In changing NBA, DeRozan thrives on two-point shooting to remain a star

San Antonio Spurs' DeMar DeRozan drives to the hoop while Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry attempts to guard during an NBA regular season game on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. (Alex D'Addese/Sportsnet)

DeMar DeRozan isn’t young anymore.

He has always been an old soul, virtually since the moment the Raptors drafted him as a mature-beyond-his years 19-year-old out of the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles native made it sound like he couldn’t be happier starting his career in a cold place far from home.

No one really believed him, but DeRozan shut everyone up the hard way, with year after year of unwavering commitment to the Raptors and the city.

It was the early reveal of DeRozan’s throwback character where he showed himself as someone who says what he means, means what he says and isn’t afraid of being putting himself out there and being a little different.

Toronto loves him for it, even though the Raptors felt they had to trade him to the San Antonio Spurs to win an NBA title. DeRozan became the first returning Raptor to be recognized with video tributes in consecutive seasons.

“I don’t know no one who gets two tributes in a row,” he said. “Find somebody else to do that (for). No, it’s awesome. The people who worked here who I have a relationship with and who have seen me since I was a kid, it’s amazing to be able to get that much recognition over and over. It never gets old.”

But time flies. All of a sudden DeRozan’s an 11-year veteran who’s sensitive about his birthdays.

“Don’t age me,” he said when I mistakenly referred to him as being 31, instead of 30.

The calendar is relevant because even as the Spurs star returns to Toronto for just the second time as a visitor, it’s hard not to wonder when we’ll see his like again with the Raptors or anywhere else.

Not just his off-court sincerity – there has never been any question, guys like DeRozan are rare – but his on-court game, too.

He arrived in Toronto on Sunday playing some of the very best basketball of his career – which is saying something given he’s one of only nine players since the 2013-14 season to average at least 20 points, four rebounds and four assists over the last seven seasons and counting. It’s elite company – five of the others are former NBA MVPs.

DeRozan was at it again on his old stomping grounds and he cruised to 25 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals while shooting 7-of-12 from the floor in the Spurs’ come-from-behind 105-104 win. He had 22 points in the second half after he unravelled an aggressive trapping scheme the Raptors used on him early. And no, he did not attempt a three pointer.

The former Raptor has been scorching since the Spurs decided to join the modern NBA and unleash their starting centre, LaMarcus Aldridge, as a three-point shooting threat. He took six last night and has already made more triples this year than any season of his career. DeRozan has been virtually unstoppable with more room to operate inside the arc than ever.

DeRozan set a Spurs franchise record by becoming the first to score at least 20 points on 50 per cent shooting for 10 straight games and then extended it Sunday night.

His efficiency has been other-worldly over the same stretch as he’s averaging 27.2 points and 5.7 assist on 64 per cent shooting. And – of course – he’s done it by making a mockery of the NBA’s rush to value the three-point shot over almost everything else. He’s averaging 10 made two-point field goals a game over that stretch while doubling down on his commitment to not taking threes.

The NBA’s three-point rate has skyrocketed since his first all-star season in 2013-14 when the league average was 21.7 a game. Teams are taking 33.7 a game on average so far this season yet DeRozan’s three-point rate has been plummeting over the same period, from a career-high 2.7 a game in 13-14 to a career-low 0.2 a game this year.

The whole NBA has been zigging, and DeRozan chose to zag.

DeRozan says his evolutionary regression has been just him drilling down to essence of what makes him his best.

“I always try to analyze myself as much as I can when things are going good and especially when things are going bad. I just always try to analyze myself and figure out what I could’ve did to be better,” he said before he was greeted with a pair of extended standing ovations from the crowd that watched him for nine seasons – first when he was introduced before the game and then during the first-quarter scoreboard tribute to the Raptors all-time leading scorer.

“And I’m just a fan of basketball. I always watch games where I can steal a move, wonder why a certain guy can get the free-throw line a certain amount of times or get a certain shot off, or whatever it may be. It’s small things like that that I try to figure out.”

