Through nine games of the season so far, several Spurs seem to have undergone some kind of transformation. Dejounte Murray’s shooting touch and ball-handling abilities have taken the next step. LaMarcus Aldridge continues to expand his game away from the post and into a front-facing shooter. Lonnie Walker IV is becoming more aggressive, and Keldon Johnson is much more of an offensive threat than his college scouting report ever claimed.
However, one player who seems to have changed the most may the most unexpected: DeMar DeRozan. There were glimpses in the Bubble, but DeRozan has seemingly transformed overnight from a player who needs the ball to be effective to one who is both a willing distributer and effective spot up shooter all the way out to the three-point line.
Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer took an in depth look at DeRozan’s expanded game and what it means for him and the Spurs going forward. There’s his increased there-point shooting:
He’s knocking down 3s at a high percentage this season (42.9), but he’s not attempting that many (2.6 per game) and most (60 percent) are coming off the catch. The key is that he’s taking them in the flow of the offense. When the ball swings to DeRozan, he doesn’t hold it and then attack off the dribble the way he used to. He just fires when open and forces the defense to guard him all over the floor.
The impact ceding some touches has had on the Spurs offense:
He’s no longer the ball-dominant player he was when he came to San Antonio three seasons ago. DeRozan is taking 7.1 fewer shots per game (13.8) than his career high, while averaging a career best in assists (7.3 per game) and 10 fewer touches per game than Dejounte Murray. The Spurs are running more of an equal-opportunity offense, with seven players averaging in double digits. It’s the next step in a process that began in the bubble, when San Antonio began playing smaller lineups that launched more 3s and ran fewer isolations.
And when he does get his touches, he’s making the best use of them:
DeRozan has the second-highest true shooting percentage (58.5) of his career and an assist-to-turnover ratio (5.3-to-1) that would even make Chris Paul proud. The days of him dribbling the ball into the ground before rising up for a 20-footer are (mostly) over. He’s more unpredictable offensively, getting into the lane and then taking whatever the defense gives him. He looks for shooters rather than forcing tough shots.
Perhaps most importantly, the versatility he has added to his game means he doesn’t need such a specific set of skill players around him, making it easy build a team around him:
The beauty of DeRozan’s decision to embrace the 3 is that he can now fit with a more traditional center like Poeltl. The old version of DeRozan required everyone else to fit around him to succeed. His teams had to find shooting and defense at every other spot in the lineup while force-feeding him the ball, a juggling act that put a ceiling on how far they could advance in the playoffs. Now he can be plugged into any lineup that can protect him on defense.
That flexibility gives both him and the Spurs a lot of options. If San Antonio falls out of playoff contention this season, it can shop him to contenders for young players and future picks. . . Conversely, if the Spurs don’t want to fully rebuild, they could let Aldridge walk in the offseason, re-sign DeRozan, and prioritize defense at center.
Whether he’s still with the Spurs beyond this season remains to be seen, but while in the past he didn’t really seem to be a part of their future plans, now it’s not so clear. If nothing else, he has vastly increased his trade value if they decide to go in a different direction, or there just might be a place for him with the future Spurs as a veteran leader. How well he continues to mesh with the young players may be the deciding factor, but at least one thing is now clear: he is much better than the 82nd best player in the NBA. Good job, ESPN! (But also thanks for the extra motivation.)