TORONTO - It happens at least once a game now, lately more often than that. It is DeMar DeRozan doing something beyond his year and a half in the pros, something that says not only is he a good player but a special one and getting more special by the day.
This past Saturday in Miami in a game in which DeRozan would score 30 points, that moment came relatively late.
DeRozan broke away from the Miami defence with his team on a fast break, took the pass on the far right hand corner, just beyond the three-point arc and cut in for, what for him, was a routine dunk.
But as he made the sweeping left hand turn back up court, he turned towards the Miami bench and shot them a glare.
It’s the kind of cocky move only the most self-assured athletes would try and it speaks directly to the newfound confidence DeRozan is playing with these days.
DeRozan is clearly not all the way there yet. The consistency with his jumper is not there, the defensive intensity is not there, nor is the ability to create for his teammates, but he’s quickly finding his comfort zone in this league of over-inflated egos and ridiculous athletic talent.
Everything from what he does on the court, to his attitude off it screams confidence these days.
A feeling of belonging to that elite group of players who can talk the talk, something DeRozan does in only limited sound bytes, and walk the walk, something he is doing more consistently with each passing game.
You can make the point, as Raptors analyst and former NCAA head coach Jack Armstrong does, that this is what should be happening. The Raptors have invested heavily in DeRozan from the day he was drafted. He went directly from college into the starting lineup and played the kind of minutes in his rookie year only a handful of players ever see.
The question is, why is it happening now? Armstrong has an answer for that too, although he uses a baseball analogy to get his point across.
“He’s hitting higher in the order,” Armstrong said. “He’s getting more at bats and he’s seeing better pitches.
“I think he is getting more play calls for himself and he’s getting them earlier in the clock. They’re trusting him, probably out of necessity, his ability to do things. It’s kind of a forced developmental issue. Sort of a ready-or-not here we come thing.”
WHEN IT STARTED
The spark or impetus for this next stage that DeRozan has graduated to began with the pre-Christmas four-game absence of Andrea Bargnani.
There’s no question the Toronto offence runs through Bargnani first and foremost.
But without the big Roman in the lineup the onus to score fell to the next in line and that is DeRozan.
It’s no surprise that in Bargnani’s absence DeRozan enjoyed his best statistical offensive day as a pro, scoring 37 points on 12 of 21 shooting and getting to the free throw line 14 times where he converted 13 times during a New Year’s Eve game in Houston.
Even after Bargnani’s return, DeRozan has kept it going, partly because his teammates have seen what he can do and are looking for him. Also because Bargnani, while back, is not himself just yet, still dealing with some knee issues.
Ask DeRozan the “Why now?” question and he talks about his comfort level and a better understanding of what opponents are trying to do to him.
“I am being aggressive,” he said. “I have been watching film and working on my weaknesses. I am just trying to get better. I am trying to do as much as I can to help us win.”
WHO IS NOTICING
Anyone in the league paying attention has noticed DeRozan coming out of his shell, so to speak, on the court. Following a recent game against the Celtics, Armstrong noticed a change in DeRozan.
“He got put on his ass and he got right back up and he didn’t whine, he played like a man,” Armstrong said.
Celtics head coach Doc Rivers pulled DeRozan aside as he was leaving the court and offered some encouraging words.
“I just told him to just keep doing what he’s doing,” Rivers said.
Rivers is all about seeing young kids improve and when they do, he makes a point of letting them know.
“His shot and just his decision-making,” Rivers said of where he has seen improvement. “He understands who he is now.
“I think the toughest part for young guys in this league is to figure out what they are. He’s a slasher, he’s a basket attacker he knows that now and he tries to do that every time.”
Teammates see it too and guys such as Leandro Barbosa are on him to show it more often.
“No matter what, he needs to be aggressive whether he makes his shots or not,” Barbosa said. “That’s supposed to be easy for him. I wish I could have his athleticism, but for me I just love to watch him play.”
THE BIGGEST STRIDES
First and foremost, to make any dent in a defence, DeRozan had to improve his mid-range jumper and he has. From late October through to January his shooting percentage has been on a steady rise, as have his minutes, his field goal attempts and his visits to the free throw line, not to mention his scoring.
“All that comes off the fact that when you give him that 15-foot jump shot, he is sticking it with a little bit more confidence or at least he’s shooting it with more confidence,” Armstrong said. “As a defensive player you have to respect that and play that.”
And when they do, DeRozan takes advantage of his quickness by getting around that first line of defence.
By the time the help defence arrives DeRozan is airborn, where his confidence soars.
“He’s getting better when he’s in the air and here comes a 7-foot lengthy shot blocker, he’s getting better at being able to change his shot and just feel a little more confident of having a few more tricks in the bag,” Armstrong said.
Another area of improvement has been his ball handling although there is still plenty of room for improvement. His dribbling in traffic is getting better.
CAN IT CONTINUE
Everything about DeRozan’s makeup suggests this will continue. He is a hard worker who only wants to get better.
“I think he’s a coachable young man with a good attitude,” Armstrong said. “I remember talking with Tim Floyd who was his college coach at USC when Tim was with the New Orleans Hornets. He raved about the type of kid he was and his willingness to be coached and challenged and pushed and I see that every day with his work with (Raptors assistant coach) Eric Hughes.
“He wants to be good. You can see a hunger there.”
WHAT to work on?
Like most young players drafted as high as DeRozan was, the last area to come is on the defensive end and DeRozan is no exception.
Head coach Jay Triano sees progress but he also sees plenty of untapped potential.
“I think he is working hard,” Triano said. “His defence has got better. I think last year he was in a little bit of shock. This year he still has a tendency to hit screens instead of avoid them but lately that’s probably more of fatigue thing than anything given all the minutes he’s playing.”
But what Triano craves most of all for high-flyer is consistency.
“Part of the development of players in this league is finding a way to play every single game,” Triano said. “Finding the magic to get up for every single game and find something about your opponent that makes you a better competitor every night. There is a tendency after a good game to relax. In this league if you take half a step back, someone is going to pass you.”
Really it’s just more of the same. Continue to work, continue to get better and don’t let the losing get you down.
“He’s far from being a finished product,” Armstrong said, “but I think we’re seeing a young man where the light is starting to come on right now.
DeRozan says it’s all part of the learning process.
“It’s just recognizing the defence,” DeRozan said of his recent aggressiveness. “If it’s one-on-one and there’s no secondary help, I’m going to definitely go.”
What people have to keep in mind is that DeRozan is, in reality, still in his junior year of college.
“Now it has to be about consistency,” Armstrong said. “Where you can trust that guy that he will make plays for you in a winning environment. And when things get tough, he won’t let the losing chew him up and spit him out. He’s got to be that guy rallying the other guys around him.”