games he posted a line of 26.8 points and 7.3 rebounds on 57.3 per cent shooting, but the interesting number is that he also averaged six assists. He is now averaging 4.6 assists a game on the season, which would be a career high. That he’s doing it while averaging 26.3 points on 48.3 per cent shooting while his usage rate has declined about 10 per cent makes it all the more impressive.

He’s still getting to the line at elite level– he’s third in the league in free throws made per game— and while he’s not Kyle Korver, he is averaging one made three a game, which would be another career high.

But it’s his improving ability to make plays for those around him that jumps out, and bodes well as DeRozan gets into the heart of his prime, where players with true staying power evolve and find ways to continue to thrive even as their athletic ability ebbs ever-so-slightly.

“As far as passing the basketball, making plays, [the] quasi-point guard mentality, he’s done an excellent job and that’s what we need him to do,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, who has coached DeRozan for seven seasons and can easily recall a player who panicked when facing double teams in the post, or was clunky and pre-programmed when teams tried to trap him coming out of pick-and-rolls.

That’s not the case now, as DeRozan trails only Steph Curry and Bradley Beal among players who generate a scoring opportunity as the primary ball-handler in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. His assist rate– he’s assisting on 23.9 per cent of his teammate’s field goals this season after averaging 14.7 per cent for his career to this point— is at all-time high too.

“He’s setting other people up, he’s taking what the game’s giving him,” says Casey. “ And with a dynamic scorer like him, if you have that other facet of the game going, where you’re making plays, seeing other people, it makes you more effective.”

In the course of the Raptors mission to modernize their offense and make it less predictable and more even-handed, DeRozan was approached about taking on added responsibilities as a playmaker. Not only did he say he was open to it, he’s followed through with his actions.

“I think it’s just me being a critic of myself, understanding how I can be better and make everybody around me better,” he said after practice at the BioSteel Centre before the Raptors headed out on three-game Eastern Conference road trip beginning Wednesday night in New York against the Knicks and including a stop in Indianapolis Friday and Atlanta on Saturday. “That’s always been my approach, especially coming into this season. I know I can score, I know I can do this, but I want to make everybody around me even more comfortable. That’s been kinda my mindset and it makes it a lot more fun, especially for me.”

His pass to Fred VanVleet for a game-closing three late in the Raptors win over the Washington Wizards is just the latest example. DeRozan said it wasn’t that he wouldn’t have made the pass previously, interrupting his own drive to the rim; it’s just that he may have hesitated on it. There was no hesitation on Sunday and VanVleet calmly stepped into a wide-open three, a play made possible by the attention DeRozan generates.

Playing the game for the benefit of others is often a by-product of maturity and security. DeRozan is already a three-time all-star and, at the rate he’s going, will own virtually every significant Raptors record by the time he’s done. He’s in the midst of a five-year contract that pays him nearly $30-million a season.

Is he simply ready to grow his game more than he has been in the past?

“I don’t know. It all depends on the type of player you are,” he said. “A lot of guys come in the league natural distributors, a lot of guys come in the league natural scorers. You gotta figure out whatever it is you need to figure out besides your strength to make you a better player. I think for me, over time, just being a student of the game, always figuring out ways to be better, how to get better, you see all these things develop.”

The Raptors have been the beneficiaries. Like DeRozan, recognition will need to be earned in the post-season, but they head out on the road with the Eastern Conference’s second-best record at 11-5 and the NBA’s third most efficient offense (110.4) behind only Golden State and Houston. They stand fourth in the league in net rating (+7.1), which is typically a strong predictor of long-term success.

“I mean, it looks great,” says DeRozan. “We lost some big games that were close that could have went our way easily, one shot, you know? It’s hard to live in the past, but you give us a few of them games and we’re right there with every great team in the league. It’s crazy for us to be sitting in second place right now feeling like we’ve got a long way. We do. And we’re working at it, and we’re not gonna stop ’til we feel like we’re there.”

A big reason for the early-season success has been the steady year-over-year growth of their franchise player, whether it’s widely recognized it or not.