Illustration by Jeffrey Liu.

The rise to prominence of an NBA team often starts with a top rookie—one who promises to take the NBA by storm, one who is capable of dropping 30 points a night from game one. Those who don’t have the luck of nailing down a top overall pick are left to hunt for the scraps, hoping that a player with a low draft stock will pan out to be something special.

DeMar DeRozan, however, experienced a bit of both.

Despite posting respectable stats at the University of Southern California, the 6 foot 7 inches tall athletic guard out of Compton, California has always been somewhat of an underdog. He wasn’t the subject of any potential top five talks. In fact, some projections on draft night even doubted his ability to land in the top ten. Scouts did pick up on his excellent drives and upside, but noted that “it would take multiple years to refine his game to the NBA level.” Perhaps this fear of development issues is what drove scouts away from drafting DeRozan any higher than his draft stock indicated. Who could blame them? After all, this was the draft class that included the human highlight reel Blake Griffin, the baby-faced assassin Stephen Curry, and the bearded monster James Harden, all of whom were drafted in front of DeRozan. Draft night perfectly foreshadowed DeRozan’s entire career: underrated, but never overlooked.

“And with the 9th pick of the 2009 NBA draft, the Toronto Raptors select, out of USC, DeMar DeRozan.” With that phrase came the winds of change. Everyone knew these winds would be turbulent, but not even Toronto could anticipate the hurricane of frustration, disappointment, and heartache that would come with their 20-year-old rookie.

DeRozan was never regarded as the sole answer to the Raptor playoff puzzle. He was always the side piece, the complementary player to the star. He would be feeding off the shots that were created by Chris Bosh. Yet with all the open shots he got off of Bosh, DeRozan just never seemed comfortable playing in a system where he was the second option. Toronto’s uncertainty with DeRozan carrying the offense was highlighted when Bosh left the team in free agency. Instead of letting DeRozan play to his full potential, the Raptors chose to acquire two other players who demanded attention in Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay. Management didn’t care to develop DeRozan’s uncanny ability to create his own shot. His growth stagnated to the point where he became just a catch-and-shoot option with a mediocre shot.

For three and a half years, DeRozan sat in the back seat, never getting the chance to prove himself. His time to shine came in early December of 2013, and he never looked back.

On December 8, 2013, it was announced that Rudy Gay had been traded to the Sacramento Kings, in a monster seven-player deal that sent shock waves throughout the NBA. Toronto had admitted that their Rudy Gay experiment didn’t work out. Everyone who followed the league believed that the Raptors had just tanked their season. After all, who could trust a 25-year-old to drive a team into the playoffs? Certainly not the 2013-14 Raptors, a team with zero combined all-star appearances.

DeRozan, however, had other plans. He showed the league that the Raptors were three seasons too late in giving him the keys to the team. The team went 42-22 after the departure of Rudy Gay, winning their division and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in six years. Things were looking bright for the Raptors and their talented backcourt. After all, they had just taken an inexperienced team to a seven-game thriller with the battle-tested Brooklyn Nets. The sky was the limit for Toronto.

Yet, the clouds of doubt were looming large in just the next year, when the Raptors were swept by the Wizards in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Critics mocked DeRozan for being the one-dimensional scorer that he is. “He has no threat to shoot,” they claimed, “His style of play will never take him past the first round.”

And yet here we are. One year ago, the Raptors were Eastern Conference finalists, losing to the eventual champions LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, coming up just two games short. In a league dominated by the three-point bomb, how does DeRozan even exist? After all, “every shot he shoots is a bad shot” [1]. His game will never allow him to exist in a free-flow offense like Golden State. His shooting form will never let him have a shot like Klay Thompson. His body will never let him become the freight train that LeBron James is. But if you gave any Raptors fan the choice of any shooting guard in the game, in a do-or-die game seven in the NBA finals, they would, without a doubt, pick DeRozan. That’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? DeRozan is and will continue to be one of the most deadly and efficient scorers the NBA has ever seen, yet no one outside of the city of Toronto will ever realize it. His impact on the court can’t be defined by regular statistics, but a deeper look at his analytics reveals how crucial he is to the Raptors’ success.


