San Antonio Spurs: Diving deep on DeMar DeRozan’s mastery of passing
By Dylan Carter
Two seasons with the San Antonio Spurs have made DeMar DeRozan one of the league’s great underrated players and his passing is a great reason for it.
With great talent comes the understanding that criticism is on its way, as San Antonio Spurs star DeMar DeRozan has come to learn. After years of being thwarted by LeBron James in the Eastern Conference, the four-time All-Star got shipped to the River City in a deal that sealed his fate as the forgotten savior of the Toronto Raptors. Now for the silver and black, DeRozan works in silence, allowing his game to do the talking as he learns from one of the all-time great sports franchises.
Part of what’s taken DeRozan from being a good player to a great one is his knack for passing. He’s posted his best passing numbers in each of his seasons in San Antonio and the Assist Percentages to match. Though the team has struggled to reach that next level and he’s oftentimes the first man to catch blame, he’s playing on a team designed for the future instead of the present.
10 of the team’s 16 players are 25-years-old or younger with minimal playoff experience and no prolonged exposure to the NBA’s pace of play. Meanwhile, the older players have shown signs of decline, leaving DeRozan stuck in the middle to pick up the pieces. The losing has taken its toll but hasn’t discouraged the former All-NBA wing from trying to get the best from his teammates.
DeMar DeRozan is one of the league’s most underrated floor generals in 2020.
Statistics back up the fact that DeMar is producing assists at an unexpectedly high rate. Even without totaling as many as he did last year, he’s posting numbers that put him in range with players like Ben Simmons, LeBron and Luka Doncic, who rank top-five in assists this year.
With a commanding offensive presence that puts defenders on their toes, DeRozan has learned to apply his scoring threat to create better looks for his teammates. His mastery of the pick-and-roll has hit another level, making him a dual-threat as a scorer and initiator. Defenders tend to throw double-teams at him when he gets closer to the basket, which allows him to find open teammates for easy buckets. Knowing to make those passes is one thing, but placing them accurately for teammates takes a different level of concentration that DeRozan has learned to capitalize on.
When DeRozan posts up here against the Charlotte Hornets, you can see all five defenders look directly at him and react. When he notices the attention, DeRozan’s improved IQ flashes. He realizes that dumping the ball off to a flashing Derrick White is a better option than trying to take the shot that all five defenders are anticipating. DeMar bounce passes the ball slightly out of Terry Rozier’s reach, giving White the window to take a soft floater before anyone could react.
Over his previous four seasons, DeRozan has averaged 2,706 minutes per season and committed an average of 81.75 bad passes for turnovers in that span. He only missed two games this year and was healthy all year, so we’re assuming he finishes the season having played 80 games. With that in mind, he’s on pace for 67 turnovers by bad passes this season. That’s his fewest since he had 67 bad passes in 2016 and finished with 315 assists — 30 fewer than he has right now.
His ability to recognize defender’s reactions and outwit them has helped a Spurs team that’s out-working its opponents to cover up mediocrity.
Next: Using the Pick-and-Roll to perfection
By running off of screens, DeRozan helps his San Antonio Spurs teammates score from anywhere on the floor.
When you’re as silky a finisher as DeRozan is near the hoop, defenders are naturally going to react to your movement. By this point in his career, players know what he’s going to do as a scorer. DeRozan is one of the world’s best finishers in the paint and mid-range, using a highly-efficient play style to manipulate the defender’s actions to increase scoring efficiency.
The best way that DeRozan can set up his teammates is by initiating the pick-and-roll and setting off a chain of events that will result in buckets. Whether it be the simple pick-and-pop or through secondary assists, DeRozan is the team’s best initiator because he instills fear in his opponents when he curls off of a well-time screen.
Since DeRozan is such an adept mid-range scorer, it’s easy for him to curl off of a good screen and immediately take a jumper. That’s how he’s made his money in the NBA, for the most part. However, he’s added a facet of his game that has been critical in making San Antonio the 11th-rated offense in the NBA despite a losing record.
Here, you can see DeRozan spin away from a light screen by LaMarcus Aldridge, who doesn’t move much as his defender is drawn to the slashing DeRozan. When DeMar rockets a pass to Lyles in the corner, he’s already standing at attention, waiting for it to fall in his hands. With Draymond Green closing out on that shot, Lyles finds Aldridge wide open for one of his signature pull-up jumpers from 20 feet out.
These kinds of plays were DeRozan pulls defenders out of position is part of why he ranks so highly in secondary assists — a statistic that tracks how many assists a player’s first pass results in. DeRozan ranks 18th in the league in that category and fifth amongst forwards, which is a misleading notion that undersells DeRozan’s ranking at his position.
