Breaking It Down

Breaking it Down: DeMar DeRozan’s slow start

DeRozan’s 3-for-17 performance last night highlighted many worrying trends.

It’s been a trying season for DeMar DeRozan.

Saddled with the responsibility of carrying a team with playoff hopes, DeRozan is struggling to find the tricky balance between being assertive and being stubborn.

Small sample size caveats apply, but his numbers though nine games bare out his troubles. 20.6 points and 8.8 free-throw attempts per game is nice, but they’re underscored by a nasty mix of a career-high 29.4 usage rate with a career-low 50.1 true-shooting percentage. Even more worrisome, his assist rate has dropped back to near career-norms at 13.3, down from 18.9 last season. He’s shooting worse, shooting more, and passing less.

To be fair, it’s very early in the season, and DeRozan has plenty of time to turn his season around.

But some worrying trends are emerging. His trying performance last night against the Bulls — in which he scored 10 points on 17 shots — highlighted many of his struggles this season.

Settling for jumpshots

He is one of the best midrange shooters in the league. I know, he’s an analytical nightmare.

Dwane Casey

DeRozan’s heavy reliance on the midrange game is ultimately his most divisive trait as a player. It’s his bread and butter, and when his shot is falling, his game looks utterly unstoppable. And as noted by Casey, DeRozan is a decent midrange shooter. He regularly shoots over 40 percent on shots between 10-16 feet out, putting him in the company of players like Carmelo Anthony in terms of midrange accuracy.

In the abstract, the shot is fine. DeRozan usually gets decent separation from his defender on his attempts, and it’s an easy play for the Raptors to run. However, DeRozan runs into trouble when he becomes over-reliant on his jumper.

Take the play below, for example. DeRozan receives a hand-off from James Johnson, sets his feet, and pulls up over Jimmy Butler.

Again, the shot is fine. But pay close attention to how Butler is playing the shot. He dares DeRozan into the attempt, being perfectly content in sitting back to guard the drive. It’s all about process — 40 percent on a two-point shot is a good outcome for the defense.

Even more important is the context. The Raptors were trailing by 16 midway through the fourth, and DeRozan had only hit one jumpshot on a dozen attempts up until that point. Settling for semi-contested jumpers early in the shot-clock isn’t the ideal way to revive a team.

It’s all about balance. DeRozan isn’t going to stop shooting midrange shots, nor is anyone suggesting that he abandon his favorite weapon. It’s a matter of him picking his spots. Against the right match-ups, pulling up is fine. But settling for jumpers with the team in a hole isn’t smart.

Put it another way: DeRozan is averaging 7.3 pull-up attempts per game, connecting on 34.8 percent of his attempts thus far. Conversely, Rudy Gay is also pulling up 7.3 times per game, but he’s shooting 39.4 percent. When you’re shooting worse than Gay on jumpshots, it’s time to reevaluate the strategy.

Relying on the whistle

DeRozan’s greatest strength on offense is undeniably his ability to toe the stripe. He is averaging 9.4 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes played, which ranks fourth among all players this season. The only three players ahead of him are two unstoppable centers in DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard, and the Eurostepping, head-whiplashing James Harden. This is a really strong trend.

The endeavor for free-throws is good. Aside from open shots around the basket, free-throws are an extremely efficient result, especially for a good shooter like DeRozan. Drawing contact and going to the line is something DeRozan does well, and something he should continue doing.

However, DeRozan has made a habit of sometimes driving wildly in hopes of the bailout. At times, it works, especially against weaker defenders. But when the whistle doesn’t come, like on the play below, DeRozan has no counter.

Therein lays the struggle with hunting for free-throws. The outcome of being awarded with two free-throws is good, but being solely reliant on the whistle isn’t. DeRozan doesn’t have a second option on the play above. It’s either get fouled, or launch a bad shot. It’s made worse by DeRozan’s incessant complaints to the officials.

Posting up bigger players

DeRozan’s hard work over the summer added a new weapon to his arsenal: the post-up game. He flashed signs of a decent post-up game last season, but he abandoned it after the Rudy Gay trade.

This season, DeRozan has made a point to attack in the post, bearing mixed results. Against smaller defenders, DeRozan has looked solid. Here’s a breakdown I wrote about DeRozan punishing Magic guard Evan Fournier. His footwork is solid and his strength allowed him to back Fournier deep into the paint.

However, against bigger players, DeRozan’s post game amounts to little more than fadeaway jumpers.

Using the fadeaway as a counter is fine. DeRozan gets good elevation and the shot is mostly clean. But ultimately, it’s the same dichotomy with all his midrange shots. Jimmy Butler knows exactly what he’s doing on the play above. He takes away DeRozan’s ability to step through by leaning on his left, and giving him the fadeaway, just like two GIFs prior, when he took away the drive leaving DeRozan with only the jumper.

The trouble is, the fadeaway is DeRozan’s only counter in the post against bigger players. DeRozan either shoots a low percentage shot, or kicks it out to reset the offense. It’s a bad outcome either way. He either needs to develop a more effective counter, or scrap the idea of posting up bigger players altogether.

Defensive negligence

In all fairness, DeRozan has improved significantly on defense through the first six seasons in the NBA. Although he isn’t a lockdown defender by any means, DeRozan has progressed to the point where he isn’t just a defensive sieve.

However, there are occasions where DeRozan takes nights off defensively, mostly in an effort to save energy for offense. That was the case last night.

Here’s DeRozan making a feeble attempt to fight through a screen.

Here’s DeRozan caught slipping while ball watching.

Conserving energy on defense is a fine idea in general, especially because DeRozan is counted upon to shoulder such a heavy burden on offense and in terms of minutes played.

But on nights where the match-up is clearly swung out of favor, DeRozan needs to admit defeat and find ways to contribute otherwise. Getting shut down by Butler is fine — he’s one of the best wing defenders in the NBA. Constantly falling asleep on defense is not.

As a closing note, it’s early in the season, and I’m confident that DeRozan can turn it around. However, there are a few worrisome trends starting to emerge. Hopefully, DeRozan can nip them in the bud, and return to all-star form.

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