When you watch DeMar DeRozan play in 2017 it’s easy to forget what he was like in his early years. Like most young players who make it to the NBA you could see a framework in place – physical traits and tendencies that could in theory be the core of a very good player – but there was no guarantee that he would ever be able to realize that potential. He was a shooting guard who couldn’t shoot or dribble particularly well, a player who sought out contact without the frame to really absorb it and gravitated toward the midrange game without the craftiness and skills required to succeed at it. He had a bit of explosiveness to his leap but fell short of that jaw dropping athleticism that screamed “future star”.
For four years we witnessed flashes of what he would become with long periods of mediocrity in between. He seemed to struggle to keep up with the game mentally and had a frustrating tendency to disappear when games mattered the most. It was never a matter of desire – he seemed to want to take over and it was rare to see any signs that his confidence was faltering – he just didn’t have a good grasp on what plays to make and when to make them so he would get in his way. Being surrounded by teammates who were by and large trying to figure these things out themselves certainly didn’t help in the short term.
Slowly but surely you could see the progress. He worked on his body and his footwork, allowing him to hold position and abuse smaller defenders. He worked on that handle, so he could work from the outside in without dribbling off his feet all the time. He added an assortment of fakes to his midrange game to draw more fouls and make it easier to get space for makeable shots instead of forcing up a constant string of borderline impossible shots(some of those shots are still there, of course, but they’re far less frequent) But after 4 years of stagnant mediocrity he made took a big step forward, and then took another one two years later to become the player you see today. It didn’t happen overnight, it took years of being able to play through his mistakes to grow into this player.
We all watched it happen and for the most part people can’t say enough about the improvement of DeRozan. The praise is deserved, if you go back and watch a full game featuring a 23 year old DeRozan – even if you cherry pick one of his best games of the season – it looks completely different from the player you see today. It’s very interesting to look back on DeRozan’s progression and compare with the players the Raptors have brought in after him because even with this knowledge of how DeRozan(and Kyle Lowry, though that wasn’t all with Toronto) have progressed there is still a lot of focus on the now instead of the future, even though the Raptors as a team still have a long way to go to get where they want to be.
The point of all of this is to encourage some patience with the Raptors young players, specifically with Jonas Valanciunas. There seems to be this perception of Valanciunas as a finished product because he hasn’t evolved at the rate we have seen with some other young players. The coaching staff keeps him on a short leash, willing to sit him for extended periods of time because of mistakes that he made much earlier in the game even while they struggle to secure rebounds or manufacture points. This is something that works against the development of a player, undermining confidence and taking away valuable opportunities for growth while potentially costing the team games. This isn’t to say that he needs to be guaranteed a certain amount of minutes but a lot of the time the decision to sit him feels punitive because they continue to sit him in situations when they clearly need his skillset. Giving up multiple crunch time offensive rebounds because you are sitting your only great rebounder due to mistakes he made in the first half is counter productive to both the short term and long term goals of the team.
The trajectory that DeMar DeRozan followed to get where he is today should be encouraging because it suggests that there is still quite a bit of time for Valanciunas to develop. A lot of it is on him – like DeRozan he probably needs to rework his body and needs to develop his playmaking and the finer details of his game – but he does need to be given the opportunity to play through mistakes like DeRozan did. His inconsistency can be frustrating for a team trying to win games in the present but when he is struggling it’s important to remember the way he saved the Raptors in the playoffs last year and that he has outplayed the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gobert, Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis head to head in recent games. The point isn’t to hide him when he isn’t that player, it’s to find ways to bring that player out with greater regularity because it’s what the team needs to take that next step. It’s not unreasonable to think that if DeRozan were kept on a short leash like this he wouldn’t be the player he is now and the Raptors were absolutely right to build him up and let him play through his rough patches, they need to do the same with Valanciunas.