Why DeMar DeRozan is the most polarizing player in the NBA

DeMar DeRozan

As a three-time All-Star with averages of 23.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game since 2014, DeMar DeRozan checks out as one of the best players currently in the NBA. And yet, he hasn’t been recognized as such for the second offseason in a row. Despite being named to the All-NBA Third Team last season, ESPN recently ranked DeRozan as the 39th best player in the NBA. Sports Illustrated had him slightly higher in their rankings, placing him behind a trio of non-All-Stars in Khris Middleton, Hassan Whiteside and Kristaps Porzingis at No. 36.

The discrepancy speaks to how polarizing DeRozan’s game is in today’s NBA. On one hand, he’s a perennial All-Star in the prime of his career. On the other, he’s a flawed player in a day and age where his skill set makes him an awkward fit on most teams. To better understand both sides of the argument, let’s take a look at what DeRozan does well and why the way in which he plays continues to draw criticism from fans and members of the media.

DeRozan is one of the purest scorers in the NBA. He finished behind only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Davis in scoring last season with 27.3 points per game. He did so making 46.7 percent of his total shot attempts from the field and 84.2 percent of his attempts from the free-throw line, both of which are fantastic marks. The former ranked him No. 7among shooting guards and the latter ranked him No. 12.

Furthermore, only four players in the entire league — Harden, Westbrook, Thomas and Jimmy Butler — made more free throws than DeRozan on the season. He seems to figure out new ways to draw fouls every season, and he has developed the unique skill of knowing how to bait defenders into fouling him in volume on shot attempts.

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DeRozan creates a lot of those points himself. According to NBA.com, 564 of his 721 made field goals were unassisted last season. Of the 469 players who appeared in at least 20 games, only 11 created a higher percentage of their baskets by themselves, all of whom were point guards.

DeRozan doesn’t need someone to create for him because he’s a tough shot maker. Nearly 75 percent of his scoring last season came within four feet of a defender, and he made nearly half of those attempts. At 6-7 with a 6-9 wingspan, he uses his size well to get to his spots from midrange and shoot over defenders. It makes him almost unguardable against single coverage because very few backcourt defenders have the speed, length and athleticism needed to disrupt his rhythm, which is why pull-ups and step backs have become such a huge part of his game.

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Making DeRozan more valuable is his comfort level scoring in a variety of ways with the ball in his hands. Almost 41 percent of his offense came as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls last season, and he ranked in the 84.3 percentile with 0.97 points per possession. For context, Chris Paul generated 44.7 percent of his offense as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll and ranked in the 83.3 percentile with 0.96 points per possession. Harden scored almost as frequently as DeRozan and ranked in the 92.7 percentile with 1.01 points per possession.

Even without a reliable 3-point shot, DeRozan is as good as it gets as a pick-and-roll scorer.

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After pick-and-rolls, DeRozan is most likely to score in isolation (17.1 percent frequency), the post (9.0 percent frequency) and transition (8.8 percent frequency). He was elite in each of those categories, ranking in the 86.4 percentile in isolation, the 96.9 percentile in the post and the 78.4 percentile in transition. Once again, his physical tools and soft touch help him excel in each of those play types, especially when he finds himself in position to attack a mismatch.

Finally, DeRozan is one of the league leaders in scoring off drives. Only Thomas created more points per game on drives than DeRozan last season, and DeRozan made 54.9 percent of his shot attempts in those situations. Of the 16 players who scored at least 6.0 points per game on drives, only LeBron James (62.4 percent) and Kyle Lowry (55.1 percent) converted them at a higher rate. DeRozan, however, had everyone beat when it came to his ability to turn those possessions into points.

Put those factors together, and you have a player who can consistently manufacture his own shot against basically any defense the NBA has to offer. It’s particularly useful in crunch time when teams clear the floor for their best scorer to attack in isolation. DeRozan scored a total of 148 points last season in what NBA.com defines as clutch time — five-point differential or less with five minutes remaining in the game — on 48.7 percent shooting from the field. He was plus-63 in those situations, which was better than Harden (minus-27), James (plus-54), Butler (plus-43) and Damian Lillard (plus-22) to name a few stars.

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But then there’s the analytics problem…

A lot of the criticism with DeRozan’s game revolves around his inability to make 3-pointers, something he’s reportedly hoping to change heading into next season.

While the rest of the NBA focuses on shooting less from midrange and more from the perimeter, DeRozan has done the opposite. 54.6 percent of his shot attempts were of the long 2-point variety last season (almost a career-high) compared to 8.0 percent coming from the perimeter (almost a career-low). He attempted a total of 124 3-pointers on the season and made those opportunities at a 26.6 percent clip. According to ESPN, 203 players attempted more 3-pointers than he did and 339 players converted them at a higher rate.

That hurts DeRozan in a number of ways. For example, even though Stephen Curry made an almost identical 46.8 percent of his shot attempts last season, he ranked No. 19 in the league with a true shooting percentage — a measure of a player’s shooting efficiency by taking 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws into account — of 62.4 percent. By generating very little of his offense from the perimeter, DeRozan ranked No. 156 in the league alongside Norman Powell and Kyle O’Quinn with a true shooting percentage of 55.2 percent.

It’s a similar case with adjusted field goal percentage: Curry ranked No. 10 in the league and DeRozan ranked No. 103 alongside Westbrook, Derrick Rose and Marcus Morris.

DeRozan’s reluctance to shoot 3-pointers also impacts how the Raptors play. 6.9 percent of DeRozan’s offense came from spot-ups last season, and he ranked in the 48.2 percentile with 0.95 points per possession. An even smaller amount of his offense came from cuts. It’s reflective in how frequently DeRozan scores following seven dribbles (25.2 percent of his offense) and six seconds of touching the ball (31.9 percent of his offense), and how little he scores following zero dribbles (15.9 percent of his offense) and within two seconds of touching the ball (20.8 percent of his offense).

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It doesn’t help that DeRozan has a history of struggling in the playoffs. His career averages in the postseason stand at 21.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game on 40.3 percent shooting from the field and 20.9 percent shooting from the perimeter. There’s no clear explanation for why he struggles as much as he does in the playoffs, but the midrange pull-ups he thrives on during the regular season can disappear because teams are able to game plan better by putting length on him and not falling for as many of his fakes.

If DeRozan was more comfortable playing without the ball in his hands by spotting-up and cutting, it would likely make him a more dynamic and less predictable offensive player.

And some other weaknesses…

The two other factors people usually point to when discussing DeRozan’s weaknesses are his passing and defense.

DeRozan had the fifth-highest usage rating in the league last season, but he created very little offense for his teammates. According to NBA.com, he received 53.1 passes per game and made 34.8 passes per game for an average of 3.9 assists per game. (Westbrook, who has the reputation of being a ball hog, received 75.0 passes per game and made 61.1 passes per game). DeRozan created 9.8 points per game through those assists, a similar rate to George Hill, Yogi Ferrell, Julius Randle, James Johnson and Dwyane Wade.

That’s less of a reflection of DeRozan’s ability to pass and more of a reflection of how he and the Raptors — a team that ranked dead last in assists per game last season — operate. The primary way the Cavaliers exposed the Raptors in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals was by trapping DeRozan to get the ball out of his hands, knowing he’s not used to making those passes, and that he’s far less of a scoring threat away from the ball.

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