Back in 2016, before the Toronto Raptors eventually triumphed in an unsightly yet memorable first-round battle against the Indiana Pacers, DeMar DeRozan was devoured by Paul George.
The series cemented George's advantage in the league’s pecking order as a more equipped franchise pillar. Not only did he outscore DeRozan by 66 points, he also held Toronto’s leading scorer to 31.9 percent shooting with 19 turnovers and 18 assists in arguably the most frustrating 253 minutes of his bright career.
DeRozan was predictable and edgy. Indiana knew he wouldn’t attack from beyond the arc. So they ducked under screens, refused to bite at pump fakes, and closed out soft, daring him to beat them with the same contested long twos he used to stab opponents throughout the regular season. In other words, they wanted to strangle DeRozan with his own two hands, and it worked.
A few weeks later, DeRozan's Raptors advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Then he won Olympic Gold on Team USA. Then he had a monstrous All-NBA season in 2016-17—during which only two players (Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins) owned higher usage rates and two others (LeBron James and Stephen Curry) scored more points—but that series against the Pacers forced Toronto to confront a harsh truth about its most talented player.
Because, fair or not, seven games is all it takes to cement a reputation. Seven games is all we need to verify what's already suspected. As lethal as he was, that first-round series confirmed to critics that Derozan was little more than a one-dimensional scorer whose strengths don't translate in the most meaningful moments.
The NBA's revolutionary obsession with three-point shooting and ball movement were both antithetical to DeRozan’s nature. Up until this season, he struggled to adjust but still managed the seemingly impossible feat of maintaining his grip on some sort of retrograde stardom.
But now, 39 games into his ninth campaign, with more efficient numbers on arguably the most dangerous Raptors team in franchise history, DeRozan's finally adopted a more balanced game, one that allows his impact to stretch beyond contested daggers from the right elbow. The result is a shining MVP candidate whose improvement affects areas of the game that ultimately decides wins and losses in today’s NBA.
“The experience of going through that [Indiana series]...I’ve seen every year [since], his level has picked up,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey told VICE Sports. “The moment hasn’t bothered him. The physicality, the blitzes, the different defenses, he’s seeing it all. And that’s why I say now I’m seeing a different DeMar because he’s gone through all that. That’s the process you have to go through to be a great player in this league. You’ve got to go through some failures and some hard times to get to where you want to go.”
The biggest change can be found at the three-point line. Long vilified for his unwillingness to let it fly from distance—he attempted 198 more two-point field goals than any other player over the last two seasons, leading the league in that category both years—DeRozan has finally convinced himself that threatening a defense from 24 feet is more damaging than from 19, not just because three is more than two, but the positive effect it’s had on teammates is undeniable.
“If Kyle runs a screen-and-roll, him and JV, my man’s gotta make a decision. Are you gonna leave me now or are you gonna go help?” DeRozan said while slumped against a wall at a Raptors practice in Midtown Manhattan. “So it gives us opportunities to be able to get an easy screen and roll to the big, a dump off pass, so I think it’s more so for everybody else as well. That’s me wanting to be better not just for myself but for my teammates as well.”
During summer months early in his career, DeRozan would shoot somewhere between 100 and 200 threes every day with his longtime trainer Chris Farr. Heading into this year, though, that volume more than doubled, often reaching 500 attempts. As he fed him over and over, Farr would tease the three-time All-Star: Man, I’m passing you all these balls to shoot threes and you never take one!
“He’s always had the green light to [shoot threes] but he always had that crutch of getting to his sweet spot. But now he’s more comfortable,” Casey told VICE Sports. “Right now teams probably don’t think it’s for real. But I’ve seen enough in practice and in summer times working with him to know that this is for real, and he’s got to continue to do it."
According to Synergy Sports, DeRozan has initiated more high pick-and-rolls where a defender goes under the screen than anyone else, a category he led the league in by a wide margin last season. Now, instead of dribbling into a long two or waiting for his man to rescreen so he can try and draw a foul in the paint, DeRozan is more willing to take what the defense gives.
He hasn’t erased the mid-range from his palette and his game won’t remind you of Klay Thompson's anytime soon. But the percentage of his shots that are contested is down from last year, as is the percentage of shots that are long twos, from 31 percent down to 18, per Basketball-Reference. DeRozan doesn’t acknowledge a conscious change, but the shift is revelatory. He’s launched at least five threes 30 times in his entire career. Nine of those games have come this year.