He’s a craftsman. You can see it in the footwork that allows him to always be in balance as he twists and turns through the paint, and in his growth as a passer such as the timely rope he threw Marco Belinelli leading to the triple that gave the Spurs a 103-101 lead with 28 seconds to play as the Spurs used a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter to pull out the unlikely win. Raptors fans can see it in Pascal Siakam’s blossoming game, whose blend of spins and fakes looks awfully familiar.

“He stole all my counters,” said DeRozan before showering praise on his old teammate.

“Pascal was one person who worked his ass off every single day. I can attest to that, I seen it,” said DeRozan. “He went down to the G-League, played extremely hard, like he wanted it. He started for us the majority of his rookie year and he was completely raw and to be able see where he’s at now, definitely will be an all-star. It’s an honour to see a guy like that grow – coming into the league and being one of the best players at his position now.”

But DeRozan got the better of his protégé down the stretch, even guarding him successfully on a couple of key possessions late as Siakam showed some rust in his first game back after an 11-game absence with a groin pull.

“I was just trying to throw anything at him to try and make it difficult for him, and pray,” was DeRozan’s breakdown of his defensive approach.

DeRozan stayed in character against the Raptors, jab-stepping, spinning and faking his way to easy buckets and 14 trips to the free-throw line. He also reached back in time for an absolutely devastating dunk on the Raptors’ Chris Boucher that came out of nowhere and left the crowd at Scotiabank Arena buzzing. As a bonus it was DeRozan who forced a Siakam miss in the final seconds, drew a foul and iced the win at the line with 9.3 seconds left.

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It was proof that DeRozan can still bring it. He even got a technical, for what, we’re not sure. Dunking too hard, maybe? When he landed on Boucher he stared at him for a split second when he untangled himself. Maybe that was it.

“I played against [Boucher] this summer in the gym and I didn’t know who he was [but] he was blocking every shot so I told myself, once I seen him down there, I was going to go to the basket, be aggressive and at least try to get fouled and I did and dunked it.”

Was it the weakest technical of your career?

“Yes. Yes [it was],” he said. “I’m surprised. I’m calling the players’ association tonight.”

But even though DeRozan is still able to fold younger rivals into the rim when the occasion calls for it, the NBA waits for no man — even one as durable as DeRozan, who in the load management era still churns out 79-game seasons like clockwork.

He’s got decisions to make as a potential free agent. He has a player option worth $27.7 million he can pick up from the Spurs for next season. He also needs to gauge where whether San Antonio wants to sign him to four-year extension that could be worth up $150 million, but the early word is the Spurs may be hesitant to tie themselves to DeRozan through age 35.

Will DeRozan hit the market looking to be “the man” somewhere? Or will he look to attach himself to a championship contender looking for his scoring and playmaking but in a less featured (read: cheaper) role.

It will be fascinating to watch, and it raises the possibility that “peak” DeRozan – his time as the go-to scorer on a playoff team — could be coming to an end.

If and when that happens, the reality is there may never be another like him. A franchise wing scorer without shooting threes? It’s like someone making a living pounding out horseshoes on an anvil. That time has gone.

He says younger players ask him about his trade secrets over the course of games, young guns paying tribute.

“I get that but I’m like, ‘Damn, am I that old?’” he said. “But it’s been a few young guys that in the middle of the game or watching film they ask me if they can work out with me in the summer for the first time. And I was like, ‘Sure, get in contact with me.’ But it’s cool to be recognized like that here … that’s the beauty about sports, to be able to inspire the younger generation, and I just hope I’m one of those guys that can inspire any type of guy to master [my style] or even be better at.”

But it’s hard to imagine anyone committing so fully to DeRozan’s determination to operate inside the three-point line, finding creases to squeeze to the rim, getting defenders off their feet or simply pulling up in traffic as well as he has.

It’s an art lost to the relentless math of the three-point shot.

The league has fallen in line.

That’s never been DeRozan’s thing. In basketball and in all things he’s been his own man.

But here in Toronto, we knew that from the beginning and saw it again Sunday night.

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