DeMar DeRozan Under Pressure to Be Toronto Raptors' Franchise Cornerstone

Christopher WalderContributor IIJuly 31, 2015

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) stands during a break in the first half of Game 4 in the first round of the NBA basketball playoffs against the Washington Wizards,, Sunday, April 26, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

DeMar DeRozan, for as solid as he's been during his six-year run with the Toronto Raptors, has never been viewed as a franchise player in the same light Vince Carter and Chris Bosh were. 

Carter, Bosh, and Andrea Bargnani—although it was for all the wrong reasons in the case of Il Magohad their own respective eras as Raptors. Even the arrival of Kyle Lowry has put DeRozan on the back burner, with many around the league looking at the USC alumnus as the Robin to Lowry's Batman.

This is not becoming of a young man who should have established himself as Toronto's cornerstone a long time ago. The only thing anyone really knows about the 25-year-old outside of the 6ix is he can be a really good player on a team that has yet to prove it can make a deep run in the postseason.

Does that kind of reputation warrant a max contract? Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun reported earlier in the summer that DeRozan may seek a yearly salary of $25.3 million under the skyrocketing cap. He has two years left on his current contract at $9.5 million per season, although the second year has a player option, which he'll certainly decline to cash in next summer.

The issue now becomes whether general manager Masai Ujiri is willing to invest a hefty sum to keep the All-Star north of the border or if the Raptors are better off putting that money to better use elsewhere.

 

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 26:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors handles the ball against the Washington Wizards during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the NBA playoffs at Verizon Center on April 26, 2015 in Washington, DC. NOTE T
G Fiume/Getty Images

Since being selected with the No. 9 pick by the franchise in the 2009 NBA draft, DeRozan has found a way to improve one or more facets of his basketball repertoire every year.

He's always been willing to put in the time to get better, pushing himself and the limits of his game to vault his name into the category of the league's elite swingmen. Whether it's his dribbling, defense, footwork or shooting mechanics, DeRozan makes himself aware of what needs fine-tuning, then goes out and works toward converting his weaknesses into strengths.

We shouldn't forget the 6'6" Trojan was lanky and extremely raw upon entering the NBA. That's obviously not the case anymore, but it took a great deal of training with Toronto's coaching staff to help get DeRozan to where he is today. 

He's also become a savvier player on the hardwood, reading the defense and dictating what he does while in possession with more thought and care.

“His first year, he was a volume shooter,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said near the end of the season, per Doug Smith of the Toronto Star. “He worked on his passing; teams were double-teaming him in the post and that’s where he learned to do it. Now he’s brought that into his pick-and-roll game, making plays out of pick and roll, seeing his options.”

Statistically, DeRozan's numbers continue to be on an upward slope, although the torn left adductor longus tendon he suffered in November that cost him over a month of the season halted his progress.

DeMar DeRozan Statistics (Per Game)
YearPointsReboundsAssistsPER
2012-1318.13.92.514.7
2013-1422.74.34.018.4
2014-1520.14.63.517.4
Basketball-Reference.com

He's not a perfect player by any stretch of the imagination, but he'll bust his tail and never be faulted for a lack of effort, whether it's during games or behind closed doors.

Matt Shantz of Raptors Republic believes we should praise DeRozan for how far he's come, while understanding that a large portion of his growth has simply come through willpower and determination:

But what has defined DeRozan’s career to date hasn’t been his limitations, but rather his work ethic. DeMar has entered each season of his career having added to his skillset. He has extended his range, learned to draw fouls at a near league leading level, turned his handle from a liability into a significant weapon, learned what to do when being sent a double team, and has even become one of the better help defenders on the roster.

His game is barely recognizable when compared to what it was upon entering the league, and that in itself it something to appreciate.

Work ethic is an underappreciated ability due to the simple fact that it is impossible to measure. We don’t have stats to back up what we read, and we don’t even have a firsthand eye test because we don’t get to see the work that is put in outside of game situations.

