Toronto Raptors: DeMar DeRozan must improve his defense


Since being drafted by the Toronto Raptors in 2009, DeMar DeRozan has steadily improved his game. A reliable mid-range shot? Check. Improved playmaking? Done. Master the art of drawing fouls?  Affirmative. Defense? Not so much, but it’s fixable.

By this point, most Toronto Raptor fans know what to expect from DeMar DeRozan. From his impressive scoring ability and exceptional footwork to his knack for drawing fouls, DeRozan is an incredible basketball player— on offense.

On defense, it’s a different story. On a good night, he’s bad. Most nights? A complete and utter liability— blown coverages, lack of awareness, etc.

However, all is not lost. DeRozan is still a big, athletic guard and at times, he’s shown the ability to be an average defender. For most players in the NBA, defensive ability comes down to matchups, effort and mental fortitude. DeRozan has the last two in spades.

If the Raptors want to (really) contend for an NBA championship, DeRozan needs to improve his defense. Here’s why it’s an issue and how he can fix it.

Attributes of a good defender

What makes a good NBA defender? The consensus among many is that you need a high basketball IQ, good awareness, the right techniques/habits (quick hands and feet, coordination, fundamentals) and the requisite physical attributes (length, stamina).

Certain players in the NBA have good basketball instincts but are physically limited. A prime example of this is Steph Curry. While fundamentally sound (he has great positioning and a knack for steals), Curry is lanky, sports a subpar 6’ 3.5” wingspan and lacks elite athleticism. During the Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals, the opposing teams continually abused him on defense by running him through switches and forcing unfavourable matchups.

The situation is reversed with DeRozan. While he doesn’t have all the attributes of an all-world defender (not the quickest hands and feet), he’s still physically gifted, with superb explosiveness, size and acceleration. It’s the mental side of the game that lets him down.

Master your mind you must

We all know that DeRozan is a mentally resilient person, both on and off the court. Each year he comes back stronger, more capable and with new tricks in his arsenal. Every slight, every piece of criticism feeds his desire to improve, to be a better player and prove his detractors wrong. Despite his success, DeRozan continues to play the role of an outsider fighting for validation. It’s the basketball equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield and “Can’t get no respect.”

Ironically, the biggest thing holding back DeMar DeRozan on defense is his mind. A lot of his problems on that end are a byproduct of mental slippage— he’ll lose his defender, give less than a 100 per cent effort and take unnecessary gambles that force his team to over-rotate. At times, he needs to be reminded/forcefully encouraged to stay engaged.

For a player who models his game after Kobe Bryant, an iron-willed competitor famous for his mental focus, this is inexcusable. DeRozan needs to acknowledge the problem and make a mental commitment to defense next season.

Fortunately, another year of Toronto Raptors’ cultural reset will make things easier for him.

While he doesn’t have all the attributes of an all-world defender (not the quickest hands and feet), he’s still physically gifted, with good explosiveness, size and acceleration. It’s the mental side of the game that lets him down.

Continue buying into the cultural reset

After their disappointing playoff exit last year, the Raptors instituted the much publicized, much discussed “cultural reset.” Assistant coach (now head coach) Nick Nurse implemented an egalitarian offensive system predicated on ball movement, spacing and three-point shooting. That led to fewer inefficient midrange shots and isolation plays.

One of the key benefactors of this decision was DeRozan. The team no longer ran every play through him, giving everyone on the team an equal opportunity to contribute. While things unravelled in the second round of the playoffs this year, this new approach has been largely effective.

Going into next season, Raptors will continue to emphasize an up-tempo offense; this is especially important when it comes to DeRozan and his defense. Save for a few (i.e. Kawhi Leonard), most elite NBA players conserve energy on defense to maximize their offensive potential. Now that DeRozan no longer needs to do everything, he can focus his mental energy on the other side of the ball. This will lead to less individual defensive breakdowns and better team defense.

Modern NBA defense

As the NBA continues to evolve, teams are continually reinventing themselves to stay ahead of the curve. With three-point shooting a big emphasis now, having defensive versatility is paramount. The Toronto Raptors use a switch-heavy scheme; for it to be effective, especially in the playoffs, they need a DeRozan who’s consistently engaged. You can’t be benched in the most important games and cost your team wins because you’re a defensive sieve.

Can he do it? DeRozan thrives on proving people wrong. As long as he’s committed, it will work. The ingredients are there for success.

Do you think that DeRozan can become a league average defender? Or do you think it’s too late for him to change his ways?