DeMar DeRozan is an anachronism. DeRozan has already had a successful career, having appeared in four All-Star Games, while being named to the All-NBA team twice, yet he still manages to feel a bit like a relic, a player transported to 2018 from a previous era.
For six consecutive seasons, teams have combined to break the record for most three-pointers made in a season. So far this season, no team is averaging less than 24 attempts per game — a number that only eight teams reached just five years ago in the 13-14 season, Stephen Curry’s first as an All-Star. It’s a trend that must have an outer limit, but that limit currently shows no signs of being approached as the average amount of 3-pointers taken and made per team are on the rise yet again. Accordingly, players who can reliably make 3’s are prized above almost any others and you would be hard pressed to watch any game without hearing the announcers paying homage to the ideal of stretching the floor several times. Power forwards who exclusively play down low have all but vanished and the idea of a guard who can’t shoot is all but an alien one.
Sure, there’s a few exceptions, but you have to be exceptionally good in some other area to make up for it, and no guard has been able to make up for that lack quite like DeMar DeRozan.
At this point, DeRozan’s inability to shoot from deep is not merely a distinguishing mark that sets him apart from seemingly every other perimeter player in the league; it’s also honestly just quite weird. He’s extremely adept at making shots just a few feet inside the 3-point arc, so it really seems odd that he has never been able to to extend his range just a little bit. At this point, it almost feels like it has to be either pure stubbornness or simply a bizarre and inherent inability to consistently make shots from further than twenty feet away from the basket. Compounding this strangeness, he has also immeasurably improved season-to-season in so many ways, becoming much better at ball-handling and passing in particular as his career has progressed, making one wonder why he has not similarly progressed in this way as well.
So far this season, DeRozan has attempted 213 mid-range shots, while only eighteen players have attempted 100. He also leads the league in shots in the paint — but outside of the restricted area — by nearly thirty attempts. He makes these shots at well above a league average rate, but how is he able to succeed and make this style of play work for him when it would be a death knell for most players?
DeRozan is much better at getting to the rim than his reputation as a mid-range savant would lead most to believe. He takes over half of his shots in the paint, with nearly half of those attempts coming in the restricted area, where he converts them at a 67 percent rate. DeRozan is very good both on drives and in transition at getting around defenders using a variety of long strides displaying, time and time again, an ability to finish from a variety of angles. He especially loves to drive following a switch out of the pick and roll, where he takes the opportunity to drive on the slower big man, throwing off his defender with awkward, but deliberate, changes in speed.
Part of why he’s able to convert so much on contested mid-range jumpers is his ability to create space with a combination of craftiness and deft footwork. When he faces up a defender in a one on one match up, DeRozan is in constant motion, moving back and forth, side to side, trying to find the right moment to either drive past his defender or step back, keeping them off balance with every dribble and every bit of hesitation. In these isolation situations, he takes advantage of the two steps he’s allowed after picking up his dribble by stepping to the side and back in order to create separation. He also seemingly jumps backwards, even when launching straight on jumpers, in the hopes of adding a sliver of extra space.
Finally, DeRozan has some of the best footwork in the NBA and is absolutely tremendous at using his pivot foot to work for a better shot, either by getting his defender in the air or by maneuvering around them for an easy look. On drives, he uses his pivot foot when he sees that the help defense collapsing in on him, or that his defender is cutting him off, quickly planting it and then reversing course, immediately transitioning into a fadeaway jumper. It’s a combination of skills that showcases a thoughtful deliberation, an ability to quickly and accurately assess the situation he finds himself in before figuring out the best way to create a shot in that particular context.
There’s something almost admirable about DeRozan’s distinctiveness, his apparent desire to refine his own style rather than attempt to fit into another person’s prescribed idea of who he, or any modern guard, should be. Today, there are fans fretting about the homogeneity of the NBA, that all teams have embraced a similar high-paced style that focuses on finding open 3’s at the expense of everything else. DeRozan’s success single-handedly proves that there is still room for players who buck prevailing trends, who are able to become stars by maximizing their own unique array of talents. It’d be foolish to imagine that he is, by himself, marking out a space for a wave of players like him, but it does allow fans to imagine other ways of playing that are distinctively compelling, and to wait with eager anticipation for new players who are able, through their stellar abilities, to redefine what a great player may look like.