Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan - teammates soon?

Twenty-six games left before there’s a 6 1/2 month drought of Raptors basketball. Think about that, maybe it’ll help you enjoy and even relish the final third of the NBA season. Searching for positives has been made easier of late with the emergence of rookie Ed Davis and sophomore DeMar DeRozan, who we’ll see this weekend in the Slam Dunk Contest proper. Coming into the year he had three major knocks against him – shooting, ball-handling and defense. Since the turn of the new year all three have seen improvement. DeRozan has seen his field-goal attempts rise by four since December, he’s taking 16 shots a game and shooting 51% in 2011. What makes this feat impressive is that the makes are coming in the form of jumpshots. I don’t have access to monthly percentages per shot-range, but even aggregating his 2010-11 totals and comparing to last year speaks to the improvement.

The telling range is the one between 10-15 feet, it’s the area of the court where guards who can’t shoot force the issue against interior help defenders, and those that can have solid NBA careers. The 10-15 foot range is also ideal for catch-and-shoot guards who can extract high-quality shots against trailing defenders by making the most of screens. Last season DeRozan shot 31% from this area and only took 0.6 shots a game from there. This year he’s quadrupled the number of shots from the exact same range, and doubled the percentage of overall shots he takes from there, all the while hitting them at a 43.2% clip. Comparing that number to the master of the mid-range/screen-usage game of the recent era, Richard Hamilton, it’s rather impressive. Since 2001, Hamilton has shot 45%, 47%, 41%, 42% and 32% from this key area, and we can see that DeRozan is doing his best to catch up.

The other area that hoopdata.com tracks is the 16-23 feet range, the story is similar here. He’s shooting 42% (compared to 38% last season) and has doubled the amount of shots he takes. Putting all these numbers together you see a player dedicated to improving an area of his game which is seen as the biggest knock against him, to me that is a sign of a keeper. It’s only been one summer and he’s already recognized that remaining stagnant is not an option. I wish that was an attitude adopted by all our players.

In a summer-time interview with our colleagues at Raptors HQ, Eric Hughes went into specifics of DeRozan’s areas for improvement:

It’s time to develop even further and take his game to another level and do things like not run people over when he gets in the lane, have that pull-up jump-shot like you talked about, and also add some other shots to his game, not just getting the basket and getting lay-ups. He’s gotta have that pull-up game, he’s gotta develop a little floater in the lane, and hey, he’s gotta develop his range too. He’s still not very confident from the 3-point line, he still kicks his legs out when he’s out in that area, and he doesn’t have the confidence he needs to have. So with some more hard work and dedicating himself for the rest of the summer, he can take that next step next year.

What we’re now seeing are the fruits of hard work. The floater hasn’t been showcased a great deal and understandably so, getting that shot right is very difficult, especially when you release it from the baselines which is where DeRozan will be forced as his jumper develops. The finishing at the rim against help defenders has been disappointing, but only until you consider his free-throw attempts – 4.8 per game. The hallmark of a great scorer has always been getting to the line, from guards to bigs, it’s what is absolutely required from a player which wants to be “the man” on the team. The 4.8 FTAs is modest, good for 7th in the league amongst shooting guards. Second-year FTA numbers for prominent shooting guards are very similar, for example Kobe Bryant had 5.8 and Monta Ellis had 4.6, Dwayne Wade is in a league of his own with a ridiculous 9.9.

This was going to be a trying season from the start, the playoffs were set as a goal in pre-season only for the team to aim at something, nothing more. It wasn’t realistic and I’m sure the players knew it themselves, this was to be a year of growth with the hopes that at least two of the five starting positions can be shored up for the next five years. Right at this moment it looks like DeRozan could be one of those positions, there are still many questions to be asked, but those that have been asked have been answered with a positive response.