DeMar DeRozan’s shot chart for the 2016-17 season (up to Dec. 1), which visualizes the location of every shot he has taken this season. Graphic by Varun Venkataramanan.

DeRozan’s shooting habits are somewhat of an enigma: he seems to only take shots from midrange and in, which makes it extremely hard to find a good benchmark when assessing his potential. His charts are completely different from that of typical shooting guards like Klay Thompson or even Jimmy Butler. Thompson, like many other two-guards, presents himself as a sharpshooter and has a shot distribution that is completely opposite to that of the Raptors’ star. Even Jimmy Butler, who shares DeRozan’s midrange game, takes and makes many more three pointers than the Raptors’ guard. DeRozan’s shot selection is almost unseen in today’s NBA, as he takes almost no threes, relying on his skill off the dribble to create space for himself in the midrange. There are very few players who share his unique skillset, the most notable being the twelve-time all-star Dwyane Wade.

Graphic comparing DeMar DeRozan’s shot distribution to Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, and Klay Thompson. Graphic by Varun Venkataramanan.

Looking at Wade’s shot charts from last year, he took many of his shots from just within the three point-line, but rarely attempted any three-pointers. This is nearly identical to DeRozan’s shot charts from this year. Most of his baskets come directly at the basket or in the midrange part of the court. His lack of three-point proficiency is stressed, as the only behind-the-arc shots he takes are the efficient mid-arc or corner three. However, it is interesting to note that DeMar’s shots are more concentrated in the mid-range, rather than at the basket. This shows that he is either much more confident in his pull up jump shots, or the drive lane is often cut off, forcing him to shoot. Either way, even without developing a three-point shot, the floor of DeRozan’s potential is prime Dwyane Wade, not bad for an unknown 9th pick out of USC.

Another interesting data point is DeRozan’s ineptitude to score an open three. Since he takes very few threes, those three-pointers should be wide open, and he is expected to score those few threes at a high percentage. However, that is not the case.

DeRozan’s field goal distribution compared to Klay Thompson and the league average. Graphic by Varun Venkataramanan.

DeRozan’s breakdown of field goal percentage by distance (red) shows his insane ability to hit the midrange shot compared to league average (blue) and lethal sharpshooter Klay Thompson (yellow). It also reveals a severe drop off in his shooting ability past 20 feet. While all players, including Klay Thompson, see a drop in percentage, it is not nearly as steep as the Raptors’ guard. Even given open three-pointers, DeRozan hasn’t shown the ability to knock them down on a consistent basis. So why exactly is he such a good player?  

Perhaps the lack of a three-point shot is what makes him so special. Other shooting guards have the benefit of the doubt: their ability to hit a contested three forces the opponent to chase them off the line, which allows guards like Klay Thompson to find easy drive opportunities. When DeRozan gets the ball at the arc, his choice is almost always to drive, regardless of the defense. Coaches know it, players know it, everyone knows it. Critics pointed out that, as long as he was a one-dimensional scorer, DeRozan could never be the focal point of an offense. And for 6 years, that statement held true, as Chris Bosh, Rudy Gay, and Kyle Lowry all had the versatility to adapt to the game plan, something the Raptors’ star could never have.

Or so we thought.