“Last year I took a lot of things personally, where people say you wouldn’t make it if you don’t shoot threes in the NBA, you know? And I averaged close to 30 at a high rate,” DeRozan said. “It was one of them things where I always took challenges on. I always felt like nobody could depict how good I am because I can’t do a certain thing. That was my mindset for the longest time. I just got to a point where I was like ‘Man, just go out there and play.’ I don’t got to prove nothing to nobody anymore. Just go out there and play basketball.”
With the three-point shot now in his back pocket, DeRozan is well-positioned to elevate his stature in a league that, for the most part, he’s already conquered.
Let’s compare his game to a golfer's. DeRozan could always putt. He mastered how to get out of the sand, and stick greens from a deep rough. But instead of blasting away at Par 5’s with a trusty driver, he rarely approached the tee with anything heavier than a three-wood. It was a self-handicap that lowered his individual ceiling.
This year he’s ripping that driver without any thought. If his basketball skill-set actually did translate to a golf course, he’d finish a seven-time major winner.
During a recent blowout win against the Milwaukee Bucks—the same team he torched for a franchise-record 52 points on New Year’s Day, an awesome performance that forced his giddy teammates to stare up at the jumbotron every time he made a basket—Casey remembers one play where DeRozan snatched an offensive rebound with his back to the basket, right in front of Milwaukee’s bench.
He turned, toed the line, and nailed it with fingertips in his face. It reminded Casey of Dale Ellis, who led the league in three-point percentage back when Toronto's head coach was an assistant with the Seattle Supersonics.
Since they stumbled towards respectability by trading Rudy Gay (and not trading Kyle Lowry) in a failed effort to tank back in 2013, the Raptors have always outscored their opponent with DeRozan on the floor, typically by two or three points per 100 possessions. When he sat, they roared behind Lowry, who spearheaded bench units that were appropriately referred to as “Lowry + Bench” and behaved like a wrecking ball.
But things are different this year. DeRozan is Toronto’s best and most important player. Some of that’s due to the emergence of youngsters at Lowry’s position (Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright are as pugnacious as they are smooth), but the primary reason is DeRozan’s development from caveat All-Star to well-rounded first option.
When he’s on the floor, Toronto outscores opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions, a number that ranks in the 90th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s the sort of resume held by a championship favorite—in any other time than now, during which the Golden State Warriors have four top-15 players in their starting lineup.
But the more surprising statistic is how Toronto plays when DeRozan is on the floor and Lowry is not. Not only does his usage rise by nearly 11 percent without any drop in his True Shooting, but Toronto’s offense goes from extremely good to The NBA’s Website Might Be Broken. It’s a reality that speaks not only to arguably the most exuberant and diversified bench this organization has ever had, but DeRozan’s comfort demolishing second units like 36-year-old Barry Bonds in a slow-pitch softball league.
The Raptors win with defense when DeRozan sits—they’re never worse on that end than when he’s on the floor—but their offense drops by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions. Overall, they’re better when he plays for just the second time in his career, and the first in five seasons (going back to Casey’s first year in Toronto, a lockout-shortened nightmare).
These on-off splits help frame a respectable case for DeRozan actually contending for MVP, in a pool that also includes James Harden, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kevin Curry. No matter how you frame the argument, DeRozan checks off the same number of boxes—be it statistics, narrative, his team’s success, or, you know, overall value.
“I think he gets overlooked a lot. I don’t know why,” Raptors guard Norm Powell, who idolized DeRozan before they were teammates, told VICE Sports. “You compare stats to everyone that’s in the MVP race and he’s right there with them. I think he definitely should be considered an MVP candidate. When you watch him play there’s a lot of things where you shake your head in amazement. How did he do that? How did he make that shot?”
The increased variance in DeRozan’s attack helps, but so too does his improvement as a playmaker, someone actively looking to create for others, be it with a slick pocket-pass to Jonas Valanciunas or not needing a screen to beat his man off the dribble, force help, then find Serge Ibaka in the corner for three.
He demands active viewing. A threat in myriad ways who spent the summer figuring out how he can cut down on risky jump passes that turn into turnovers, DeRozan is seeing the floor with more clarity and anticipating defensive rotations. His assist-to-turnover ratio is at an all-time high, right above Harden and LeBron and just outside the top 10 among players whose usage rate is at least 25 percent.
“He’s more of a quasi-point guard once he’s in there by himself," Casey told VICE Sports. "That has helped him as much as anything else. He’s controlling, he’s not depending on another point guard to run the show, so he’s making decisions. He’s making the plays, bringing the ball down the floor, initiating the offense, calling out the offense, so that has helped him out too. It doesn’t get to him and the ball stops. He gives it up, the ball keeps moving to other guys, so there’s kind of a domino effect with him being in there by himself now, with the style of play we’re playing.”
