The Whiteboard: DeMar DeRozan is grinding out another career year

Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images /

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DeMar DeRozan is 31 years old, what would typically be the end of a player’s athletic prime. He hasn’t made an All-Star team in the three years since he was traded to the San Antonio Spurs. He still doesn’t take or make 3-pointers — averaging under 30 percent on less than two attempts per game from beyond the arc for the third straight season. And yet, when most data points are screaming in expectation of stagnation or decline, DeRozan is continuing to find ways to improve.

Last night, in a double-overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks, DeRozan put up 36 points and 9 assists with just one turnover. It was the fifth time this season he’s had a game with at least 25 points, 9 assists and one turnover or less. Nikola Jokic has done it four times this season, Jimmy Butler has done it three times. Ja Morant and James Harden each have two such games, the only other players in the league this season to have done it more than once.

At 31, with his athleticism theoretically in decline, DeRozan has never been more effective or precise as a play-maker. He’s averaging a career-high 7.2 assists per game this season — and he’s doing it with a turnover rate of 9.2 percent, two-tenths of a percent off his career-best mark. He’s on pace to post just the fifth season in NBA history (joining Gus Williams, Mike Conley, Tracy McGrady and Michael Jordan) with an assist percentage above 30, a usage rate above 25 and a turnover percentage in single digits.

How does DeMar DeRozan keeping getting better?

While DeRozan has never been able to make himself into a reliable 3-point shooter he has developed into an exceptional mid-range shooter. This year he’s hitting a career-high 53 percent of his pull-up 2-pointers. In terms of expected points per shot, that’s equivalent to a 35.3 percent 3-point shooter and the nature of the pull-up and his athletic ability means he can pretty much get those shots whenever he wants.

His peaking pull-up game just makes it that much harder for defenders to keep him away from the rim — he’s averaging 18.7 drives per game and shooting 53.2 drives per game, roughly the same as his best years in Toronto. But he’s also passing off those drives much more than he ever did in Toronto, using increasing savvy to leverage the defensive attention he’s drawing to find open space for others, particularly beyond the arc. So far this season, 49 percent of his assists have gone for 3-pointers well above the marks of creators like LeBron James, Luka Doncic, James Harden or Kyrie Irving.

It’s not entirely clear what the future holds for DeRozan. He’s an unrestricted free agent this offseason and the fact that the Spurs didn’t try to trade him at the deadline may indicate they hope to re-sign him at a more reasonable price. At the same time, they already have a young backcourt that could use opportunities for more offensive primacy. And DeRozan’s value to another team may not be as high as it is with the Spurs. The role he’s playing this season requires him to maximize his on-ball usage, a contending team might not be willing to lavish as much offensive primacy on him and it’s not entirely clear how the developments in his game would translate to a smaller or more supplementary role.

Still, DeRozan and his play this season deserve to be celebrated. He’s been a big part of keeping the Spurs in the Western Conference race and in what should be the twilight of his career he’s continuing to find ways to evolve and refine his game.

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