DeMar DeRozan Can’t be the Savior the Raptors Need

How good is DeMar DeRozan? That question is harder to answer than it should be. Shooting guard is a weak position around the league and DeRozan is one of the best among his peers. He made his first All-Star Game as a 24-year-old and had he not suffered injuries last year, he might have gotten the nod for the second consecutive time. He’s almost certainly going to opt out after next season and someone will throw a max contract his way. Yet the question remains after watching him six years: how good is DeMar DeRozan?

The 20+ points per game DeRozan has averaged during the past two seasons are nothing to scoff at and would be a welcomed addition to any roster. He creates shots for himself for the most part, so giving him the ball and letting him work isn’t a bad idea. In isolations and in the post his physical gifts make him a tough cover. He’s also been incredibly durable, right up until last season. DeRozan is clearly a good player.

He does not, however, seem ready to be the biggest star on a contender. He might never be, but that’s what Toronto needs.

High usage tends to result in low efficiency, which makes DeRozan’s low field goal percentage excusable. Yet even among other volume scorers he compares negatively. Of the 42 players who used over a quarter of their team’s possessions when on the court last season, his true shooting percentage ranked 35th, per Basketball-Reference.com. Right above him on that list is Monta Ellis, who ranked right below him last season. Ellis is a very good player but not someone you want a franchise cornerstone to be compared to.

The inefficient scoring wouldn’t be such a huge problem if DeRozan was a great playmaker. Alas, that’s not in his repertoire right now. He’s not particularly turnover prone but doesn’t create a lot for his teammates either. Per 48 minutes, DeRozan only creates a shade over 12 points via assists. Never in his career has he posted an assist percentage of over 20. He gets to the line and can score one-on-one, but he’s simply not close to being an elite shot creator at a team level.

The 25-year-old wing could be a fantastic third option. Unfortunately, he can’t excel while playing off the ball, which limits the teams in which he’d be a great fit. DeRozan isn’t a good catch-and-shoot three-point shooter according to SportVU stats, and doesn’t even eclipse 30 percent on outside shots in which a defender is at least four feet away — otherwise known as open looks. His athletic ability makes him a terrifying cutter, but he hasn’t gotten enough chances to truly develop his instincts to punish inattentive defenders. Instead, he tends to stand around when he’s not directly involved in plays.

Just like Ellis or former teammate Rudy Gay, DeRozan needs the ball in his hands to be at his best, but can’t create for himself or others at a high enough level to justify the out-sized role he’s been playing.

DeRozan could be extremely valuable next to a pass-first point guard and sharing scoring duties with a quality inside player, but that’s just not the situation he’s in right now. Kyle Lowry is a ball-dominant player and because both DeRozan and Lowry pull the offense their way, Jonas Valanciunas hasn’t been getting the ball in the post enough to emerge as a legitimate primary option. The Raptors have had a great offense the past two seasons because they have good individual players. Yet unlike the Spurs or the Warriors, they aren’t better than the sum of their parts.

With Amir Johnson gone, no one on the roster has been in Toronto for as long as DeRozan. The Raptors have lost a lot of their homegrown talent over the years and parting ways with DeRozan — be it through a trade during the season or in free agency next summer — would be painful. It’s hard to find a way to see the team challenging the Cavaliers for dominance in the East with the roster they have now, though, and DeRozan is a big part of why that’s the case.

What could turn things around and allow both DeRozan and the Raptors to get to the next level would be a newfound focus on defense. DeRozan doesn’t have the instincts, but if his effort were to shift from offense exclusively to the other end of the court, he should be able to do better. There’s no reason why an über athletic 6’7″ wing can’t be, if not a stopper, then at least an above-average defender. That hasn’t happened so far, but he’s young enough to still develop on that end.

The team certainly needs him to be at his best on defense. What’s killed Toronto’s chances of going deeper into the playoffs has been the inability to act cohesively as a unit on their own end. DeRozan has been a mess in the postseason and has been eaten alive by bigger players, which has prompted the signing of DeMarre Carroll. If he can learn from the former Hawk and up his intensity on the defensive end, his flaws as a first option on offense will be mitigated by his two-way competence.

It’s impossible to know how realistic hoping for a leap on the defensive end for DeRozan really is. The awareness and toughness just don’t seem to be there. It still sounds more likely than him arriving to training camp with a killer spot up three-point shot, which is the other development that would make him a truly elite offensive weapon.

Of course, other teams might be able to use the Raptors’ shooting guard better. Just like Ellis revived his career in Dallas and Gay shed the laughingstock label in Sacramento, a change of scenery could do wonders for DeRozan. Unfortunately, miscast first options need to be humbled before accepting the smaller roles that eventually allow them to thrive. Because of the time in which he’ll enter free agency and Toronto’s moderate but real success, that’s not likely to happen to him.

DeRozan will opt out and 20 teams will have the money to offer him the max. The Raptors might be one of them, provided they make the playoffs once again. He might spend his prime jacking up shots as the best player on mediocre teams instead of being the missing piece on a championship squad. There’s nothing tragic about that, mind you. In fact, watching DeRozan go off is often a great time during those typically nondescript January nights.

Thinking of what could’ve been and could still be, however, is at least a little bit sad. DeRozan could’ve been Ricky Rubio‘s running mate had the Timberwolves not passed on him in the 2009 draft. He would make a really great second banana for DeMarcus Cousins had the front office decided to keep Gay. The mere thought of him somehow landing in New Orleans to flank Anthony Davis is electric. Him bricking a pull-up jumper from the left elbow after dribbling for eight seconds in a playoff loss is anything but.

At 25 years of age, there’s still time for DeRozan to either become a true franchise player or accept lesser billing. If that ever happens, the league will be better for it. When talented performers find their niche, the game is infinitely more fun. For at least another season, however, we’ll get to see DeRozan try his best to do something he can’t do: carry a team as its biggest star.

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