Perhaps no player better symbolizes the Toronto Raptors' unexpected rise from mediocrity than fifth-year shooting guard DeMar DeRozan.
Much like the franchise that drafted him No. 9 overall in 2009, DeRozan seemed to be merely spinning his wheels since his rookie season—just talented enough to tantalize, but boasting few tangible results to show for all that promise.
But just as his Raptors stormed to the top of the Atlantic Division immediately after ridding themselves of small forward Rudy Gay in a Dec. 9 trade, so did DeRozan seemingly blossom in the absence of his terribly mismatched former partner on the wing.
Now, Toronto is on the path to the franchise's first division title since 2007, and DeRozan was the first Raptor's guard named to the NBA All-Star team since Vince Carter.
Unlike Carter, however, DeRozan isn't the consensus best player on his own team this season. That honor goes to point guard Kyle Lowry, who was left off the All-Star team in what was by far the biggest snub in the Eastern Conference this season. It's not that DeRozan was undeserving (he was certainly better than Joe Johnson), but he had the benefit of being a popular homegrown player, unlike Lowry.
This isn't DeRozan's first season playing with Lowry, but the fact that the rise in his play has coincided so perfectly with that of his point guard is intriguing. Can DeRozan's breakout season be attributed, at least in part, to Lowry?
Though he averaged at least 16.5 points per game over his last three seasons, DeMar DeRozan was often viewed as a selfish, one-dimensional player, a shooting guard with limited shooting range.
Coming into the 2013-14 season, his potential was being hampered by Rudy Gay, another volume scorer who struggled from beyond the arc. Former Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo made a pair of counter-intuitive moves during the 2012-13 season by first signing DeRozan to a four-year contract extension and then trading for such a redundant player in Gay.
At the time of the extension, Grantland's Zach Lowe panned the deal:
The trope is that “advanced statistics” frown on DeRozan, but the truth is that very few statistics of any kind paint him as a productive player. He’s a low-percentage shooter who can’t shoot 3s, and thus can’t space the floor on the wing. He has never shown even average creativity or timing as a passer, and Dwane Casey cut down on DeRozan’s pick-and-roll usage as soon as he got the Raptors head-coaching job. He’s a minus defender both on the ball (opponents shot better than 50 percent on isolation attempts last season, according to Synergy Sports) and not a particularly attentive helper off it. He’s only 23, but DeRozan has never had a league-average PER, and the chances he lives up to this deal are slim.
But DeRozan has quieted the critics this season. Contrary to predictions, DeRozan's scoring has jumped since Gay was shipped off to Sacramento, particularly from an efficiency standpoint. He averaged 21.3 points per game on 43.4 percent shooting in the 18 games before the trade, and 23.6 points on 43.5 percent shooting in the 39 games since.
In fact, DeRozan's overall field-goal percentage has dropped from 44.5 percent in 2012-13 to 43.4 percent as the young guard has once again needed to adapt to facing the opponent's best perimeter defender on a nightly basis.
A lot of people don’t understand how tough it really is night in and night out when a team is throwing its best defender at you, denying you the ball, trying to [be physical with you]. I kind of struggled with that early in my career. I’m trying to figure out ways to beat guys like that.
So where is this breakout season coming from? DeRozan is posting career highs in both player efficiency rating (PER) and win shares per 48 minutes, but he is not shooting the ball better.
For a player like DeRozan—a shooting guard who can't hit the three—it is important to develop an all-around game to compensate. And he has done exactly that, improving his defense and passing.
DeRozan is getting assists at a career-high rate while rarely turning the ball over—a critical combination:
|PPG||FG%||AST%||TO%||Defensive Win Shares|
Toronto's shooting guard can no longer be dismissed as a one-dimensional player.
The Lowry Effect
Lowry's impending free agency in the summer of 2014 leaves Toronto GM Masai Ujiri in a fascinating predicament. He made no bones about his desire to trade his starting point guard earlier in the season, even working toward a deal with the New York Knicks in December that was shot down by meddling Knicks owner James Dolan (as reported by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski).
Though Toronto's management is convinced they can resign Lowry in the offseason (via the Toronto Star's Cathal Kelly), nothing is guaranteed once a player hits the open market.
If Lowry does indeed bolt, that puts the onus on the 24-year-old DeRozan to not only build on this season's breakout campaign but to carry the Raptors back into the playoffs as the team's clear-cut star.
The early returns are not encouraging. According to NBA.com, both DeRozan and the Raptors struggle when Lowry is on the bench:
|DeRozan's PTS||DeRozan's FG%||DeRozan's AST||+/-|
|Lowry on court||22.2||44.4||3.9||+2.7|
|Lowry on bench||19.0||39.8||3.0||+0.3|
Tellingly, DeRozan's assist numbers actually go down when Lowry is on the bench. He is not nearly the playmaker he has shown to be this season when his backcourt partner is out of the game.
If Toronto is serious about building on this encouraging season, they have no choice but the re-sign their starting point guard. Not only is Lowry important to the team's performance, he is critical to DeRozan's development. The Raptors have transformed themselves into a gritty, unselfish team in 2013-14, and that collective personality is a reflection of Lowry. And he has clearly had a positive effect on DeRozan's game.
Should the club fail to re-sign Lowry, DeRozan will still be a good player. But they will have missed a golden opportunity to maximize his impact.
* Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.