DeMar DeRozan was drafted ninth overall in the 2009 NBA Draft at the tender age of 20. DeRozan, now 26, is entering the prime of his basketball career and developing into one of the NBA’s best two-way guards with a sizable gap between him and whomever is in the tier below him. He’s a bonafide superstar, a player coaches design entire defensive schemes to stop, a player so polished and lethal on offense that he doesn’t resemble his rookie self at all.
Most players get better with experience, but the degree to which DeRozan’s improved is simply unheard of in the NBA.
But first, let’s take a look at what fans and the media expected of the Raptors in the 2009 NBA Draft. The Raptors finished 13th in the Eastern Conference that season. Chris Bosh was the focal point of the offense, Sam Mitchell had just been fired with top assistant Jay Triano taking over, and several wait-that-guy-played-in-the-NBA players filled out the roster. Don’t believe me?
Marcus Banks. Hassan Adams. Quincy Douby. Nathan Jawai. Jake Voshkul. Roko Ukic. Joey Graham. Will Solomon. Patrick O’Bryant. Yeah.
Aside from a then-decent core of Bosh, Jose Calderon, and Andrea Bargnani, the Raptors were very, very shallow, especially on the wings. Anthony Parker was good, but old. Jason Kapono wasn’t bad, but even in his prime it was clear he was a role player. So leading up to the draft, it was fairly obvious the Raptors would be targeting a wing. There was also a sect of Raptors fans adamant the team should draft a point guard, but those fans hated Calderon because he was Calderon, so moot point.
The Raptors were reported to be interested in one of DeRozan, Gerald Henderson, Terrence Williams, Earl Clark, or Ty Lawson. With hindsight on our side, DeRozan is clearly the best of that bunch by a substantial margin. Many reputable outlets didn’t have DeRozan as a top-10 prospect (though many of those same outlets did have him going at 9 to the Raptors), which usually colors fans’ perspectives. So, what was the response when DeRozan was drafted?
The Raptors picked up DeMAR DeROZAN, should have either moved up or down in the draft, seems like a wasted pick.
— iakona750 (@iakona750) June 26, 2009
Demar Derozan has huge teeth. Damn they are massive!
— Dan Go (@Dan_Go) June 26, 2009
Man, 2009 was a much simpler time. The trolls hadn’t discovered Twitter yet, there was no overflow of think pieces, and for the most part people were just happy to be a part of something. How time flies, eh?
DeRozan played a meagre 21.6 minutes per game under Triano his rookie year and was a token starter — a promise that while he’s not good enough to start yet, the Raptors believed in his potential — and aside from some fantastic dunks, his rookie year was rather uneventful. He shot a respectable 48.9 percent from the field that year (not hard to do when you’re often the fifth option and quite literally have zero plays run for you), pulled down 2.9 rebounds, dished 0.7 assists, and snared 0.6 steals per game. The numbers themselves weren’t great, but anyone watching him play saw the same potential the Raptors did. The Raptors force-fed us, over and over, how hard of a worker DeRozan was, and for a while it was unclear if that was the truth or the team talking up their young wing. In retrospect, it was clearly the former. I still have images of DeRozan making v-cuts for midrange jumpers burned into my memory courtesy of NBATV Canada.
But not everyone was happy. The Toronto Star‘s Doug Smith famously advocated for Antoine Wright to start over DeRozan and for Sonny Weems to be the first wing off the bench. Others were quick to point out his flaws and label him a bust. From Raptorsrepublic‘s Copywryter:
Decent young player, but doesn’t have a starter’s toolkit.
Can’t shoot from deep
Can’t create his own shot
Not good defensively – yes this may change as most rooks fall in this category
Not a great passer or playmaker
Hope springs eternal for you homers, eh?
My fear is the team is building around a guy who could be a Ronnie Brewer.
Each of those points were valid concerns — DeRozan shot 25 percent from deep, 67.8 percent of his field goals were assisted, he was weak and green and dished out a paltry 1.1 assists per 36 minutes — but most fans were simply happy to have a young player they could develop into anything they wanted. It had been a while, and the Joey Graham experiment was still fresh on their minds. This didn’t seem like that, though. No, DeRozan seemed better. Much better.
Still, it was clear that for DeRozan to pan out, he’d need to put a tremendous amount of effort into his craft. Long, tireless nights in the gym and extended hours watching film would have to be the norm. Luckily, that’s exactly what happened. And then, something extremely beneficial to DeRozan’s career happened: Bosh left for Miami.
With Bosh gone, the team doubled down on youth and committed themselves to a slow, patient rebuild. Most nights, the Raptors rolled out a starting lineup of Calderon, DeRozan, Weems, Amir Johnson, and Bargnani. This was also the season the Young Ones (forever the Young Gunz in my heart) were born.
After a single year of planned, careful development, DeRozan was thrown into the fire. By necessity, his usage rate shot up from 18.1 his rookie year to 23.2 in 2011, with Triano and the Raptors depending on him to start creating for himself (59.4 percent of DeRozan’s made field goals were assisted that year). A few tricks started making appearances, including a deadly spin move and the reintroduction of the turnaround jumper DeRozan was so fond of at USC. Still, DeRozan’s efficiency plummeted (his eFG% dropped from 50.2 to 46.9) with the greater offensive load, and concerns began to bubble up about his future.
“He can’t shoot.”
“His handle is terrible.”
“He can’t pass.”
“He doesn’t play defense.”
“He doesn’t have the ‘it’ factor.”
At various points in his career, those things were true. DeRozan’s never shot better than 30.5 percent from behind the arc. His handle was mechanical, slow, and he brought the ball too high. His vision was limited to the basket, and his passing skills weren’t great either. Quicker guards blew by him on a regular basis, and bigger wings were able to bully him. In crunch time, he had a tendency to disappear or make bad plays.
Fast forward to 2016 and none of those things are true. DeRozan’s shooting a career-high 32.1 percent on 3-pointers (as well as 41.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3’s, 40.7 percent when he doesn’t dribble, and 45.5 percent when wide open). His handle’s better than many point guards, and he’s able to string together complicated moves into beautiful works of art. He’s dishing out a career-high 4.1 assists per game. His defense — while still not great — is acceptable more often than not and good more often than you’d think. He’s the go-to guy in the clutch alongside Kyle Lowry.
In a way, he’s still the exact same player he was in 2010 while also being a different player altogether. That? That’s growth.
And credit Triano and the various assistant coaches the Raptors have had over the years with much of DeRozan’s development. Their impact is probably understated, with most people wanting to believe that players are self-made and the product of their own dreams and desires. That’s true to an extent, but work ethic is meaningless if you’re not given the tools and instruction to succeed. It’s a bit like having an eager kid with no access to a library or computer. Sure, the kid can want to be smart, but without the appropriate resources, it’s just not going to happen.
Barring an upset, DeRozan will be named an All-Star in a few hours. That’ll be his second selection in three years, and at the tender age of 26, his best basketball is almost certainly ahead of him. He’s going to command a max contract this summer too, and while the figures frighten people, it’s deserved.
DeRozan’s that good. And if the last seven years are any indication, he’s only going to get better.