• One Big Thing: Learning to Love DeMar DeRozan

    I’ve been a Raptors fan as long as I can remember. That brings with it the evolution of fandom that simply occurs over time. Your understanding of basketball grows with increased viewings the same way it does when you find smart people writing smart things about the game online. You can dive into X’s and O’s and the wealth of data and analytics available for public consumption.

    The spread of basketball knowledge and philosophy available means you can access just about anything you’d like. If you want to test your own observations against thousands of minutes of data, go for it. If you get really peeved at a broadcast team shouting platitudes, you can look up the facts for yourself. It’s a really great time to be a hoops fan.

    It also means that the collective consciousness can quickly determine what is and isn’t ‘good.’ The basic tenets of offensive basketball theory are now backed up by all kinds of numbers- most notably, three pointers and layups are good and midrange and long twos are bad. Long twos are very bad. Very bad.

    Which brings me to DeMar DeRozan. I know what DeRozan means to the franchise, and how much he’s accomplished in his time as a Raptor. There’s just something so… ugly about his game that keeps me from feeling the same way about DDR as I do about Kyle Lowry or Jonas Valanciunas. Hell, even Patrick Patterson.

    I know that human preferences are often deeply irrational and I’m trying to come to grips with the fact that DeMar is just as worthy of admiration. He’s starting to win me over.

    Watching the Raptors spin their wheels with DeRozan and Rudy Gay was disheartening. It was a contest of who could pound the ball and take the most contested jumpers. It was painful. Winning cures all ailments, as Kyle Lowry’s arrival turned the ship around and helped illustrate that DeRozan and his poor-by-analytics profile could be a major component of a success story.

    When the Raptors traded Gay away and suddenly got good, DeRozan’s evolution emerged as a focal point. He struggled with Joe Johnson and the team lost to an aging Nets squad in the postseason.

    Even when he went down with an injury the following year it seemed like DeRozan’s scoring could be spread across the remaining roster easier than, say Amir Johnson’s vicious screens or Valanciunas’ post presence or Lowry’s EVERYTHING. Despite the numbers, DeRozan felt like the most expendable member of the starting five. It sucked to lose a top scorer, but he and his ugly game were something that the team could overcome. Lo and behold, the Raptors survived. The team folded like a cheap suits against Washington when Lowry no-showed. DeRozan’s presence was nice, but how could he become truly irreplaceable?

    At some point, DeRozan’s greatness started to wear me down. 30 points here, 40 points there. His herky jerky moves create just enough space where he can knock down his midrange shots. It was a slow burn, but it had begun. Then the free throws. And the winning. The sweet, sweet winning. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

    DeRozan deserves full marks for making strides every single year he’s been in the league. His evolution into a bona fide star has been completely and totally earned. When he needed to put on muscle as a youngster, he did. When he needed to clean up his passing and playmaking, he did. When he needed to stop settling and use his athleticism to drive to the rim, he did and high volume free throws followed. The only thing missing is a three point shot, and if the marginal improvements from last year are a sign of things to come, a passable deep ball might be on the way. DeMar DeRozan has done everything that’s been asked of him every step of the way. Plus the fact that he’s almost a guarantee to become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer in the near future.

    On top of that DeRozan has championed a franchise and a city that had an image problem, unfair or not. He and Lowry have made the Raptors a real thing- a team to be concerned about and a place that people might actually want to play. Two years in a row now the Raptors have retained their biggest free agents while attracting another hot player on the market in DeMarre Carroll. As I said before, winning cures everything, but DeRozan’s repeated claims that Toronto is a great place to live, work and raise a family don’t exactly hurt the cause.

    His game will never be my cup of tea and I’ve come to accept that. There’s something hard-wired in me that makes me wince whenever he rises up for a contested turnaround. He’s spent so long building up his resume that the fanbase trusts he’ll make each one, but it will never ever be the ideal profile of efficiency.

    DeRozan, fighting through criticism, has emerged as one of the game’s elite scorers. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to work. It’s easy to frame this as overweighting big data but it’s more complex than that. Just about any serious fan can identify a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ shot using the old eye test, and many of DeRozan’s are somewhere between ‘ehhhh’ and ‘okay then.’ It doesn’t matter. Those ugly shots that poke at the part of your brain that calls for an extra pass or a reset are his shots. DeRozan has mastered the bad shot. The one you want to give up is the one he wants to take.

    DeRozan has kicked off this season with a bang, notching 40 and 30 point nights while looking pretty good in the process. It’s become routine to watch him contort his way through the lane on the way to the cup, spinning and dipping his way to the free throw line or two points in the paint. I’ve learned to love a game that I’ve never even liked.

    Sorry, DeMar. I’m on board now. You’ve earned it.

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