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Jurassic Arc: Is DeMar DeRozan Finally Going to Embrace the 3?

The throwback Raptors star has famously added new skills to his game every summer, and it looks like he’s ready to extend his range. Let’s look at how much it can help his team.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you were to pick up DeMar DeRozan in your 1970 SS Chevelle 454 and ask him, “Say man, you got a 3?” The answer would be, “Uh, not on me, man.” That’s fine. DeRozan is a fun, fascinating player as he is. But you’d probably drive off thinking, “It’d be a lot cooler if you did.

It’s no secret that DeRozan plays a classic midrange style of basketball rarely seen in today’s 3-happy NBA. He’s like a modern extension of Kobe Bryant, with fanciful footwork from midrange and the ability to juke defenders out of their shoes. It’s also no secret, however, that much of Toronto’s playoff shortcomings through the past four years are a result of poor spacing and ball movement. DeRozan plays a part in that as a notorious ball pounder who hit only 26.6 percent of his 3s and took 48.4 percent of his shots from midrange last season. The Raptors are ready to renovate. “Everyone and their brother knows we want better ball movement,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said in July on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “We don’t want to give our whole ‘what we’re going to try to do next year’ away, but again it comes down to passing the basketball and better spacing more so than, you know … one-on-one play.”

Casey said he plans on putting the ball in DeRozan’s hands more frequently as a point guard to take advantage of Kyle Lowry’s superior off-ball shooting capabilities. Systematic changes should help, but for the Raptors to maximize their playoff potential, they’ll need the men on their roster to improve their games, and it starts at the top. DeRozan will need to boost his 3-pointer, for real this time. “I have no problem shooting 3s,” DeRozan told ESPN in 2016. “I just feel like I can get to the basket at will, so it almost feels like settling.”

DeRozan is telling a partial truth. Watch the Raptors, and you’ll frequently see him pass on open 3s. Sometimes it works:

DeRozan is the craftiest midrange scorer in the NBA. Kevin Durant had good reason for telling Bill Simmons that he studies DeRozan’s footwork. But the reality is DeRozan passes on 3s because they’re a struggle for him. DeRozan is a career 28.1 percent 3-point shooter on 841 attempts in the regular season. Stephen Curry attempted more 3s in 2015–16 alone. No other player has a worse 3-point percentage with a minimum 600 attempts than DeRozan since 2009–10, per Basketball-Reference. The bottom 10 includes the likes of Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, Tyreke Evans, and Evan Turner. DeRozan is a better player than all of them, but oof — that is not company you want to keep. Dwyane Wade is on the same list, and had his prime occurred during the shooting revolution, even his game might be viewed through a different lens. But Wade was a superior all-around player and a nightmare for the opposition as both a defender and a passer. For someone like DeRozan — whose star power is exclusively defined by his ability to make shots — not having the 3-pointer in your arsenal is unfortunate.

Nowadays, passing on open 3s leads to unfavorable situations for the Raptors wing:

DeRozan shot 41.2 percent from midrange last year (close to the league average of 40.3 percent). In terms of points per shot, 41.2 percent from 2 is equal to 27.4 percent from 3. In other words, DeRozan doesn’t need to be that much better from 3 to garner more expected points per possession than his current 2-heavy game. But what if, suddenly, DeRozan starts shooting 3s at the same level he shoots midrange jumpers? How would it impact his game, and the Raptors?

“Every summer, DeMar tries to add a dimension to his game,” DeRozan’s longtime trainer Chris Farr told me over the phone. “He’s mastered the midrange craft and now it’s time to put a cherry on top of the sundae, by stepping out and increasing his range.”

DeRozan doesn’t need to be Curry to make a significant impact for the Raptors. The Raptors had a 109.8 offensive rating last season, which ranked sixth in the NBA. They were stellar! But in the playoffs, their offensive rating dipped significantly, to 101.3 — the two prior years it fell to below 100. That’s not all on DeRozan, but his inability to space the floor played a role in suffocating Toronto’s spacing. It is curious how their offensive rating might increase if he hit 3s. Had DeRozan shot league average from 3 (35.8 percent) on all 124 attempts he had last season, the Raptors’ overall offensive rating would have improved by nearly half a point to 110.2. If DeRozan starts shooting a larger volume of 3s, then the Raptors’ offensive rating could balloon:

More 3s = Higher Projected Offensive Rating

Percent of Shots That Are 3s 3-Point Attempts Per Game Projected Raptors Offensive Rating
Percent of Shots That Are 3s 3-Point Attempts Per Game Projected Raptors Offensive Rating
8% 1.7 110.2
10% 2.1 110.3
15% 3.1 110.5
20% 4.2 110.8
25% 5.3 111
30% 6.3 111.3
40% 8.4 111.8
50% 10.5 112.3

Above is how Toronto’s offensive rating last season would’ve increased with a redistribution of shot attempts for DeRozan (and if he had shot the league average from the 3). For perspective, DeRozan attempted only 8 percent of his shots from 3 last year. If he attempted one-quarter of his shots from downtown (like LeBron did), their offensive rating would’ve gone from 109.8 to 111. If half his shots came from 3 (like Lowry and James Harden), their offensive rating would have skyrocketed to 112.3 — second in the league behind the Warriors. Merely going from bad to average could turn Toronto from good to great.

