DeMar DeRozan's old-school game near extinction in league

As 3-point shooting soars, Toronto Raptors' star content with life inside arc

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Nobody wants to be like him. That’s the second strangest thing about someone who is averaging nearly 25 points a night. You can’t find many kids on the playgrounds copying his style, or pro hopefuls studying his highlight clips, and NBA coaches are steering their players far, far away from his influence.

Imagine that: He’s an All-Star making $27 million a season and is beloved by the team he plays for and the city he reps, which means he must be doing something right.

Yet he walks virtually alone in this game.

Which leads to the first and obvious thing that’s immediately apparent about DeMar DeRozan, the Eastern Conference Player of the Week: He’s one of the few NBA players at the swing position who embraces the mid-range shot as his primary weapon. A neat coincidence, then, that the leading scorer of the Toronto Raptors is, in some ways, a dinosaur.

“Does that mean my type is becoming extinct?” he said, laughing.

In today’s game, that would be accurate, yes. And sadly so.

DeRozan hasn’t changed since he first picked up a basketball; the world around him changed just before he arrived in the 2009 Draft as the No. 9 pick. The basketball court expanded and everyone caught 3-point fever over the last several years. It’s a copycat league, and with the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets using the 3-pointer to massive success, others are simply falling in line and hoping (and mostly failing) to duplicate that.

I grew up watching old school basketball and I came into the league like that. A lot of these young guys are watching the league in a whole different dynamic than what we had. It just come with the times.

DeMar DeRozan, on his old school roots

Meanwhile, the gap on the floor that’s 12- to 20-feet from the rim gets 2 a.m. traffic.

The fans are obviously in favor of the three and the league approves anything that gets eyeballs. The 3-pointer has generated excitement and allows teams to rally from big deficits, which is fine. But why has the NBA abandoned the mid-range, and is that really good for the game when everyone plays the same way — take shots from deep or at the rim but nothing in between?

“You’ve got to go to bat with your strengths,” said DeRozan. “I grew up watching old school basketball and I came into the league like that. A lot of these young guys are watching the league in a whole different dynamic than what we had. It just come with the times.”

It’s rather silly when you consider it, because part of the problem is too many wanna-be’s who are hitting 32 percent from deep are trying to match Stephen Curry’s brilliance, when it’s probably easier, and nearly as lucrative, to follow the DeRozan blueprint. The game could use more offensive balance, players who can back their man down, sink the baseline 18-footer and most important, draw contact and get to the free throw line.

But coaches and general managers, drunk on analytics, are either too afraid to break from the trend or not creative enough to design an offense that showcases both the long-distance shooter and the mid-range specialist. The league is on pace this season to attempt the fewest number of shots defined as “mid-range” since those stats were first kept in 1996-97. It’s now at 19 percent, which would drop under the previous single-season low of 22 percent last season, and far below 38 percent in 1999-2000.

Because of that, it’s a good bet that waves of teenagers with pro aspirations and potential are junking the mid-range game altogether for 3-point shooting, since that’s the message being sent by the NBA. When the ball finds them 18 feet from the basket, some are uncomfortable and rattled.

The Rockets, for example, are exclusively built for 3-point shooting. Eric Gordon shoots 9.3 3-pointers and 4.5 two-pointers per game. James Harden is roughly at 50-50 on 3-pointers and twos. And then there’s Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, the extremes who are 80-20 on 3-pointers vs. twos. It’s not uncommon for Ariza to ignore a clear path to the basket in favor of an open 3-pointer. Coach Mike D’Antoni bans his designated long shooters from doing anything but 3-pointers and layups.

In an ironic twist, DeRozan’s own team makes little time for mid-range shots in practice and the Raptors are definitely the norm in that regard, not the exception.

“Why are we working on shots we don’t want to shoot?” said coach Dwane Casey, echoing the thoughts of many of his fellow coaches. “We practice 3s, attack and kick out. We rarely work on mid-range shots, definitely not as a team. We don’t work on shots we don’t want to take.”

