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DeMar DeRozan Has Expanded His Game, and His Value to the Spurs

San Antonio’s one-dimensional scorer finally is opening things up, shooting from deep, looking for teammates, and potentially resuscitating his image around the league

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Maybe there’s hope for Ben Simmons, after all. DeMar DeRozan, once one of the most reluctant 3-point shooters in the NBA, is finally letting it fly from deep in his 12th season in the league. It’s the last step in his transformation from a one-dimensional scorer to a well-rounded offensive player. This new version of DeRozan, who is still only 31, will be one of the most intriguing free agents on the market this offseason—and maybe even an attractive target at the trade deadline. The talent that made him a four-time All-Star hasn’t gone anywhere. But now he can fit onto almost any team in the league.

It’s not that DeRozan, who had 19 points and 8 assists while shooting 2-for-6 from 3 in an upset win over the Lakers on Thursday, has suddenly become Damian Lillard. 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:

There was never any mechanical reason that DeRozan couldn’t take 3s before. He came into the NBA as a slasher who depended primarily on his athleticism, but had long since become a polished scorer with the touch and footwork to drain midrange jumpers. His sudden willingness to take catch-and-shoot 3s is more a reflection of him embracing a new role in 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. There have been times this season when coach Gregg Popovich has closed games with DeRozan at the 4 and Rudy Gay at the 5.

It’s not that DeRozan doesn’t score anymore: He’s still averaging 19.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting. But he’s blending bucket-getting with playmaking and is making better decisions with the ball. 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:

The Spurs desperately needed DeRozan to change his game. This is a transition period for a proud franchise coming off its first missed playoff appearance in 23 seasons. They are no longer a contender for anything but the play-in tournament. The goal is to stay competitive while also developing a core of younger players. That wouldn’t work if DeRozan hadn’t embraced a more complementary role on offense.

San Antonio needs Murray (and Derrick White when he returns from a fractured toe) to run the offense, and to find minutes for Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, and Devin Vassell, the no. 11 pick in the draft, on the wing. The latter three are all under 23 years old. White is the oldest of the five at 26. DeRozan, now an elder statesman, has to set an example for them off the court while creating opportunities for them on it. That means playing off the ball more and sacrificing his body to guard bigger players. He started at the 4 on Thursday and defended Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell at times.

Defense is still the big hole in his game. That’s a problem given that he’s starting next to another poor defender in LaMarcus Aldridge. And while Aldridge also has expanded his shooting range past the 3-point line to fit the modern game, a lineup with those two as its biggest players has predictably bled points on the other end of the floor. The Spurs’ starting unit of Murray, Walker, Johnson, DeRozan, and Aldridge has a laughable defensive rating of 128.2 in 72 minutes this season. Popovich probably will have to make a change if he wants his team, which is 4-4 with a net rating of minus-1.4, to make the playoffs. DeRozan has been more effective when paired with a defensive-minded center like Jakob Poeltl (plus-7.4 per 100 possessions, in 95 minutes) than Aldridge (minus-13.8 per 100 possessions, in 122 minutes).

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. His expiring salary ($27.7 million) would fit into the trade exception that Boston acquired for Gordon Hayward. The Celtics could package someone like Romeo Langford or Aaron Nesmith and a first-round pick for DeRozan, who would fit well next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. 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.

It will come down to what DeRozan wants with the rest of his career. There is nothing that he has to do at this point. He’s a four-time All-Star who has already made $148 million in the league. He can chase a ring or a big contract, or find a happy medium between the two. There will be plenty of teams pursuing him if he can continue shooting and passing at this level. It’s a huge change from where he was three seasons ago, when Toronto traded him for Kawhi Leonard and he was viewed as having one of the worst contracts in the league. DeRozan has put in the time to change his game. He’s about to be rewarded for it.