This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
Kyle Lowry is tired of answering questions about DeMar DeRozan's All-Star candidacy. After Friday's win over Miami in which DeRozan shot 12-for-25 from the field, made four of his five 3-point attempts and scored 33 points—his third straight game of 30-plus points and the eighth time he's done so this season—Lowry was asked whether his backcourt mate cemented his All-Star status with his performance against the Heat. "I think it's done, personally," he said, summing up precisely what everyone around the league has been saying over the past week.
DeRozan is averaging 23.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists. In January, he's shooting 43.7 percent from the field, a decline from his scorching month of December when he averaged 25.0 points on 47.1 percent shooting. Instead, he's making up for it from beyond the arc, where he's slowly incorporating the 3-pointer into his repertoire, shooting 44.8 percent from deep on 2.6 attempts per game in 11 contests this month. It's a small sample, but he's also starting to shoot from long range without the trepidation that used to accompany his 3-point attempts, when DeRozan would find himself open, consider the shot, and almost reluctantly let the ball fly.
DeRozan's shot profile has changed, too, as he's starting to loosen his reliance on the mid-range game, or the long twos that have become a hit-or-miss gambit especially late in close games. Per NBA.com, DeRozan has lowered his mid-range pull-ups from 48.5 percent of his total shot attempts last season to 41.8 percent. He's also shooting more from inside ten feet at the basket. Last season, 32.4 percent of his shots came from that area—that number has shot up to 42.6 percent. Redistributing his shots from a more efficient area has allowed him to become less reliant on his mid-range jumper.
DeRozan is enjoying the best season of his career and standing out as one of the best two-guards in the league. His 23.2 points per game ranks him second at his position behind only James Harden, and the two have similar shooting lines from the field, deep and the free throw line (DeRozan: 44.3/32.1/84.6; Harden: 42.5/34.2/86.6). It's worth noting that Harden is attempting eight 3-pointers per game. If DeRozan were to become a regular 3-point shooter and maintain those percentages, he would elevate himself to another level on the offensive end. DeRozan's numbers also compare favorably to Jimmy Butler, who has a lower scoring average and similar shooting percentages.
Another area in which DeRozan has improved is in pick-and-roll sets. Among players with more than 200 pick-and-roll possessions as the ball handler, DeRozan is second in the league behind reigning MVP Stephen Curry in points per possession in those situations. Per NBA.com, when Lowry and DeRozan have been on the floor together, the Raptors are scoring 106.8 points per 100 possessions. In the fourth quarter, that mark rises to 110.7 points per 100 possessions. Lowry and DeRozan both rank in the top 25 in the league in fourth-quarter scoring. That type of scoring output is close to what the league-leading Golden State Warriors (112.7 points per 100) are putting up. In the final 12 minutes, when the Raptors' starting backcourt is on the floor, they're outscoring opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions, a point differential that would be fourth best in the league.
DeRozan has done more than just elevate his scoring to another level this season—his passing ability has also improved by leaps and bounds and he's averaging a career-high 4.1 assists per game. He averaged 4.0 assists two years ago, but in isolation plays and when he's driving to the rim, the reads are much quicker now, opening up other scoring opportunities for the bigs down low and shooters on the perimeter.
The 3-ball—a new element in DeRozan's game. —Photo by Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports
DeRozan has downplayed the potential of expanding his game to outside the 3-point line. If it's there, he'll take it. In his seventh season with the Raptors, the 26-year-old does, however, acknowledge that he's got a greater understanding of what opposing defences are trying to do against him. "You try to think two or three moves ahead," he said. "You think about where your strengths are. You nitpick the game. It's never about who is guarding me. It's about the other four guys who are setting up."
Dwane Casey said the game is coming slow to him and that he believes DeRozan still has room for growth. Opposing coaches and players have also noticed the transformation taking place with Toronto's starting two-guard.
"They're two All-Stars in my opinion," Erik Spoelstra said of Toronto's backcourt. "In everybody's opinion, I think."
What is it that makes Lowry and DeRozan stand out? "It's not the stats," Spoelstra continued. "It's the timeliness of their plays. In those swing moments [in a game], they're making big plays. Those are the separating plays."
Doc Rivers praised DeRozan's work ethic before the Raptors crushed the Clippers on Sunday, while Chris Bosh—whose last season in Toronto was DeRozan's rookie year in the league—has also taken notice. "He wanted to be a very good basketball player and a great player eventually. He worked tirelessly every day," Bosh said. "Just to see him be able to control the game. Just to see his poise. He's adding things to his game—his passing ability, his post-up ability. He's everywhere on the court. It's fun to watch. I'm very proud of him."
Dwyane Wade, a three-time NBA champion and 12-time All-Star, said DeRozan reminds him a little bit of himself. "Both of them have a lot of tricks around the basket," Casey said. "Both of them get to the free throw line."
Drawing fouls and getting to the line has been a constant in DeRozan's game. He's been among the top ten leaders in free throw attempts per game in each of the last two seasons, and sits third this campaign at 8.1 behind Harden and DeMarcus Cousins. DeRozan's doing it while shooting a career-high 84.6 percent from the charity stripe. In his prime, Wade once averaged 10.7 free throw attempts per game.
DeRozan's numbers are strong enough to make him deserving of a spot on the East's All-Star roster, and the praise he's received from coaches around the league points to him joining Lowry when the announcement is made Thursday. Opposing teams are starting to talk about DeRozan as one of the elite players in the league.
The Raptors' recent run of eight straight victories—the longest active winning streak in the league—has Toronto just three games behind the East-leading Cavs in the loss column, and certainly doesn't hurt DeRozan's case, either. The Raptors have asserted themselves during this stretch, and after two first-round exits, it feels like this team—more balanced than last season, and with Lowry and DeRozan both elevating their play to new heights—can sustain this success in the playoffs.
Those answers will come in April. For now, the Raptors can take solace in knowing they are being led by an All-Star backcourt. Lowry was selected by the fans last week. DeRozan will be chosen by the coaches this week. They'll take center stage at home during All-Star Weekend. That's not a question of if anymore, just a matter of when. Once that's over with, the focus will turn to enjoying a better second half than last season and finally going on a deep playoff run—something the team and fan base has to feel more comfortable about this season with two All-Stars, who are playing the best ball of their careers, leading the charge.