Even DeRozan has enhanced his game this season by becoming a more active and accurate shooter from deep. In recent back-to-back games against the Philadelphia 76ers (one in which he dropped 45 points) he took a combined 16 shots from deep. That matched the number he took in his entire rookie season. Only once in his career has DeRozan averaged more than two 3-pointers a game (2013-14), and he’s on pace to average three 3-pointers this season — a massive leap for him.

But his money maker remains the 18-footer, where he uses his body wisely to create space and a pump-fake to draw contact and get to the line. DeRozan has averaged eight free throw attempts per game over the last five seasons — only Harden and DeMarcus Cousins have taken more.

“I don’t understand it,” said Tony Thomas. “Is there something I’m missing here?”

Thomas was DeRozan’s high school coach in Compton. He never tried to transform DeRozan’s game or instincts. Thomas encouraged DeRozan to follow his own path even while colleges and the pros were busy loading up on players who shoot 3-pointers. DeRozan’s favorite drill was spreading trash cans on several spots on the court, then dribbling around and shooting over them. DeRozan learned how to save his release until he reached his highest point on his vertical leap, which allowed him to challenge taller players when contested on 18-footers.

“Plus, the high school 3-pointer is an NBA mid-range,” said Thomas. “He shot threes in high school but stayed there.”

Thomas said the added value of drawing contact and shooting free throws made the mid-range a better option for DeRozan, who’s an 82-percent shooter from the line.

“You’re always in attack mode,” Thomas said. “That’s the whole purpose. You’re scoring with the clock moving and also scoring when the clock’s not moving at the free throw line. The best of both worlds. He can use his strength and post up smaller guys and his dribble to keep the bigger guys off balance.”

Thomas said he doesn’t stress the 3-pointer on his high school teams unless someone shows plenty of potential.

“When you’re open I don’t mind you taking a three, but the way these guys jack up these threes now, it’s a bad shot,” he said. “Even if it’s an open shot, it’s a bad percentage shot unless you’re shooting 40 percent, because when you miss, that’s a fast break opportunity the other way.”

DeRozan said about Thomas: “He let me be and I ran with it.”

In his only season at USC, DeRozan took just six 3-pointers. His explosiveness and mid-range shot made him a top-10 pick but the league was rapidly gravitating toward guards with greater shooting range. DeRozan’s carbon copy in the league was Dwyane Wade, a future Hall of Famer whose style somehow didn’t rub off on the next generation.

DeRozan improved his dribble and shot selection to put himself among the most efficient (if not best) guards in the NBA. His biggest year came after he signed the big contract two summers ago: 27.3 points last season. Teammate Kyle Lowry is more accurate from deep and therefore the primary 3-point option in the final seconds, but DeRozan’s confidence is growing behind the arc.

“When he gets that volume up, then he’s really dangerous,” said Lowry.

DeRozan’s newfound growth as a 3-point shooter is a big change to his game, but he warns against anyone thinking he’ll suddenly and drastically change with the times. He subscribes to the great philosopher Charles Barkley, who said, ever so delicately: “If you’re a great 3-point shooter, then shoot threes. But everybody can’t be a 3-point shooter. You don’t have to shoot threes because everyone else is doing it. That’s a bunch of crap.”

That’s sound advice for a pair of intriguing rookies cursed with freaky shooting mechanics and are clunky (so far) from beyond the arc: Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball.

When you’re under 30 percent, what’s wrong with moving a few feet inside the line?

What’s so wrong with being DeMar DeRozan?

Nothing, says DeRozan. If anything, he enjoys being a hopeless throwback and standing out from the pack.

“It’s really an honor,” he said. “All of my favorite players growing up were great mid-range shooters. If they could do it, why can’t I? Does it make a difference that I’m shooting twos when people are going crazy about threes? And does it help my team? That’s all that really matters, anyway.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.