Entering his eighth season in the NBA, DeMar DeRozan is set to eclipse Morris Peterson’s all time Raptors record for most games played. His $139 million dollar contract acts as the background to the significant milestone, essentially dubbing DeRozan as the new King of Toronto. Make no mistake, DeRozan earned the deal with his all-star level play, low-maintenance attitude, hard work and unyielding loyalty. It was speculated that other teams were willing to give him a four-year maximum, leaving the Raptors with little choice but to give him the max or close to it if they wanted to retain him.
The 2015/16 season cemented DeRozan (alongside the Raptors) as a regular season powerhouse, as he posted career-best numbers in various categories, improving his efficiency in the process. He finished the year ninth in the league in scoring, elevated his true shooting percentage to a respectable 55% and bumped his assist count upwards as well. By all accounts, DeMar DeRozan ‘ProvedEm’ and earned the right to be the face of the franchise.
His playoff performance left much to be desired however, as his efficiency and improved playmaking disappeared, adding fuel to the raging debate that never seems to subside (for more on this, check out the summer’s best DeRozan piece, William Lou’s definitive guide to arguing about DeMar).
What do the people want?
Far from an enigma, DeMar has become a known commodity in the midst of his NBA career. He’s a strong and willing slasher who works hard to improve each and every year; he’s a crafty scorer who can hurt you in multiple ways, and is an excellent free throw shooter to boot. His skill and character earned him a second Team USA call-up in the summer of 2016, as DeRozan added an Olympic gold medal to his list of accolades. And for his first seven years in a Raptors uniform, his work ethic and volume scoring were enough. He grew alongside Dwane Casey, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross and even Kyle Lowry (who had little post season experience before the Raptors), as they all took their baby steps into the gladiatorial arena that is the NBA playoffs against Brooklyn’s seasoned veterans. DeRozan fought bravely, but was outmatched.
In his second foray into late April play, a surprisingly adept Wizards team annihilated him and his squad, throwing the Raptors’ entire strategy into question. Ujiri showed faith in the Casey-DeMar-Kyle trio despite that fiasco, the decision paying immediate dividends as Toronto recorded its best season in franchise history. But DeRozan did not play as large a part in the playoff run as he wanted – at one point even sitting out a 4th quarter in the crucial second game of the Pacers series.
A strong argument could be made that the likes of Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo and Patrick Patterson, the team’s role players added by Ujiri, were responsible for keeping the team playing in late May (making for an unusually short off-season in Raptor land). DeMar’s playmaking was nowhere to be found, his assists per game dropping from 4 to under 3 in the post-season, and his shooting percentage to under 40% (stood at 44.6% in the regular season). Worse still, his offensive rating dropped from 113 in the regular season to 96 in the post-season, while his defensive rating dropped by 2 points. DeRozan was downright a net negative on the floor at times.
As dark as it may seem, every cloud has a silver lining. And in the NBA playoffs, context matters. When the 2016 playoffs got under way, DeMar was slated to appear in only his 12th career post-season game. To put that into perspective, here is the playoff appearance count for active players we often see excel in the post-season as focal points of the offense:
In all but the most rare cases, highly touted college players who enter the NBA fail to dominate in their first two seasons. Despite an abundance of talent, there is a mental and physical adjustment they need to make in order to translate their skills to the bigger stage. The exact same process applies to the playoffs – it’s simply a different game. DeMar spent four full seasons in the NBA without a single playoff appearance, and six without winning a post-season round – he needed to learn how to excel and win in the demanding new environment.
With the 2016/17 season about to kick off, both Raptor pundits and personnel know that their success will be measured not by winning 45, 50, or 55 out of the 82 scheduled games, but rather their playoff performance. The Toronto Raptors have finally become a playoff mainstay, set to make the post-season for a franchise best 4th straight season this year. Their expectations and metrics have been set accordingly – success in April and May is what matters. With 31 playoff games under his belt and without the possibility of pleading playoff inexperience, DeMar DeRozan’s success will be measured in the same way. He is a smart, hardworking individual that loves the game of basketball and wants to leave his mark on the league. In order to do that, he will need to use the regular season as proving ground to prepare for April – carrying improved playmaking and efficiency into the playoffs, becoming a catalyst for the success of the Raptors.
Does the King have a Mandate?
The Toronto Raptors organization showed their faith in the young man by inking him to the massive new contract on the first day of free agency. As is the law under Dwane Casey, his usage will remain high, perhaps climbing further if Lowry’s minutes are reduced. DeMar will be tasked with the responsibility of making plays for others as well as for himself. There are many who claim that DeRozan is essentially a finished product at this point, and his style of play will not change; that he is a volume scorer, period. However, he must realize that in order to take the next step and prove SI wrong (ranked 46th in the NBA among active players), DeMar will need to make the four guys on the floor around him better. By finding open teammates when the opposing defense inevitably collapses on him, he would increase their confidence and force the other team to guard them, thereby making his own life on offense that much easier. If the newly minted Olympic gold medalist truly wants to be a mainstay in the league’s top 20, he has no choice but to evolve as a player.
For better or worse, DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors will be forever intertwined in the annals of NBA history, and Raptor fans will watch keenly as the new King of the Six faces a pivotal crossroads in his career and that of their beloved franchise. Let’s #ProveEm.Follow @raptorsrepublic