The top three forwards in secondary assists, Doncic, Simmons and James, spend the majority of their minutes playing point guard. There’s at least a case for LeBron, who spent 57 percent of minutes at the one-spot, but Doncic (81%) and Simmons (93%) shouldn’t qualify as forward. This leaves DeRozan just one secondary assist behind Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram for the lead in that category.
One of the greatest beneficiaries of DeRozan’s pick-and-roll prowess is forward Trey Lyles, who’s shooting 48.8 percent on 4.6 attempts from beyond the arc since the All-Star break. It took a while for him to find his footing in head coach Gregg Popovich’s offense, but now that he’s comfortable, he’s been a natural fit next to DeRozan.
In the clip above, we can see DeRozan attacking after Lyles fakes a pick and slides to one of his favorite spots: The top of the key 3-pointer. DeRozan draws both defenders to the basket before rocketing a pass to Lyles for the triple. Notice how instead of just making the pass when both defenders are in range, he dribbles to his left hand, forcing Miles Bridges to react. This is one quick, nuanced way DeRozan distracts the defender so that he doesn’t have time to close out on Lyles.
Small, overlooked plays like this are what give DeRozan the second-highest score frequency of pick-and-roll ball handlers with at least five possessions per game. The only player ahead of him is a future Hall of Famer, Chris Paul who averages 8.2 possessions to DeRozan’s 7.2. Even so, DeRozan’s 52 percent score frequency is only two-tenths of a percentage point behind CP3’s.
If that doesn’t convince you of DeRozan’s prowess in the pick-and-roll, I don’t know what will.
Next: Generating triples at an alarming rate
With DeRozan’s scoring threat, the San Antonio Spurs get tons more open 3-pointers than they would’ve otherwise.
Unless they have elite defensive players to stop him, most teams have come to accept that DeRozan’s drive to the basket is likely to result in a bucket. DeRozan gets to the charity stripe almost seven times per game, knocking down his free throws at an 84.3 percent clip. He’s a crafty finisher with 50 And-1’s in 61 games, putting him on track to match the career-high 62 he had last season.
With opponents focusing on that aspect of his game when scouting ahead, DeRozan’s generating way more 3-pointers than expected for a player who doesn’t take them. Instead of resisting the modern 3-point renaissance because he can’t make them, DeRozan is opting to create those shots for those who are better equipped to make those shots instead.
In San Antonio’s 145-115 thrashing of the Memphis Grizzlies in December, DeRozan double-doubled with 26 points and 10 assists including six for 3-pointers. He did so by drawing the young Grizzlies’ defenders away from their opponents with his dribble and rocketing passes to his comrades.
During the third quarter, you can catch a glimpse of five defenders eyeing DeRozan’s drive to the basket, leaving Lyles wide-open in the corner. He could’ve taken a chance and swung that pass about eight steps and four dribbles earlier, but he let the play develop and drove to the rim, forcing the Grizzlies to collapse. In doing so, he gives Lyles time to get set for a more comfortable shot in the corner.
Now in this instance, DeRozan draws two defenders as Patty Mills flashes to the wing for a shot. He posts up Jae Crowder, who has the strength advantage, while second-year guard De’Anthony Melton gets his bearings. Noticing that Melton is ready to close out, DeMar leads Patty further into the corner with his pass, allowing the Aussie to drain an open triple.
These are just a few examples of the ways DeRozan sets up his team for deep shots, but those aren’t the only ways. At times, it’s as simple as leading the ball up the court and giving Bryn Forbes time to run from one side of the court to the other, or allowing time for an off-ball screen to set Forbes up on the wing.
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Regardless, these are a few ways that make it clear why DeRozan is the team’s lead initiator. His passes account for 8.5 3-point attempts per game which get drained at 37.6 percent. Only two teams hit 3-pointers at a percentage that high this season: The Utah Jazz and Miami Heat. When DeRozan is making those plays, he’s essentially setting his teammates up to shoot the long-ball better than 28 of the league’s 30 teams.
Furthermore, San Antonio shoots the 3-pointer 1.4 percent worse when DeRozan is off the floor, which is a pretty noticeable difference for a guy who didn’t attempt a three in 41 of his 61 games this year.
No matter what you think about DeMar DeRozan as a No. 1 option or within the confines of his role for this team, he has to be respected for the advances he’s made since becoming a Spur. Maybe the team can get better without him, maybe they won’t, but indistinct roster contribution is the primary reason for this team’s woes — not their best player for the last two years.
Especially when he’s done everything Coach Pop has asked of him since the day he walked through the doors at the Spurs’ practice facility.
*All stats and clips courtesy of Stats.NBA.com, h/t 3Ball*