Just before Christmas, we took a look at Toronto Raptors small forward O.G. Anunoby, in light of his career-high 20 points and career-high-tying 4 rebounds in a big win over the Charlotte Hornets. While trying desperately not to sound biased towards the British player, we used game tape and analysis to determine his true value on the court.
Anunoby's turn as the shining star on the Raptors wing was very short-lived, however. He was one-upped the next night by his team mate on the wing, DeMar DeRozan, who recorded 45 points on only 21 shots against the Philadelphia 76ers. And then earlier this week, he surpassed himself with a career- and franchise-best 52-point outing against the Milwaukee Bucks, the best performance in a seventeen-game stretch that has seen him average 27.6 points on only 18.8 shots per game.
DeRozan has been a star for a couple of years now. But what we are currently witnessing is a man’s rise to superstardom.
In 36 games thus far this year, DeRozan is averaging 25.1 points. 5.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. These numbers are reasonably in line with what he posted last season (27.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists), but the subtle differences in them are important.
We profiled DeRozan last year, and explored how he could expand his game beyond his scoring numbers. We explored how, while it was a testament to his success that he made so much of his living doing the very things NBA groupthink currently advises against (namely score from the mid-range and in isolation), he should now use the lure his abilities to score from those areas have on the defence to take advantage, improve his passing and his impact as a decoy, and diversify his own shot chart to account for the defensive attention.
There are things DeRozan can do about [increased defensive pressure]. The facing of the automatic double is a new problem to have, and one that will almost certainly not last beyond Lowry's return - nevertheless, reading the situation more quickly, improving both his vision and skill at passing out of the double, and doing more work off the ball and around screens without needing to isolate and post so much, will all alleviate the pressure he now faces. Not only does DeRozan not want to pass much, but he is also not very good at it, missing good angles and throwing the ball outside of shooter's pockets. This new found pressure heightens the importance of him learning to do so.
If DeRozan continues to receive these high traps and these doubles outside of the paint, the rest of the team needs to be able to make the shots that are availed by this defensive imbalance. DeRozan needs to be able to make them pay with his overall presence on the court, not just his own points.
Fair play to him. He has.
Scoring, of course, remains the stand-out attribute of DeRozan's game. But the difference between a great scorer and a great player is to be found in what they choose to do with that scoring, how best they can use it in a team context, and their individual and team abilities in other ends of the game.
In DeRozan's case, as explored above, he needed to be better at using the presence that his scoring threat posed to open space for his team-mates, most immediately through his threat as a decoy, but optimally through developing his passing vision and skill to get the ball through the channels the defence inadvertently opening up by pressuring him so much. And that is what he has now done.
It is most evident through his increase in assists per game, up 1.1 per game on last year. Yet the quality of passes has improved. His assist rate, a lowly 4.9% when he league, has increased almost every year save for two small dips and is now up all the way to 24.0%, 58th in the league, equal to star point-centre Nikola Jokic, ahead of noted wing playmakers Kevin Durant, Nic Batum, Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and ahead of point guards including Mike Conley, Eric Bledsoe and Emmanuel Mudiay.
It is precisely this ability to exploit their own abilities in this way that made Durant and Butler into the quality offensive players that they are. And DeRozan has now entered that realm.
The three-point stroke is a thing now, too.
DeRozan came into this season having hit only 236 three-pointers in 595 career regular season games, a strikingly low amount from such a high-usage two guard and made all the uglier by the career 28.0% shooting clip they came on. DeRozan almost never took threes unless he was so wide open that he had to, and never tried to get open for them, instead preferring his favourite spots on the floor a couple of steps in. But now, it appears after this past fortnight, DeRozan can shoot the long ball.
The Derozan of 2017/18 started out shooting as few of threes as ever, attempting only 68 over the first 28 games of the season and hitting only 17 of them, a typically ugly 25.0% mark. Yet in the last eight games, DeRozan has been casting them up with surprising confidence and hitting them at an even more surprising rate. In the last eight games, he has made 25 of 46 outside shots, a 54.3% success rate that drags his season three-pointing percentage to a healthy 36.8% on an also-healthy 3.2 attempts per game.
It might be a flash in the pan. But it is more likely that is the next incremental step in the continuous improvement of a player who has never stopped trying to improve.
The diversification of his game and the development of his three-point stroke has bettered his own scoring efficiency, as well as his team's. DeRozan's true shooting percentage this season is .588%, 34 points better than the second best mark that he set in his rookie season, and 52 points better than his career mark. He is also losing the ball far less, in much more control of his handle and decision making against the kinds of defensive pressure he now faces, and a half-court hub rather than a half-court option.
He is seventh in the league in win shares at 5.6. He is 14th in PER amongst all players with at least 100 minutes played at 24.1. His offensive rating is 119, 30th in the league amongst all players with at least 600 minutes played and best on the team except for the big men he is helping to set up for dunks (Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira, Alfonso McKinnie). And his offensive box plus/minus is 13th in the league at 4.1. Above Kevin Durant once again.
The isolation, mid-range two-point, defensively-passive player who is supposed to jar so badly with the overarching thematics of the 21st century sports analytics movement is somehow an advanced stats beast and one of the game's best outliers.
Well, then. Kudos.