DeMar DeRozan keeps moving forward by looking backwards

Into his obsessive quest to study what he can learn from the past and bring back into the present

Picture yourself as a 22-year-old multimillionaire living in one of the most exciting cities in the world on New Year’s Eve. Your bosses have given you and your coworkers the next half day off, telling you all to go and enjoy yourself. What would you do?

For a young DeMar DeRozan, that answer was easy. He did what he loves — watch game film until 3 in the morning.

A lot has changed about DeRozan’s game over the years, but an addiction to film study has been the constant.

“I always think of myself as a basketball fanatic,” DeRozan told the Up in Smoke podcast last season. “I watch everybody. Everybody. From the 15th man on the bench to the starters, that’s just been me my whole career.” 

That study has worked wonders for DeRozan. His continued improvement throughout his career has been remarkable, making him completely unrecognizable from the player that entered the NBA 12 years ago. Look no further than his DraftExpress weaknesses as a college player as compared to some of his numbers from last year for proof. 

  • “He doesn't get to the free throw line at a great rate to compensate and only converts on a mediocre 65% of his attempts once there.” (DeRozan finished 6th in free throws made last season and his 87.9 percentage was 19th in the league)

  • “You rarely see him able to get to the basket in half-court situations.” (DeRozan was sixth in drives per game)

  • “He struggles to change directions with the ball and possesses very little explosion off his first step, making him almost completely unable to create his own shot.” (DeRozan was ninth in points scored in isolation and was the most efficient high-volume isolation scorer in the league)

  • “He is averaging twice as many turnovers as assists, which ranks him last amongst all top shooting guard prospects.” (DeRozan was 11th in assists per game and had the 9th-best assist-to-turnover ratio)

Aside from still-shaky 3-point shooting, DeRozan has obliterated all critiques from his college game, transforming them instead into major NBA strengths. 

DeRozan hasn’t limited his study to just the 450 or so players that cycle through the league every season. That would be too easy. Instead, he’s been religious about watching the all-time greats. His old-school game comes from stealing moves ranging from Alex English to Andre Miller.

English, a Hall-of-Famer who was a star in the 80’s, taught DeRozan the value of getting to his designated spots on the floor. DeRozan relayed his studies to JJ Redick on his Old Man and the Three podcast

“My first year in the league, Alex English was an assistant coach of mine. I used to love his swag, how he used to always know where he was going into his spots, get his shots off. He used to always explain it to me. I always used to pick his mind, listen to him, I used to watch every game he played in, like yo he scored 27,000 points just by doing this.” 

DeRozan has borrowed bits and pieces from every era to craft a skill set unlike any other active player. 

“Sam Cassell always taught me to pump fake. I always got that from him, [and] Gary Payton. A lot of these influences that I’ve had through my career, always gave me the game. I always look at them like damn, they had a great career. A lot of that sticks with me.” 

DeRozan is the extremely rare player who has both relied heavily on midrange shots, with an accuracy in the 84th percentile, and managed to score at a highly efficient level without shooting 3’s, as evidenced by a true shooting percentage in the 70th percentile. 

He has proven that old school style can compete with the 3-ball revolution by pounding the hell out of one of the most efficient shots in basketball. It’s not a 3-pointer or a shot at the rim. Rather, it’s the and-one bucket.

DeRozan’s 51 and-one’s were the sixth-highest total in the league. He’s been hovering in or around the top 10 every year for the past decade. He’s able to generate those shots by combining that Cassell/Payton pump fake with elite touch. 

Even when DeRozan isn’t able to convert the shot, drawing shooting fouls are extremely high-efficient outcomes. He got 220 of them last season, good for fourth in the league. That’s 90 more than the highest Bull last year, Zach LaVine. There is an art to it, both in how to get them and when. DeRozan has picked up little tricks from the best veterans throughout league history.

