CHICAGO – When DeMar DeRozan scored 30 points last Friday in the Toronto Raptors’ 113-111 victory against the Denver Nuggets, he matched Michael Jordan, Alex English, Nate “Tiny” Archibald and Rick Barry as the only players to score at least 30 points in 10 of their first 12 games.
But it wasn’t just another of those arcane statistics so popular these days, though DeRozan was the first one ever to do so for a team so far north.
It was more a tribute to those players, and probably why they likely have such regard for DeRozan in this video-game basketball era.
DeRozan is a throwback; he’s old school. When he’s on a three-on-two fast break he doesn’t think the play is to get within a foot of the basket and then throw the ball back to someone standing behind the 3-point line. He doesn’t believe the best shot is the first one you can get 25 feet (7.6 meters) from the basket. He doesn’t believe accuracy begins at 23 feet (7.0 meters), or that you can’t get to 120 counting by twos.
Or to the top of the leaderboard in NBA scoring.
What we are witnessing thus far in the NBA is a deviance the modern NBA mathematicians said was not possible, that you could be efficient, effective and an exceptional scorer without shooting 3-pointers.
That sound you hear is everyone in the Basketball Hall of Fame cheering.
Not that they don’t appreciate the game now and the skills and abilities of NBA players like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. But players throughout the history of the game, despite being yelled at all the time when guys get up from their logarithms, know that there are many ways to win a game, many ways to score 120 points, many ways to average 30 points.
Not that it is the ultimate result or that DeRozan will be a 30-point scorer when the season ends. But DeRozan’s play in the first month of the season with the Raptors continues to hearten those who believe a good shot can be taken from anywhere and good offense could operate without sound effects.
DeRozan is the eighth-year shooting guard for the Raptors. He is on a remarkable run, averaging 10 points more per game than last season when he was one of the game’s top scorers. And he’s done so in a very unique way for this era, almost exclusively as a mid-range shooter, developing and refining his game mostly within 4.8 meters of the basket to become one of the game’s unstoppable players.
The modern theory of the NBA is you cannot be successful that way, that three points is more than two — which DeRozan agrees with — and an effective offense has to space out the floor with 3-point shooters to also open driving lanes. The Golden State Warriors have turned it into an art form and one of the best runs in league history that still is continuing.
But that also has a lot to do with having Curry, Klay Thompson and now Durant.
The Houston Rockets and Brooklyn Nets lead the league in 3-point attempts this season; they don’t have as many good players. The 76ers and Lakers also are top 10. Most won’t make the playoffs.
It reminds me of the Magic Johnson era when the Lakers were dominating. Everyone said they needed a big point guard to match the Lakers. The problem was there was only one Magic. I recall the Pacers passing on Tim Hardaway when they needed a point guard to take George McCloud because he was 203 cm. But not really a point guard. Hardaway went on to be an All-Star; the Pacers missed the playoffs. It was hardly just them, just as most everyone now builds in the 3-point shooting game. But you need the 3-point shooting makers.
It’s not necessarily DeRozan’s specialty. So to his immense credit he worked to become better at his specialty. It’s a nice lesson for many walks of life.
“I’m a very rebellious person,” DeRozan told Toronto reporters recently. “When somebody tells me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it to show you it can be done. The cool thing I find is when I see people say, ‘The midrange game is not dead.’ That’s the cool thing for me because I never let nobody tell me how I should play basketball. If I can get it done, if anybody can get it done any type of style, that’s all that matters.”
It’s also DeRozan’s history, a loyal Southern California kid who refused the Lakers’ free-agency entreaties last summer to stay in Toronto. He has a “loyalty” tattoo on his arm. Starting at Compton High in Los Angeles, when he improved, a bigger rival school, Dominguez, where more future pros play, sought him out. He stayed at Compton. He chose USC over more famous UCLA. He’s the rare player to re-sign in Canada, Chris Bosh, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady fleeing the Raptors and Canada.
DeRozan signed a five-year, $145 million contract last summer, but it didn’t get him to relax. He made the United States Olympic team, but brought two trainers to Rio with him and worked out daily starting at 5:30 a.m. He’s so much stronger now to be able to score readily inside. Like a few years back when he began writing and eating exclusively left-handed even though he’s right-handed. It was awkward and the writing illegible. Now he has an ambidextrous game that is clear to see.
He’s been likened to Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade for his excellent footwork, his ability to score inside in small places. And now his game is aiming for those heights.
“When you put the work in and sacrifice in the summer, good things are going to happen,” said Bulls forward and his former USC teammate Taj Gibson. “People categorize players all the time; it’s up to the player to work on his game. The player works and he plays great. He always had a mid-range game; he made it a lot better and the work is showing.”
Jordan, English, Archibald, Barry and the rest can only smile.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”