Morrow: Raptors’ DeRozan growing his game

Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan is off to a fantastic 2017-18.

The DeMar DeRozan experience has always been thrilling, if infuriating, at times.

The explosive athleticism. The “No-no-no-YES!” penchant to make bad shots. It’s all very Kobe-esque. He has zigged while the rest of the NBA has zagged, eschewing 3-pointers in favor of fadeaway mid-range jumpers – the weapon of choice for the likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, arguably the two greatest shooting guards to ever play.

Today’s NBA doesn’t favor the mid-range shot, and for good reason. It’s the least-efficient shot in basketball; if you’re going to shoot a 2-pointer, do so close to the rim to ensure the highest probability of making the shot or getting fouled. If you’re shooting a long 2, just take a few steps back and shoot the 3-pointer.

DeRozan has never seemed to agree with that approach. He takes pride in his mid-range prowess. It’s the shot he’s likely emulated since he was 5 years old, watching his favorite player sink game-winning, contested, fadeaway, mid-range jumpers for the Lakers. That shot makes DeRozan who he is, and he’ll never fully abandon it.

He wants to win, though, as every player does.

Even DeRozan, traditionalist that he is, has begun to adapt to the modern NBA.

DeRozan still attacks from the mid-range, and he does so more often than most players do — 61 percent of his shot attempts come from the mid-range. But something has changed. That 61 percent is 10 percent less than his mark from last season.

He’s being smarter about those shots – when to take them and from how far. Only 30 percent of his shots come from the “long-mid-range” area (defined as farther than 14 feet from the rim). Last season, 41 percent of his shots came from that long mid-range area. His lowered number of attempts from the long-mid-range area is reflected in his improved accuracy; he’s shooting 46 percent (up from 40 percent last season) from between 14 feet and the 3-point line.

DeRozan is adept at getting the space he needs (which isn’t much) to get his shot off. Here, he gets a mismatch off a pick-and-roll and drives toward a larger defender, forcing his opponent to backpedal. Once the defender’s momentum was toward the basket, DeRozan comfortably rose up to knock down the now-open shot he’d created:

Shots like that one aren’t necessarily “bad.” A mid-range jumper is a fine shot if it’s open and taken by a player who can make it. Those shots are DeRozan’s bread and butter, and that one was wide open by his standards. Those aren’t the sort of shots you want him to cut out altogether, he just needs to lower the output and shoot more 3-pointers.

DeRozan has begun to embrace the trey in a way we haven’t quite seen from him in the past. Fifteen percent of his shots are coming from beyond the arc this season. That number may not blow you away, especially in today’s NBA. Neither will his 3-point percentage of 34.5 percent. But both are career-highs for him. It’s progress. DeRozan is no 3-point specialist. Only seven percent of his shots came from deep last season.

The Raptors are straight-up better when DeRozan is shooting from outside. In games he’s made at least two 3-pointers, Toronto is 12-3. When he makes at least three treys, the Raps haven’t lost a game (7-0). The fact that DeRozan has hit at least three 3-pointers in seven separate games is encouraging; in his 74 games last season, he did so just twice (the Raptors won both of those games).

DeRozan didn’t start the year hot from beyond the arc. In fact, through the Raptors’ first 28 games, DeRozan shot just 17-68 (25 percent) from 3-point range. In late December, something changed. On Dec. 20, DeRozan scored 28 points and went 3-4 from deep. He followed that game up by connecting on six of his nine 3-point attempts en route to scoring a season-high 45 points the very next night.

DeRozan’s confidence in his outside shot has soared. The DeRozan of old wouldn’t have had the gall to rise for a 3-pointer off the dribble with 19 seconds left on the shot clock and wouldn’t have had enough faith in his outside stroke to make it.

DeRozan’s numbers since that Dec. 20 game have been very impressive. He’s averaged 26.7 points per game and has shot 42.9 percent from deep on – get this – 4.5 3-point attempts per game! Nearly 24 percent of his shots have come from outside during that span.

DeMar, meet the modern NBA. Modern NBA, DeMar.

He’s playing like a superstar. He’s a fringe MVP candidate. He’s having a major impact on his team and is scoring nearly at will.

It’s not just his scoring that DeRozan has ameliorated this season; he’s made strides as a distributor as well. DeRozan’s averaging a very-solid 5.0 assists per game this year, the most he’s averaged prior to this season was four.

The high pick-and-roll is a staple in the Raptors’ offense, and although Kyle Lowry is often thought of as the primary, if not only, unselfish distributor on the team, DeRozan (10.2 times per game) serves as the Raptors’ pick-and-roll ballhandler more than twice as often as Lowry (4.9).

There’s a reason DeRozan runs the pick-and-roll so frequently – he’s really good at it. He’s in the 84th percentile among all NBA players as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, per Lowry is in the 64th percentile, and turns the ball over 18.5 percent of the time in pick-and-roll situations, while DeRozan gives it away just 10.7 percent of the time. Among players who run at least eight pick-and-rolls per game, only Kemba Walker turns the ball over less frequently (8.8 percent of the time).

DeRozan usually runs the pick-and-roll with Jonas Valanciunas or Jakob Poeltl, and it’s potent. Often, the Raptors run a pick-and-roll variant called “Spain,” in which after the big comes with the screen, another player sets a screen on the defender of the screener.

Here’s an example of the Raptors’ Spain pick-and-roll play. Poeltl sets the screen, and Fred VanVleet sets a screen for Poeltl as the latter rolls to the rim. DeRozan, who has been a terrific decision-maker in the pick and roll this season, makes the right play and finds Poeltl for an open layup.

Here’s one more example of the Raptors’ Spain pick-and-roll, led by DeRozan. Valanciunas gives him the screen and then receives one of his own from Lowry. DeRozan dishes a well-placed alley-oop pass to Valanciunas:

It’s not all pick-and-rolls, either. DeRozan has become quite good at finding the open man after drawing that player’s defender away, and he’s also capable of finding cutting teammates. All around, DeRozan has become a much-improved and well-rounded passer.

The most difficult players to guard tend to be the most versatile – the ones possessing the most weapons. DeRozan has always been a terrific shot-maker. But there has always been a ceiling on his efficiency because of his lack of versatility —  he’s either going to rise for a mid-range jumper (often a fadeaway), try to drive past you and attack the rim or post up.

Now, he’s slowly but surely smashing through that ceiling. Now, he might rise and shoot a 3-pointer. He might call for a screen and attack the defense in the pick-and-roll. He’s remedying his shot selection, knocking down 3-pointers and setting up teammates for easy buckets. DeRozan continues to add weapons to his arsenal, making him more and more unpredictable and therefore, dangerous.

DeRozan has always scoffed at the idea that he couldn’t beat you with his mid-range jumper. He still might scoff, but his actions show an evolution and an increased understanding of what makes an offensive player conducive to winning basketball.

DeMar DeRozan has officially arrived as an elite offensive player.

Statistics accurate as of Jan. 22, 2018 and are from, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass.

Videos from the NBA, 3 Ball and FreeDawkins.