When most people think of Cormac McCarthy, if they think of him at all, they likely think of his young, swashbuckling cowboys that are so commonly his protagonists -- think The Kid in Blood Meridian or John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses or Billy Parham in The Crossing. It might be surprising to know that McCarthy actually didn't become famous until he was already in his 60s. He was born in 1933 and didn't publish Blood Meridian until the 1980s, The Road and No Country for Old Men until the 2000s.
Some people are just late bloomers. But is Dennis Schroder one of them?
Most NBA players don't have the best season of their career after they already turn 30 and are in their 11th NBA season. Steve Nash did it, with his best seasons coming when he returned to Phoenix after age 30. But it's extremely uncommon. Yet Schroder is playing the best basketball of his career so far in 2023-24. Catch-all metrics are far from the be-all-end-all, but they at least tell a story; Schroder, among point guards with at least 100 minutes played, is ninth in Box Plus/Minus, ahead of guards like Damian Lillard, Jamal Murray, and, yes, Fred VanVleet.
Should we expect Schroder's success to stay at this level?
For one thing, though Darko Rajakovic has said so, this actually isn't Schroder's first chance with the keys to a team. He started 78 games at point guard for the Atlanta Hawks in 2016-17, his fourth season in the league, and he averaged 128 touches per 100 possessions. He finished eighth in total touches that year, ahead of Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, and others. This season he has remarkably similar such numbers, ranking fifth in touches, averaging 126 per 100 possessions.
He has been given the keys to previous franchises. It just hasn't really worked out before, not to this extent.
In that 2016-17 season for Atlanta, he led alongside Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard (!), and the team finished 43-39. They were solid but had no young star in the process of developing and lost in the first round. Things fell apart next year, as Schroder started at point guard once again but without Millsap or Howard. The team finished 24-58, and it was Trae Young's team the following season.
Schroder has bounced around since then and hasn't had quite that level of opportunity that he did in Atlanta. In Oklahoma City, he played alongside Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, which worked extremely well, but meant he was never the team's primary guard on the floor. He did start 101 games for the Los Angeles Lakers across 2020-21 and 2022-23, and though he played alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, he still saw plenty of the ball. In 2020-21, he finished 13th in the league in touches, leading the Lakers.
So Schroder has been given the keys before, to varying extents. But this year, he is thriving like he never has in the past. He has tamed his game, with a usage rate (25.0 percent) that's fairly low for a lead guard and far below what it was in his last years in Atlanta. (Because we're going to be comparing the two quite a bit, naturally, in our heads, I'll just add that VanVleet's usage rate was virtually identical last year, at 25.7 percent.) What makes 2023-24 Schroder's career year is his finishing fewer possessions and doing most of his damage (like VanVleet last year) by passing the ball.
Schroder's assist rate is an enormous 38.5 percent, the best of his career. And though he had similar numbers in his last years in Atlanta, he did it on much higher usage then. As a result, he's in the 90th percentile for assist-to-usage among point guards this year, despite never even reaching average in a prior full season.
More than any other Raptor, Schroder is a tenacious corner-turner, always looking to get his hips past his initial defender and engage the secondary line of defense. He thus forces huge numbers of rotations, and he's been fantastic at capitalizing on those advantages by delivering passes to the best spots.
He's shown improving chemistry with several of his teammates, but the most has been with Jakob Poeltl. He loves hitting Poeltl on the roll, either early with a bounce pass to set up Poeltl's unique footwork, or late after drawing the shot-blocker's attention to open the shot for his big. The through-the-legs early bounce pass to Poeltl on the roll is something of a signature pass for Schroder.
Yet Schroder has actually been terrific at assisting a variety of his teammates. In fact, he combos with multiple teammates to several times break into the ranks of the most-assists-to-one-teammate leaderboard.