After a summer stint with USA basketball, something inside DeRozan popped. His dribble penetration no longer ends in low-percentage fade aways. He has taken his explosiveness to a whole new level, blowing by defenders without breaking a sweat. That brain dead process of sagging off? It doesn’t work anymore. Instead, he has given himself the benefit of the doubt. The defender isn’t sagging? Easy lay-up for two. Sagging just a bit? I’ll still blow by you. Sagging too much? I’ll pull up. DeRozan might not have the three-point shot, but his midrange game is as close as you can get to a sure thing. Mind you, he does this while having the body frame of a lanky 6 foot 7 inches tall guard. Sure, he’s athletic, but he’s not the freakishly fast John Wall, or the human battering ram LeBron James. He doesn’t take the classical power approach to a drive. No, his game is different. His skill and finesse allow him to transform the drive and the frowned-upon midrange shot into an artistic masterpiece.

A GIF highlighting DeRozan’s ability to facilitate an offense (November 23, 2016 at Houston Rockets). GIF by Julien Lin.

FiveThirtyEight noted how there is no quantitative way to assess the impact a pure scorer can have on the floor [2]. While that may be true, a close analysis of a game clearly proves how essential DeRozan is to the Raptors game plan. His drives are catalysts for the Raptors’ movement off the ball. He draws an extra help defender, allowing their other shooters (namely DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson) to find open spots along the arc.

This sequence was on full display in their early season game against the Houston Rockets. DeRozan (who handles the ball) draws an extra defender over from the weak side, allowing DeMarre Carroll to glide towards the corner for an easy three. If DeRozan had a laser three-point shot, he would have passed up the drive and gone for a semi-open three pointer at the top of the arc, resulting in an offense that is inefficient and stagnant. Instead, Carroll gets an easy three and Jonas Valanciunas gets into position for a post play if Harden had closed out well on Carroll. Similarly, the extra time and pass allowed Valanciunas to move closer to the basket, putting him in prime real estate for an offensive rebound. The fluidity of the play created a variety of different options for the Raptors, allowing for a much more versatile offense in the Raptors playbook.

This style of play, however, does require DeRozan to notice the open man off the dribble, something he lacked during previous years. In the 2014 playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, he was often seen keeping the ball for an isolation play (where he goes one-on-one with the defender), rather than dishing it to the open Jonas Valanciunas near the hoop, a progression highlighted below.

A GIF highlighting DeRozan’s reluctance to pass in important situations (May 4, 2014 vs Brooklyn Nets). GIF by Julien Lin.

DeRozan has evolved his offensive arsenal past his iso-only play style, emphasized by his 5.6 assists per 100 possessions, the highest in his young NBA career. His willingness to facilitate allows him to pass up contested shots and clogged lanes, leading to easier shots. Essentially, it enabled him to become one of the most efficient scorers in the league. As of December, DeRozan has a shooting percentage of above 50%, smashing his numbers from previous seasons.

DeMar DeRozan’s field goal percentage every season since he joined the league. Graphic by Varun Venkataramanan.

It’s not just personal numbers either; his success inevitably trickles down to the rest of the Raptors as well. The top 5-man combinations for the Raptors in terms of plus/minus all contain the Raptors’ two-guard, surrounded by catch and shoot players. A prime example would be the combination of Lowry/DeRozan/Carroll/Patterson/Valanciunas, who have played around 84 minutes together on the floor. Their net plus/minus per 100 possessions is a whopping +36.2, meaning that they score 36 more points than their opponents when they are on the floor. It’s not hard to see the impact that DeMar has on his teammates. He opens up the floor, allowing Carroll, Lowry, and Patterson to lurk at the arc, and enabling Valanciunas to take full advantage, fading into his comfort zone near the basket after setting the screen to free up DeRozan.

On the other hand, once you take away those catch-and-shoot threats, DeMar’s game becomes less effective. The combination of Lowry/DeRozan/Norman Powell/Pascal Siakam/Valanciunas only managed to gain a plus/minus of +6.4 per 100 possessions in 64 minutes played. By limiting the amount of targets that DeMar has on the floor, you also limit the impact he can make when looking for the open man. Non-shooting threats, like Siakam and Powell, essentially create a logjam in the lane, the opposite of what you want in terms of floor spacing.