We just have the results to go from, and with DeMar it has been a steady six year transformation to get to this point. Changing himself from a raw rookie, to a key starter on one of the top teams in the NBA and an All Star too. It hasn’t always been pretty (in fact, it often hasn’t), but it’s been a treat to watch.

A man with that character is someone any team would be happy have at the helm. It trickles down to the rest of the players, setting an example of what's expected in order to be successful. 

 

Shooting Remains a Problem

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 26:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors shoots against the Washington Wizards in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 26, 2015 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

DeRozan isn't an efficient shooter, which was masked heavily last season by his backcourt running mates in Lowry and reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams also having poor percentages.

The Raptors offense was a free-for-all, with players taking ill-advised, contested shots far too regularly. DeRozan was one of the guiltier parties, often settling on the perimeter when cutting and attacking the basket—something he's proved more than capable of doing—was the correct way to go.

NBA.com

He nailed just 36.6 percent of his attempts from the field on shots taken between five to nine feet away from the basket, with that number jumping to 42.2 percent—a number which still doesn't induce much confidencefrom 10 to 14 feet. 

DeRozan's range gets progressively worse the more he moves away from the hoop. For someone who can't seem to fall out of love with attempting three-pointers, it's about time DeRozan became a respectable long-range specialist to not freak anyone out when he does look to light it up from behind the arc.

"Extending my range," DeRozan told Law Murray of Drew League when asked what he was working on this offseason. "Just doing everything I do midrange, do the same thing out further. Three-point line and beyond. Getting comfortable with that, extending that range and becoming more deadly."

All would be right in the universe if DeRozan stuck to shooting three-pointers from the corners, especially from the right corner, where he dropped 42.3 percent of his shots. 

Apparently, no one in the organization told him that looking to shoot from the corner would be a wise investment on his part, as only 26 of his 88 total three-pointers were from there.

 

Can DeRozan Prove He's Worth Building Around? 

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

No time like the present. With DeRozan set to enter what will presumably be a contract year, it's in his best interest to have his strongest campaign to date. 

You're only worth what someone is willing to pay you, but in this new financial landscape where second- and third-tier options such as Wesley Matthews and Greg Monroe are getting max offers, how can DeRozan not expect to get the same?

Dave Zarum of Sportsnet thinks the money teams are blindly throwing at free agents will bode well for DeRozan and his quest to get the max:

DeRozan is far from perfect, of course. But in case you haven’t noticed, NBA GMs are ready and willing to pay max money for imperfect players (see: Gay, Rudy). Just this summer, for instance, players like Greg Monroe, Tristan Thompson, Paul Millsap, Wesley Matthews, and Tobias Harris are expected to have a realistic shot at a max deal.

All fine players but, like DeRozan (and virtually every player not named LeBron) each have sizeable holes in their games.

Like, for instance DeAndre Jordan, another player who is all but a lock to receive a max contract in the coming weeks— an elite shotblocker and rebounder whose offensive game and inability to hit free throws is so poor his team often needs to take him off the floor in crunch time.

Is DeAndre Jordan really a better player than DeMar DeRozan? I’m not buying it for a second.

Being a max player isn't a badge of honor that makes you a No. 1 option on a playoff or championship team. Even if Toronto decides DeRozan is worth that sort of risk, that doesn't automatically vault him to the very top of the food chain over someone such as Lowry.

DeRozan is one of the two best players on the Raptors, but this team will thrive or dive based on the collective effort of everyone on the roster—not just his own blood, sweat, and tears. 

Perhaps Toronto doesn't need DeRozan to be like Carter or Bosh. Ujiri can build his roster based on the needs of the team and not just who meshes well with DeRozan. 

The 2015-16 season may be our last chance to see if DeRozan can be the man in Toronto. Even if he's not, the Raptors are still well-equipped to snag that first seven-game postseason win in franchise history.

 

Christopher Walder is a featured columnist for the Toronto Raptors at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @WalderSports.

Statistics and salary information provided by NBA.com/StatsHoopsHype.com and Basketball-Reference.com.