“My philosophy has always been to take what they give you,” Farr said, stressing they’ve focused on improving DeRozan’s 3-point shooting in two primary scenarios. The first is: “Off the dribble, they tend to go under a lot of screens, so a lot of times it’ll be when he’s in the pick-and-roll, and they go under the screen, he can stop and pull it up.” Last season, DeRozan logged 174 possessions when the defender engaged in a pick-and-roll went under the screen, per Synergy, and led the NBA by a wide margin — over the likes of John Wall, Ish Smith, and Elfrid Payton. He attempted only four 3-pointers in this scenario, and missed them all. These are the types of shots DeRozan should look to take next season:

Farr said the key for DeRozan is “strengthening the muscle memory” of his form to unload from a deeper range. “We’re just trying to get the muscles to remember how to shoot from that far.” DeRozan is already an effective pick-and-roll scorer. But there’s no place for complacency in elite competition. Casey hinted that DeRozan will see an uptick in playmaking responsibility, so it’ll be even more important for him to be a constant threat when the ball is in his hands.

If DeRozan starts forcing defenses to go over screens or switch, even larger gaps will open for one of the league’s most lethal attackers:

It’s conceivable that more 3s would lead to fewer drawn fouls on drives, which would decrease DeRozan’s free throw chances. But studies by Nylon Calculus and 82 Games suggest that’s not the case. DeRozan could instead benefit from easier driving chances, increasing — or maintaining — his already terrific free throw rate. When defenders sag off DeRozan to bait him into low-efficiency midrange jumpers, he bites — a lot. But if he turns into a reasonable threat from 3, they’ll be forced to close out, giving DeRozan room to unleash his masterful footwork.

Farr said they’re also working on DeRozan’s spot-up shooting from the corner and in situations where the ball is swung around. He wants DeRozan to take the open shot instead of driving straight into traffic. The ripple effects are far reaching. If DeRozan can space the floor, then suddenly attacking lanes open for Lowry and the rest of the team. Teams in the playoffs wouldn’t be able to tightly pack the paint if the ball is moving and DeRozan is a threat to unload from anywhere.

Farr stressed they don’t want DeRozan to go away from the midrange, so Raptors fans should probably keep expectations low for now. DeRozan has averaged more than two 3s per game in a season only once (in 2013–14, his first All-Star season). It sure seems like progress is imminent, though. When I wrote in March that the Raptors should blow it up, the article came with the caveat that they should head into the 2017–18 season with the hope for internal improvement. So let’s have some fun with this idea and presume DeRozan exceeds our wildest dreams:

If DeRozan shot 41.2 percent from 3 last season, Toronto’s offensive rating would’ve increased from 109.8 to 110.5. If you remove 200 midrange jumpers and add 200 more 3s, their offensive rating leaps to 111.5 — nearly on par with the Rockets. Give DeRozan a Curry-type shot distribution with 600 more 3s and the Raptors’ offensive rating would explode to 113.7 — ahead of the Warriors.

You might be saying, Hold your horses. It’s unrealistic for DeRozan to shoot 41.2 percent from 3. All players have inadequacies they must deal with. DeRozan is no different. You’d be right. It’d be a miracle if DeRozan put up those numbers, and an endless list of players have weaknesses that have come to define their game. Look at Dwight Howard. It’d be a lot cooler if he gave up on being Shaq and modernized his game by committing to the pick-and-roll, rather than post-ups. Howard scored only 0.84 points per possession on the post last season, per Synergy, compared to an elite 1.18 in the pick-and-roll. Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson were forced to improve their shots to enhance their games as they aged. In every era, even the league’s great players have weak spots.

But DeRozan is the best example of how the redistribution of a star’s role or a slight uptick in his production can drastically improve potential outcomes for his team. The funny thing is that the NBA’s average raw shooting percentages tend to flatten from outside three feet, according to data from a 2014 Grantland article by Kirk Goldsberry, before a slight dip from deep midrange to 3. For example, last season LeBron shot just over 36 percent from both midrange and 3. Players like Paul George and James Harden see a decrease of roughly 7 percentage points. Not DeRozan, though, whose percentages plummeted from 41.2 percent at midrange to 26.6 from 3. This offseason was all about making sure that decline never happens again.

“It’s hard to change when you’ve been successful doing something one way for a long period of time,” Farr said. “But if you do anything enough, you’ll get comfortable. If he can just take what they give him when he’s open … wow, then that’s really good for the Raptors.”

The East is wide open, and the Raptors have a chance to strike. The Cavaliers are vulnerable. The Celtics got better, but they’re not clear-cut favorites. Neither are the Wizards. The Bucks’ status as contenders is still only theoretical. Raptors team president Masai Ujiri said in March that Toronto’s window could be “three months” or “three years.” With the East eroding, it’s certainly looking more like three years. With DeRozan finally confronting the midrange question, he could maximize Toronto’s timeline.