DeRozan has also been taking extremely effective shots. A good indicator is his high Player Efficiency Rating (PER), which takes into account all the positives and negatives that a player contributes on a court per minute, including points, assists, and rebounds. As of December 18, DeMar has a PER of 27.00, the third highest among shooting guards and eleventh highest in the league. While it may not seem impressive, keep in mind that he doesn’t take any threes. When calculating PER, threes pointers are valued much higher than a long two, which is one of DeRozan’s most common shots. Yet, without the added bonuses of a three-point-arc, he has put up better efficiency ratings than three-point sharpshooters Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and teammate Kyle Lowry. DeRozan topping scoring and efficiency charts without a three-point shot is like J. Cole going double platinum with no features: it’s doable, yes, but it’s certainly much more difficult. Any team in the league would be lucky to have the Raptors’ star contributing to their team efficiency, but he doesn’t merely contribute to overall team efficiency: he makes the players around him more efficient. The Raptors currently have the highest offensive efficiency rating in the history of the NBA, with 115.5 points per 100 possessions, higher than both last season’s 73-9 Golden State Warriors and the 95-96 Chicago Bulls featuring Michael Jordan. This links back to his ability to create shots and dish the ball, allowing his team to gain wide open looks, and thereby scoring more points in fewer possessions.

Most concerns with DeRozan are not necessarily regarding his offense. After all, he scores 28.3 points per game without breaking a sweat. It’s his defense that makes statisticians nervous. The problem with using statistical analysis to determine his defensive capabilities is that basketball is a team game, and most of what would be DeRozan’s tougher defensive assignments (aka James Harden) go to Kyle Lowry and DeMarre Carroll, who are two of the league’s top defenders. DeMar himself is no slouch, as he is able to hold his ground in an isolation matchup. His defensive skills were put on full display in the USA Basketball Training Camp.

A GIF featuring DeRozan’s isolation defense on Jimmy Butler during the USA Olympic Team Training Camp (Summer 2016). Edited by Julien Lin.

DeRozan (number 9) guards Jimmy Butler, who is one of the premier shooting guards in the game. He is patient, doesn’t fall for any of Butler’s fakes, and forces him to take a tough step-back jumper that would have otherwise been an easy drive-by. DeRozan’s main problem is when there are multiple options for the other team, leaving him to chase his man through multiple screens or close out on the shot after a long play.

A GIF with an example of DeRozan’s poor defensive closeouts (January 7, 2016 at Washington Wizards). GIF by Julien Lin.

DeRozan (10) gives Otto Porter (22) way too much space, as he is too focused on the play at hand. He then rushes Porter, anticipating the shot, but is too unwary of the possible pump-fake and drive. While his closeouts are disappointing, it is important to realize that this is the most extreme example of his defense. When being guarded by the Raptors’ guard, opponents shoot 41.5%, which is not bad considering the league average field goal percentage is 45%. Although the Raptors’ star guards only the second or third offensive option for the opposing team, he still limits their production. As long as he scores more than his matchup —which he almost always does—he is helping his team win, and winning is all that matters.


Despite all this, Sports Illustrated and ESPN ranked him to be only the 46th and 30th best player in the league, respectively, coming into this season [3][4], and the NBA doesn’t even have him inside the top ten in the MVP Ladder [5]. Yes, his in-depth stats and numbers prove him to be deserving of higher accolades, but Toronto fans should be delighted with how overlooked their star player is. After all, if there’s anyone out to prove his critics wrong, it is DeRozan, a no-name prospect who wasn’t even ranked as a top ten prospect on draft day. And in many ways, he already has. Coming fresh off an Eastern Conference Finals berth, DeRozan is looking to lead his dangerous and hungry Raptors team to its first ever NBA finals. Perhaps, then, he will finally gain the respect that he deserves.


Citations:

[1] TSN

[2] FiveThirtyEight

[3] Sports Illustrated

[4] ESPN

[5] NBA MVP Ladder