There is no more explosive scorer in basketball right now than DeMar DeRozan. Toronto's resident All-Star has been completely undeniable. DeRozan has faced switches, doubles, zoned help, and hard hedges. Defenders of every position and every physical profile have taken a crack at guarding him.
None of it has meant a damn thing.
Every player on the floor knows that DeRozan is making shots at an astonishing clip and that he wants to fire away at any reasonable opportunity. Expert footwork and canny shot fakes make it possible. The longer that DeRozan continues to breathe fire, the more ruthless his every feint becomes.
Defenses are left to contend with a player bigger and stronger than his average positional opponent, patient enough to pick his spots, and skilled in creating airspace out of nothing. DeRozan's handle has been refined, year after year, to the point that it enables sharper drives and more deceptive crosses. The combination fade and step-back gives even closely contested shots a plausible—or these days, probable—trajectory toward the rim. Good isolation play can be helpful as the situation calls for it. Transcendent isolation play, on the other hand, is almost impossible to fully scheme away.
This is where DeRozan lives right now. Two months ago, SI.com projected the Top 100 players of 2017—an attempt to parse through the incredible talent around the league independent of team context. We ranked DeRozan at No. 46. DeRozan understandably objected. The ranking became a line of questioning in training camp and DeRozan, again, voiced his displeasure. “I guarantee you a lot of them players that were ranked ahead of me know they are not better than me,” he said.
Seven years of tape and data had pointed to DeRozan as a player of significant and particular strength but also unavoidable weakness; great scoring output and foul-drawing ability was hedged by underwhelming defense, uninspiring efficiency, and a jamming effect on his team's spacing. More recently, DeRozan had been held to 32% shooting and 39% shooting, respectively, in back-to-back playoff series that featured the Raptors as heavy favorites. Both series were nearly lost as long, disciplined defenders robbed DeRozan of his primary value. Opponents abandoned him beyond the three-point line to clog the works of Toronto's sets and take away any straightforward access to the rim.
A player like that can only be complicated. There was no doubt of DeRozan's scoring credentials—merely an acknowledgement that his complete game isn't the easiest fit for a wide swath of roster compositions and play styles. Even those things he did best seemed to have clear counters. We expected DeRozan, a grinder who improves every year, to be better this season than the player we saw in May. But why would anyone expect an established star to return to the same team with essentially the same roster and produce in dramatically different fashion than he ever had before?
That's exactly what's happening, because basketball is awesome and complex and, in certain ways, deeply unpredictable. Projections can only be best guesses, and those best guesses are always at mercy of empirical truth. DeRozan is overwhelming any defenders put in his path. That much is real. Only once in three weeks has he scored fewer than 30 points in a game. DeRozan's output has reached career highs as stark as they are lean; nearly all the fat has been trimmed from DeRozan's game, even as he continues to take as many closely contested shots as ever.
Thus far, DeRozan has been able to render those contests irrelevant through pure, unimpeachable shot-making. The ability to hit difficult looks is in itself a skill. DeRozan has thus far leveraged it to incredible effect—dropping hard-fought jumpers from everywhere within the three-point line. Toronto has milked a ton of points from simply running DeRozan off of staggered screens and letting him go to work. The screens alone are sometimes enough for him to fire off a shot on the catch. More often, DeRozan strings together a move or two to either get to his spot or get his defender in the air. Either course is easy money these days, with results that speak for themselves.
This is the best possible version of DeRozan's game. If an NBA player is going to manufacture much of his offense for himself, he has to return on that investment with consistent and efficient production. Getting to the line has buoyed DeRozan's play in that regard over the last several seasons. What's changed this year is a dramatically improved rate of conversion on some of the toughest shots in the game. Over the past three seasons, DeRozan has shot 39.6% on "true" mid-range shots (10-16 feet) and 37.2% on long twos (16+ feet but within the three-point line)—completely respectable percentages given the volume in question. This year, DeRozan is shooting 58.6% on true mid-range shots and 52.2% on long twos.
Those are figures that Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, even at their absolute peak, never came close to touching. Richard Hamilton made an entire career out of mid-range shooting and couldn't sniff it. Dirk Nowitzki is seven feet tall and spent his lifetime honing an unblockable shot. Even then, he only once shot better on long twos than DeRozan is currently. DeRozan himself, a symbol of incremental improvement, had never previously come within 10 percentage points of his current accuracy from either range. The margin between that established precedent and sensational present doesn't just put DeRozan in a different world. It puts him on an entirely different plane of existence.
Staying there is another matter entirely. This ends one of two ways: Either DeRozan will do something that his entire career (and, really, the whole of modern NBA history) tells us he won't by maintaining these current shooting percentages, or he'll cool into a still-productive, still-impressive, and still-complicated scorer for one of the best teams in basketball.