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How DeMar DeRozan Became the NBA's Overlooked Star

Criticism of his play went too far, and there is good reason he could be the free agent teams missed out on.

Long before DeMar DeRozan was acquired by the Bulls in a sign-and-trade that handed him a new three-year, $85 million contract, few NBA players were a more unfortunate victim of what happens when a player’s weaknesses are placed under a spotlight for years, inevitably overshadowing every skill they have that’s 1) impressive and 2) very hard to find.

Heading into free agency as a 32-year-old who was one of only seven players (the other six all max-level superstars) to average at least 21 points and six assists with a true shooting percentage above 59.0, DeRozan’s 2020–21 season was overlooked to the point of being undervalued. There were several rumors about a significant pay cut and blunt suggestions that the best way for him to help a competitive team would be off the bench.

The criticism went too far, even if it wasn’t out of nowhere. Most NBA games are largely decided behind the three-point line, where DeRozan’s noted unwillingness to participate has done far more damage to how he’s perceived than any other flaw possibly could. DeRozan drilled only 19 threes last year, never made over 34% of them in a season and has finished below 30% nine times. He went 0–1 from downtown in seven games the last time he appeared in the postseason. To outline his deficiency in the starkest possible way: In the last three years, DeRozan is the only guard in the league to finish each season with a usage rate over 25% and a three-point rate below 8%.

While off the ball with the Bulls, particularly whenever Nikola Vučević is posting up or executing a pick-and-roll with Zach LaVine, defenders won’t completely abandon DeRozan because his talent precludes anyone from treating him like he doesn’t exist. It’s hard enough to guard him squared up, let alone closing out off balance or letting him dribble into a 15-footer. At the same time, he’s not Klay Thompson; fitting into a half-court offense that already has a high-usage ballhandler wouldn’t be so problematic if DeRozan cut (he doesn’t) or showed some enthusiasm on the glass (nope).

This particular drawback has created an excessive disconnect between how good DeRozan actually is and whether his sweeping talent can translate in a relevant, winning environment. But, coming off what was arguably the finest campaign of his entire career, on a Spurs team that wasn’t necessarily built to accentuate his strengths, there’s good reason to believe that DeRozan will have the best 2021–22 season out of every free agent who just signed a new contract.

As someone who’s spent the past few years making magic happen with the ball in his hands, while surrounded by players who aren’t exactly known for their gravity, DeRozan should be even more devastating next to LaVine and Vučević, a couple of stars who know how to create their own shot and can really space the floor. Then there’s the complementary role players like Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso (who made 44.6% of his wide-open threes last year) and Patrick Williams (who shot 42.1% from the corners as a rookie) who should quickly form mutually beneficial relationships with him.

DeMar DeRozan (10) shoots the ball against Chicago Bulls guard

In Chicago, it’s more than reasonable to give DeRozan the keys. His appeal can be gleaned in everything he’s exceptional at, particularly the self-sufficient midrange shot creation that gets pilloried during the regular season but, as anyone who watched the Bucks and Suns march their way to the NBA Finals can attest to, is fundamental in the trenches of a physical postseason series.

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Without any assistance from a screener or spot-up threat, regardless of the defense’s coverage or the sets his offense is playing through, DeRozan can make the game’s most difficult shots look like a snack. On a huge volume, he made a whopping 50.2% of his pull-up twos (the most accurate he’s ever been) last season. Viewed through the lens of our most recent NBA Finals, he’s Devin Booker with a brutal, dazzling post game. (Last year the only player more efficient on post-ups—while finishing at least 100 possessions—was Robin Lopez.)

Good things usually happened when San Antonio’s offense inserted his tried-and-true technical precision at the center of its attack. According to Synergy Sports, DeRozan was the most efficient isolation scorer in the NBA (minimum 100 possessions), and only Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Trae Young racked up a higher percentage of their points at the free throw line, where DeRozan lives. (The only players who drew more two-point shooting fouls per 100 possessions were Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson.) It’s an elite, helpful output that doesn’t prohibit his teammates from benefiting directly.

Even though DeRozan doesn’t shoot threes himself, he’s a willing, intuitive passer who manufactures quality looks by leveraging his own unstoppable one-on-one game, while putting constant pressure on the rim (he averaged more drives than Russell Westbrook and James Harden last season).

Running pick-and-rolls, he’s Santa Claus: generous, all seeing. Exhibiting a patience he didn’t have earlier in his career, DeRozan keeps his dribble alive in tight spaces and consistently makes passes that freeze help defenders. His highest assist rate with the Raptors was 25%. Last year it was 32%, with DeRozan dishing out a career-high 6.9 assists per game, good for 11th-most in the league and as many as Ben Simmons. DeRozan also had a hand in 3.47 above-the-break threes per 100 possessions, a mark only six players exceeded that also tied James Harden’s, Mike Conley’s and Luka Dončić’s. (Imagine what he’ll do on a team that didn’t just rank dead last in three-point rate.)

Last year we also saw an interesting shift in where his shots came from. Attempts at the rim went down, but the percentage of his shots taken between 16 feet and the arc was a career low, while shots between 3 and 10 feet and 10 and 16 feet, respectively, were both a career high. On those longer twos, DeRozan was one of the NBA’s most accurate shooters. On the shorter ones he threw daggers. While most focus on how many he threes he takes, DeRozan’s steady migration away from long twos into an area that proffers better looks is beneficial in its own way. If DeRozan can sustain that accuracy and carry it into next year’s playoffs, when smart defenses scrap to take away the three-point line and the rim, he’ll be an unanswerable conundrum.

Speaking of the playoffs, there’s another side to the coin, and it’s on defense. One lesson to be learned from this past postseason (and the five or six before it) is that players who can’t defend will be hunted down by forcing them to guard ball screens. DeRozan isn’t bad enough to be a perpetual target, and having Ball, Caruso and Williams on board should make it easier to hide against most matchups. But throwing him into a unit that already expects to play LaVine and Vučević heavy minutes will strain Chicago on that side of the ball. DeRozan’s idle work here is one of the larger reasons why his team’s “expected wins” have been lower with him on the court for basically his entire career. There were 74 players who logged at least 2,000 minutes last year; he ranked 72nd in Defensive RAPTOR (only Trae Young and Ja Morant were worse).

Overall, though, the positives DeRozan yields outweigh everything else. It’s not that he’s a superstar who should’ve assumed max contract offers. But his worth to a Bulls team that’s trying to raise their floor and claw back toward respectability is palatable. He isn’t plug-and-play and doesn’t fit everywhere, but it’s fair to argue for DeRozan’s dexterity in a system that would be smart to orbit all he does for lengthy stretches. He’ll take playmaking and scoring pressure off Ball and LaVine, who could be even more efficient than he was last season, taking fewer and less arduous shots. He’ll crack defenses that switch ball screens on him (in particular when a guard sets the pick), regularly get downhill and put opponents in foul trouble, over and over again, on a team that ranked last in free throw rate last season.

There’s no doubt that DeRozan would be more valuable if he took threes or was a bit more committed and aware on defense. And there’s no guarantee that those things won’t take a turn in the right direction. But even if they don’t, it also shouldn’t be hard to appreciate everything he does so well, especially when considering how meaningful those skills still are in games that really matter.

DeRozan was unseen in San Antonio, where, despite playing some of the best all-around basketball of his life, he wasn’t named to any All-Star teams after making four in the previous five seasons with Toronto. Don’t be at all surprised if he gets back there with the Bulls.

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