DeRozan treats the ball like burning coal when opponents blitz him high off a screen. Even though somewhere in the back of his mind he probably knows he could hit the shot, DeRozan gets off the ball fast, either to hit his roll man or make a trickier skip pass to the opposite corner.
“He can pass the ball extremely well,” Raptors wing C.J. Miles told VICE Sports. “Way more than I think he’s given credit for. People will look at the stat sheet and see he has five or six assists and they’ll just chalk it up to him having the ball a lot and you’re bound to get them. But he makes plays. He makes the right plays. He finds people. He has to be willing to do that because he knows people will come after him more because he’s able to score.”
Before he scored 35 points in an overtime win against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night, I asked Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson what’s changed the most about DeRozan’s game this year. He lowered his head, sighed, then held his index finger and thumb about an inch apart.
“He’s in that money zone right now, just playing great basketball. ” Atkinson said. “And you know what I like about him. He defends...He plays both ways.”
DeRozan gets caught on screens and screws up the occasional switch, but his baseline play on the defensive end is more competent than it used to be. He’s stifling ball-handlers in the open floor, curbing drives, recognizing where he’s supposed to be as a help defender and recognizing who he can and can’t help off of. Here he is late in a game Toronto leads by 20, sprinting back to swat Khris Middleton’s corner three.
Or, in a more complicated scenario, watch how he communicates a switch with VanVleet against Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
DeRozan takes away Dirk’s shot, forces him to give it up, seamlessly switches back onto Wesley Matthews, then forces a difficult fallway as the shot clock expires. This was not an easy play.
“It’s not that DeMar DeRozan can’t guard. He can guard. It’s a lot of times, guys who play huge minutes, they’re gonna pick their spots to rest and it’s not gonna be on the offensive end. Most guys rest on the defensive end,” Casey said. “And not saying that he’s resting, but he’s showing the level of defense that he can play that we need, we gotta have, for us to be successful as a team, where a team can’t say ‘We’re going at DeMar DeRozan’ or we’re always searching for a matchup for him. DeMar has length, he’s quick, he has athleticism, he’s tough, so there’s no reason why he can’t be the defender he’s been in the last month or so.”
Whether he’s trailing to contest a shot from the shooter’s rearview or staying low on the perimeter to stick with some of his max-contract colleagues (Casey put DeRozan on George at the start of a recent game against the Oklahoma City Thunder), there’s been crucial development on a nightly basis. It's evolutionary.
"I’d rather have a 3-and-D guy than a mid-range and no D guy," Casey said.
Entering 2017-18, coming off a second-straight playoff run that was less impressive than how he performed during the regular season, DeRozan felt rigid. Even his most stunning performances had a “Doesn’t Shoot Threes” scarlet letter stamped on them. Today, that stamp is gone.
“How do you not talk about [DeRozan’s MVP candidacy]? How do you not mention his name? And he’s been on the All-Star team, but like, how do you not talk about him?” Miles said. “I think it’s based on the fact that, being where we are in Canada, it’s not the same coverage.”
He smirks: “It sucks. And at the same time it fits his personality too, though. He’s laid back. He’s not so much worried about the hoopla—not to say he wouldn’t want an MVP trophy, I’m pretty sure anybody would want that—but his personality is like ‘I’m gonna do my job, I’m gonna get it done.’ You don’t see him out there yelling. Even the way he plays, it’s controlled. Smooth. Not a lot of ra-ra stuff.”
To actually win the Most Valuable Player award, DeRozan would not only have to maintain some unsustainable shooting numbers—in his last 10 games, he's made over half of his threes on just over 50 attempts—but the Raptors would need to finish with the top seed in the Eastern Conference. That’s not impossible. But even if it doesn't happen, DeRozan has already begun to reshape his reputation and raise what's possible for his team.
As ruthless as he’s been swimming against the current, DeRozan is finally letting the river take him where he needs to go. If he keeps it up, disappointing past performances like the one against Indiana will no longer tell the story of DeMar DeRozan. They’ll turn into stepping stones, crucial life lessons that have allowed him to blossom into the top-tier, all-around weapon he currently is.
Winning a championship would be nice, but he instead should be judged by his willingness (and ability) to adapt as the world changes around him. Even if the Raptors fail to reach the conference finals, DeRozan can’t be indicted if he course corrected his weaknesses and turned them into favorable traits.
“My father is a pastor, and he told me a setback is a set up for a comeback,” Farr said. “When DeMar came in the league he was a dunking machine who couldn’t shoot. He’s been an All-Star, All-NBA, and an Olympian, without a three. His team went to the conference finals without a three. So if he can hit the three and it becomes a weapon for him? The sky is the limit.”