By: Dan Grant
With the Raptors season on the line tonight in Washington D.C., there’s a prevailing feeling of discontent among Raptors fans.
It’s not the crushing disappointment of Vince hitting back rim against Philly, or the disbelief of Chris Child’s forgetting the score against Detroit. It’s not even the raw ache of Kyle Lowry getting blocked by Paul Pierce in Game 7 last year. Those losses were rough, they sucked, they sucked hard, but at least we were IN them.
Where this series is unique, at least so far, is that the team has been a complete disappointment, against an opponent that was supposed to be an even match. For the first time since the early 2000’s, the fans have had real expectations, and to this point, they’ve been left as unfulfilled as a eunuch’s wife.
Despite what history says, and that’s that only three teams have ever come back in the NBA playoffs after dropping the opening two games at home, the Raptors still have a chance. Maybe not a chance to actually win the series, but a chance to end the season on a more positive note. The Raptors just need DeMar DeRozan to take the next step.
DeRozan has always followed his own path, dating back to when the Raptors took him with the ninth pick in the 2009 NBA draft. Just take a look at some the highlights of his scouting report before he was selected:
Strengths: Jaw dropping athletic specimen. Incredible leaper and explosive finisher. Has all but mastered the art of the mid-range game. Showed signs of being a pressure performer in the Pac-10 tournament.
Weaknesses: Work in progress. Untapped potential. Does not look to dominate. Passion has been questioned. Lacks creativity in the face up game. A surprisingly weak (65%) free throw shooter. No post-up game to speak of. Not much of a passer.
He was thought to be too raw for the NBA game; most experts though he’d spend another year in college. More interesting story-lines overshadowed him on draft day. Players selected ahead of him included Blake Griffin, James Harden and Steph Curry. They also included Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn and Jordan Hill. Ricky Rubio and Tyreke Evans were bigger names; Brandon Jennings was more polarizing. You had franchise point guards, 7’4 behemoths, lights out shooters and international stars. There were questions and arguments abound, about just about every player but DeRozan. Nobody outside of Toronto talked much about the athletic kid from south-central Los Angeles.
As a fan of DeRozan since day one, I’ve watched him develop in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. The talent was always obvious; the strengths listed were flashy and made you hopeful for the future. Two appearances in the dunk contest whet the appetite of the fans. The weaknesses, however, were just as obvious. Too often, DeRozan seemed content to let others take the ball in crunch time. In his first season, he seemed unwilling to take chances. His career high in field goal percentage was set that rookie year, when he was just a hair under 50%, which sounds great. However if you look at his shooting stats from that season, you can see that he attempted 256 of his 512 total shots (or exactly half) five feet away from the basket or closer, shooting over 60 percent on those shots. Even though his mid-range game was a strength, he still lacked the confidence in his game to create his own shot and make that game an effective weapon.
After that first year, each off-season, a supposed weakness vanished. Some were noticeable changes, some took time to sink in. It became a yearly tradition. There would be a feature by the Raptors broadcasters, or a spot in the local paper or even a whisper on the wind! ‘DeMar has improved X. He spent the entire summer working on Y’. Coaches began to use words like ‘gym rat’ and ‘relentless’ to describe his work ethic. And it showed on the court.
At some point, it hit me. DeRozan is the tortoise, not the hare. He leaves the flash and headlines to the others. He’s intelligent. He’s calculating. He reads the scouting reports; he knows what people say about him. He doesn’t react in anger or with hurt. He files it away for later. He uses it as motivation. He breaks himself down each summer and remakes himself as a better player. And like the tortoise, he’s slowly begun to overtake his peers. If you had to re-select the 2009 draft today, DeRozan likely goes fourth, behind Griffin, Harden and Curry. Not bad company.
In year two, the first weaknesses dissipated, forcibly aided by the departure of Chris Bosh. DeRozan’s confidence in his face-up game grew, as the ball was in his hands more frequently. He had spent the previous summer pushing himself to become a better free throw shooter, and he hasn’t dropped below 81% since. Drop the untapped potential knock; it was now tapped and flowing at full speed, as DeRozan’s offense blossomed. Drop the creativity knock too, as game after game, DeRozan showed an uncanny ability to get to the rim and/or the free throw line. By year three, any questions about an ability to harness his talent were gone. In Dwane Casey’s first season, he became Toronto’s unquestioned number one option and he was still just 22 years old. That non-existent post up game became a staple, as DeRozan developed a solid turn-around baseline game. The vaunted mid-range game became his bread and butter, and his scoring statistics leapt to reflect it. In year four, it was the passing. DeRozan began to look for his team mates more often as a distributor, not just as an outlet from stifling double team. In year five, with the addition of a healthy Kyle Lowry (banged up for much of 2011-12), a maturing Jonas Valanciunas and a whole bench from Sacramento, the assist totals spiked to reflect the improvement- from 2.5 all the way to 4.0 per game. His free throw attempts exploded up to 8.0 attempts per game, into the upper echelon of all NBA players and he scored a career high 22.7 points per game. The tortoise was now running full speed.
There was a lack of assertiveness that made him a poor defender at the NBA level in his first two seasons, unsurprising given that he was only 19 as a rookie. It wasn’t that he couldn’t be assertive or lacked focus – it was that he was focused on other things. He seemed like a man with tunnel vision, improving only one specific skill per season. However, once he added a weapon, it never left him. On defense, first it was on the ball. He noticeably added muscle before his second, third and fourth seasons. The added strength gradually made him less of a target for opposing attackers. And since Casey’s arrival in Toronto, his team defense has improved greatly, to the point that he’s now Toronto’s strongest perimeter defender, outside of James Johnson. Not a high bar given our current personnel but still, something that would have been unthinkable in the recent past.