“It’s the small little shit that goes over a lot of people’s heads,” he told Redick. “I’m glad I was able to play in that era of having to guard Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, all those types of guys. I used to always wonder, how, how [are they getting calls against me]. I’m not doing nothing. You start to understand all of these tricks of the trade that separated them throughout the game and late in the game.” 

Another big influence on DeRozan’s game was Chicago native Corey Maggette. Maggette was the one who drilled the importance of free throws into his head, not only in technique but in when to try and draw them. 

“Corey used to always tell me, look, I ain’t the greatest shooter and all this, but I’m gonna beat somebody’s ass getting to the basket and I’m gonna get to the free throw line,” DeRozan told Redick.

“He used to tell me, ‘Always know the penalty. Always know the penalty.’ When they’re in the penalty, you run off a screen real hard, you run through their arm, two free throws right there. You don’t even need the ball.” 

Much of DeRozan’s film studies center on who is guarding him on a given night and how to exploit his matchup. 

“You know before you go out there on the court, he’s overaggressive or he’s young or he’s a gambler. You know these tendencies. A lot of people, they just go out there thinking, okay, we’re about to play a basketball game. There’s so much to the game before you even step out there to where, I wouldn’t want to say manipulate it, it’s just being a student of the game.” 

DeRozan’s penchant for foul-drawing will be a boon for a Bulls team that finished dead last in free throw attempts last season. His 7.2 attempts per game from last season would have easily topped the high man from last year’s roster, LaVine at 5.1 per game. And getting opponents into the penalty more quickly will pay dividends for everyone on the team. 

DeRozan’s whole game is a throwback. It’s hard to appreciate unless you’ve been a fan of the game for decades. But it all comes from an obsessive desire to learn the best parts of everyone’s game. 

“I don’t expect the normal fan to understand why I play the way I play,” he told Redick. “All the guys I looked up  to, Gary Payton, Andre Miller, all of these guys were so dominant with what they did and were able to some great things that could be overlooked. I put that to my game. Post ups, pump fakes, getting to the free throw line, understanding when to attack. Small things to the game that gave me the career I have to this day. That’s why I stick with it and don’t let others dictate how I should play.”

DeRozan has ignored the critics for most of his career, but he will need to continue to evolve his game as he joins a Bulls team stacked with offensive firepower. Playing off the ball will be an adjustment for him. He will be there more than ever after playing mostly point forward for the Spurs. His career 28 percent 3-point percentage could potentially allow teams to play way off him and clog the paint when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands. 

Ramping up his corner 3-point shooting could be one way to prevent that troublesome scenario from playing out. DeRozan has been a solid 36 percent shooter from there over his career. 

Cutting is the other obvious way that DeRozan can impact the game without the ball. Unfortunately, he has been one of the worst cutters in the league both in terms of volume and efficiency. This should be the next area for him to add. To no one’s surprise, he’s already studied one of the masters.  

“[Maggette] always had the Maggette cut,” DeRozan told Redick. “He has a cut named after him. And you know how big and strong Maggette was. And when he turned that corner and had that angle on you, there’s nothing you could do.”

The Maggette cut should be open for DeRozan a lot if he wants to take it. Also known as a blade cut, it’s defined by The Basketball Action Dictionary as a curved cut from the corner to the hoop, often occurring during a pick-and-roll. It’s particularly effective for non-shooters that are stationed in the corner who are good scorers at the rim like DeRozan. The Pelicans have used it effectively for Zion Williamson, another shaky 3-point shooter.

DeRozan is already one of the most dangerous players in the league when he bends defenses with his drives. Putting pressure on the rim via more cutting would make him an even more complete player.

Three point shooting is always going to be the biggest knock on DeRozan and the last missing piece of his game. He will probably never get to the point where it’s a strength. But rather than knock what DeRozan can’t do, maybe it’s more worthwhile to appreciate how he’s succeeded: By studying the past and finding ways to make those lessons work in the present. 

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