DeMar DeRozan smiles because he knows exactly what Austin Rivers will do here. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Follow the league long enough and you hear about them — the maniacal types whose devotion to the game gets them from the fringes of sticking in the league to steady jobs, based largely on their willingness to continue working toward improvement even when their peers are taking a day off. If honest-to-goodness talent's there, those relentless workers might even find themselves taking the journey from Point A to Point ASG.
DeMar DeRozan isn't quite at a mid-winter classic level yet — while the Toronto Raptors swingman is having perhaps the best season of his four-year NBA career, averaging 18.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting more consistently from deep and turning the ball over less frequently, he's still not significantly better than a league-average performer on a per-minute basis, according to the Player Efficiency Rating metric and most understandings of NBA defensive acumen. But even in a Raptors culture that's been fairly toxic since well before he first donned an NBA jersey, he's getting closer, and this brilliant Thursday anecdote from Doug Smith of the Toronto Star helps explain why:
Practice [...] is long over, there’s not another game for two days, the benevolent dictators who run things around the Raptors schedule a rare mid-afternoon practice on Jan. 1 so that the kids can go out and have their fun.
He’s a 22-year-old lad, with wealth and fame and notoriety beyond his wildest imagination and surely some A List event is beckoning.
He’s in bed most of the night. Watching videos. Of himself. Playing basketball. So he can get better.
“New Year’s? I was watching film that night,” DeRozan said Thursday. “I probably watched film for about two hours. A lot of my mistakes, a lot of my decision-making, a lot of little things like that.”
No, DeMar. We’re talking New Year’s Eve here.
“New Year’s night. Right after they said Happy New Year,” he said. “It was about 1:30 in the morning until about 3 in the morning. I was just laying in bed and watching. I’m just trying to better myself at every part.”
So, no allegedly too-loud late-afternoon music, then? Cool.
Coming into the season, I was skeptical about whether the 23-year-old DeRozan, whom the Raps tapped with the ninth overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft, could be a team-carrying player, the sort of focal point capable of assuming primary offensive responsibility for a successful and competitive NBA team. And like BDL Editor Kelly Dwyer, I was skeptical that the Raptors' October decision to extend DeRozan for four years and $38 million was a wise move, both from a talent perspective and a team-building, long-term balance-sheet perspective. There are legitimate concerns in treating DeRozan like he is a star — for all his athleticism, he's neither an especially gifted one-on-one creator nor a top-flight wing defender; he doesn't shoot the 3 well; and as his usage has gone up over his career, his offensive contributions have tended to stagnate or decline.
This year, though, we've seen some improvements in DeRozan's game. He's still not a top-flight perimeter defender and he'll likely always have difficulty anchoring in the post with his thin frame, but he's allowing significantly fewer points per possession on isolation plays than he had in his first three seasons, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data. He's still not a consistently reliable floor-spacer, but he's hitting a career-high 30.9 percent of his 3-point tries this year, and improved his percentage from midrange (where he's taken more than 45 percent of his attempts this season) from 36.3 percent last year to 41.4 percent this year, according to NBA.com's stat tool.
He's seemed more willing to take the reins and more comfortable when doing so, even though it hasn't always worked out for the 12-20 Raptors; he's working his ass off, you can see the results, and stories like this help illustrate the process that goes into it. While we're proposing toasts and making sure old acquaintances aren't forgotten, he's trying to figure out if he took the wrong first step midway through the second quarter against Philly in November. That's kind of amazing.
Little by little, he's answering our questions about whether he was worth the Raptors' investment, in part by answering questions about his own play and development, according to Smith:
“I’m more confident in every decision I make on both ends . . . more comfortable and understanding and not questioning none of my opportunities,” he said.
“Whether I should drive or shoot or if I should be aggressive this time,” he said. “I think I’m just reading situations better than I was and understanding what I have to do, not just for myself but for the next person on the team.”
Just growing up.
“It comes with experience and I watch a lot of film,” he said. “Just understanding defences or how they’re going to play me.
“Just little stuff that I never paid attention to before.”
If he keeps paying attention to it, he'll be a rotation player in this league for a long time; if his level of attention meets his level of pure athletic ability and propels north, he could be someone for us to pay attention to for years to come. Either way, hearing stories like this must make it easier for Raptors fans to feel good about the franchise's decision to lock DeRozan down for four more years and rely on him as an integral part of the team's future development.