Can we really question the passion of a player who spends hundreds of hours each off-season working to improve the flaws in his game? Who had his choice of prep schools, or local basketball powers, but instead played for his hometown Compton High? Who left USC for the NBA before he was really ready, mainly to pay for his mother’s lupus treatments? I think not. Passion comes in many forms. For DeRozan, it’s the slow burn, instead of the rah-rah. In the end, that might be the more effective method.
“I’m different. I’m different from everybody. I don’t care what nobody else’s opinion is. A million people could tell me one thing, and I’m going to believe my own opinion. It’s something you have to go through and experience yourself.” – DeMar DeRozan, asked in a 2014 Toronto Star article about NBA players not wanting to come to Toronto:
While he was speaking about Toronto, he might as well have been speaking about himself. Let’s look at those weaknesses again: Work in progress. Untapped potential. Does not look to dominate. Passion has been questioned. Lacks creativity in the face up game. No post-up game. Not much of a passer.
They’ve all been debunked. Except one.
Work in progress.
The addition of Rudy Gay midway through the 2012-13 season had many Raptors fans delirious with joy. Pairing Gay with DeRozan, they thought, gave the team two viable scoring options, two guys that defenses would have to key on. Guard one, and you’ll have to deal with the other. Pick your poison. Sadly it didn’t work out that way; much like when Toronto tried to play Jermaine O’Neal with Chris Bosh, it was too much of the same thing. It’s not peanut butter and peanut butter, it’s peanut butter and jelly. Perhaps seeking to support my future metaphor game, both players played like they had peanut butter on their hands, with possessions stagnating as one or the other went one on one as the other stood and watched. They were both strong pieces but they weren’t complementary pieces, which in the NBA, is akin to grim death.
It led to a friend of mine, who shall remains nameless, shaking his head disgustedly. “DeRozan just isn’t a winner,” he said. “It’s not his fault, he seems like a nice guy, but his game is whack.”
I disagreed. Vehemently. Citing much of what you’ve just read, I laid out how DeRozan had improved each and every season. I didn’t think he’d hit his ceiling yet, but I did think that playing with Gay had stunted his game. Two days later, Rudy Gay was traded. Since then? DeRozan has begun to reach the heights we always hoped for him. After the Gay trade and in the playoffs against Brooklyn last year, DeRozan’s toughness shone and gave Raptors fans high hopes for this season.
An injury this year threw things off the rails for a time. A remarkably durable player since he entered the league, DeRozan tore his groin muscle against Dallas in late November. He missed 21 games, but he wasn’t himself even when he returned to the lineup. Missing was the fearless initiation of contact that had been the key to his offense. Beyond the mid-range game – still a staple, but now panned by advanced statistics – his most important weapon was getting to the free throw line. That was missing for a time. But when Kyle Lowry went down with a back injury late in the season, the old DeRozan returned. He was fifth in the NBA in free throw attempts in March/April, making roughly 88% of them, elite by any measure. His assist totals jumped to a career high 4.3 per game over the same period, mostly with Lowry sidelined. Even as the Raptors struggled to the finish line, DeRozan showed signs of being a true leader. A number one. A burgeoning killer.
In Game 2 against Washington, what I saw was a killer with a dull blade. An assassin with a pop gun. With Lowry in foul trouble again, and the team looking lost on offense, DeRozan took the ball in his own hands. Time and again, he drove into the paint and kicked the ball to shooters. He attempted to get to the rim, to get to the line, to do anything at all, but with the athletic Bradley Beal/John Wall/Otto Porter threesome in his way on the perimeter and the massive Nene/Marcin Gortat combination clogging the paint, there just hasn’t been any room for him to manoeuvre. His shot hasn’t dropped but he’s still gotten to the glass and created for others when possible. He’s put up 7.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game so far in the series. He looks like a man doing everything he can to keep a sinking ship afloat. That’s what superstars do; but ultimately, basketball is a team game, and this team looks over-matched.
I wouldn’t call DeMar DeRozan a true superstar. Not yet. He’s still only 25 years old, even though it seems like he’s been a Raptor forever. He’s just entering his NBA prime. He’s got one year left on a four year contract extension, widely panned at the time, that he has far outperformed. He’s probably going to be looking for maximum money come the summer of 2016, which coincidentally, is when the salary cap is set to leap almost 20% to a rumoured 100 million dollars per team. To get it, he’s going to need to make a leap. He’s going to need to show that he can take this team on his shoulders, when the moment calls for it. It would be great if he started tonight in Washington, but even if he doesn’t, all isn’t lost, Raptors fans. Remember, he’s still a work in progress, and with his attitude and work ethic, he probably always will be. That’s not a criticism. It’s something to be treasured.
So if you’re one of those fans that’s feeling discontented, disappointed, dismayed, just do what I do.
Imagine him using a loss as fuel this summer in California. Imagine him working to turn that elite athleticism into lock down defensive prowess. Working to improve that three point shot, as he has each year since he was a rookie. Imagine him surrounded by a better supporting cast next year, ready to lead this team on a deep playoff run. Imagine him being a leader. A number one. A killer.
Imagine him being himself. And you’ll feel better.
After all, the tortoise always beats the hare in the end.