I was a little concerned coming into this, DeMar DeRozan’s 9th season in the NBA, with him hitting 28 years old, that historical context for players with his offensive profile said that he might begin to show signs of aging earlier than some other players. After all, in the three-point era, there are so few examples of guys who don’t shoot threes and rely on getting to the free throw line often having elite scoring seasons at his age, with most players who score in that fashion falling off in their late 20s. In the last 20 years, the only players to have seasons with better than a 35% free throw rate, less than a 20% three-point attempt rate, and more than 28% usage at the age of 28 or older are Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson.
So the task ahead of DeRozan was simple and yet difficult, change up his game, establish himself alongside those players in terms of aging gracefully, or face his own decline. After all, those benchmarks are being generous for DeMar, whose three All-Star campaigns came with no three-point rate higher than 2013-14’s 14.9% and no free-throw rate lower than 2016-17’s 41.9%, and at least 28% usage in all three seasons.
Yet, through the first 20% of this season, DeRozan is having his most efficient year in the league, with career highs in both effective field-goal percentage and true shooting, while also hitting a career high in assist rate. Perhaps you could quibble with his still erratic defensive performances, or some of the late-game execution, but the overall numbers are clear, at an age when many players(aside from a selection of All-Time greats) with his game have fallen off, he’s getting better, leaving the question of how he’s managing to defy what you’d normally expect from him at this point in his career. His scoring might be down a touch from last year, but with him getting those points more efficiently, this looks like a better version of the player, helping the team’s offense at the expense of his own numbers.
The simple answer would be to simply assume that he’s just doing what he’s always done, but doing it smarter, and there’s certainly anecdotal evidence to support that. DeMar has always had an easy grace to his offensive game, an ability to make difficult shots look simple with brilliant footwork, and create highlight reel buckets out of nothing. While isolation basketball can struggle against more capable defenses as the last few playoff runs have shown, when facing a less capable defense it can be aesthetically brilliant the way DeMar can eviscerate a team.
This year, however, his numbers in isolation and are down. Last year DeRozan fell in the 86th percentile of NBA players at 1.02 points per possession on isolations with 4.6 possessions per contest, making it a solid option any trip down the floor. This year he’s lost nearly a possession per game, down to just 3.8 isolations per game, and his efficiency has plummeted, down to 0.78 PPP, good for just the 29th percentile.
But, as was pointed out above, this has been by far the most efficient season of DeRozan’s career, and if he’s scoring less on what has been his bread and butter in years past while his scoring as a pick and roll ball handler has remained largely the same(0.96 PPP this year vs. 0.97 a year ago), the task becomes finding where the jump in efficiency has come, and the culprit is that he’s a much, much better shooter when the team is creating shots for him.
A year ago, DeRozan was in the bottom half of the league as a spot-up shooter, which really doesn’t come as a surprise, given that he’s not known as a catch and shoot player. DeRozan is recognized as a guy who likes to have the ball in his hands and dictate the offense for the team, creating those shots for other guys instead. This year, however, he’s in the 87th percentile as a spot-up shooter and coming off screens, becoming a reliable scoring option for the team in motion.
This improvement is also visible elsewhere statistically, where we can look at numbers like effective field goal percentage versus touch time. Last season, DeMar excelled on longer possessions, posting his best percentage(at 50.6%) when he had the ball in his hands for 6+ seconds, which accounted for 31.9% of his shooting possessions. This season, that’s still 30.5% of his possessions thus far with similar efficiency, at a 49.4% eFG%. However, on the shorter end, when he has the ball in his hands for two seconds or less, his efficiency has jumped massively, to 69.4% eFG% from 45.7% last year.
When you watch the games, what you see is that this isn’t just a case of DeMar having improved his jump shot and selection, which he has both, but it’s also a case of him initiating the offense and helping keep it in motion, whether the ball is in his hands or someone else’s. Part of the Raptors’ problem in years past has been stagnation, having four guys watching while one player handles the ball, and the offensive decision making has been slow to develop, often with a single player dribbling in place for several seconds before anything develops. This year, when the team is really rolling, the decision making is happening quicker and it’s helping catch defenses off guard, creating mismatches and then exploiting them.
This all begins with DeRozan, as the player who has most frequently had the ball in his hands, and he’s been much better this year at making those quick decisions and then initiating the motion in the offense, which has paid off not only for other players who have been the beneficiaries of the better looks DeMar is creating with his passing, but also has paid off for him when the ball swings back in his direction and he’s been hitting those open shots created for him. It’s still early in the season, so it’s entirely possible that there’s noise here and he’s due for some regression, but the eye test seems to say this is sustainable, this is simple him embracing the new Raptors offense and the offense, in exchange, embracing DeMar.