BY DAVID THORPE
Down one in Atlanta, less than 20 seconds left, DeMar DeRozan slowly dribbles up the court. The Bulls star has made a reputation for hitting big shots this season—including two genuine buzzer beaters and dozens of clutch buckets. The entire Hawks defense is hell bent on preventing another.
DeRozan is famous for knowing how to get to “his spots,” so both his defender and the nearest helper were geared up to prevent that from happening. They thought they knew how to answer the question DeRozan posed on opposing defense, but the problem was, they asked the wrong question. Three points later, and the match was over. DeRozan and the Bulls were leaving town yet again having stolen the hearts of another fanbase.
This season will be known for a few things regardless of who wins the title. The emergence of Ja, the sinking Lakers, Ben Simmons and James Harden drama, and the ascension of Embiid all dominated highlight and talk shows all season. You can add one more visual to the 2021-22 season—DeRozan’s brilliant scoring as he led a Bulls charge that has surprised nearly everyone. Lonzo Ball is out, Alex Caruso too, and last year’s fourth overall pick (Pat Williams) has missed all but the first five games of the season, yet the Bulls are two games behind the Miami Heat for the one seed in the East, after four seasons of missing the playoffs altogether. DeRozan, in year 13 of his pro career, is enjoying his best season. How it’s come to pass is full of art and inspiration, but the reason it’s happening is nothing but science.
Months ago the Bulls acquired DeRozan in free agency, for $85 million (three years), and cost the Bulls a first-round pick, two second-round picks, and Thaddeus Young (now a Raptor). Esteemed talent and acquisition evaluators, to include one of the analysts I most trust, The Athletic’s John Hollinger, were not fans of the deal. Neither was I.
DeRozan was solid in San Antonio, in terms of his numbers, but he didn’t appear to be nearly capable of lifting the Bulls into anything resembling a contender. In Seth Partnow’s preseason player rankings, DeRozan landed in Tier 4A, with Brook Lopez, Goran Dragic, John Wall, PJ Tucker, Victor Oladipo, Derrick Rose and others.
Turning 32 and not a deep shooter, the deal made little sense to a team that had Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball. It was a staggering amount of money for a player old enough to be in decline.
We were all wrong. How did we miss so badly? The answer isn’t challenging. DeRozan is having his best season ever as a shooter, incredibly rare for someone who was drafted nearly 13 years ago and had played over 850 games before this season began. Nevertheless, that increased shooting ability unleashed and enhanced something he’s had for years—the ability to outsmart everyone.
NBA games are often referred to as chess matches, when describing the battles of strategy and adjustments by opposing coaches. On the court, though, the head games are expressed through physical wars. Possession after possession it’s a story of power, fitness, quickness, speed, jumping, faking—the many ways a quick mind can outperform an opponent. In that regard, NBA players are less like chess players and more like sword fighters, playing physical chess.
DeRozan is Zorro, an Angeleno who took it upon himself to defend local citizens from tyrannical and corrupt officials with supreme sword fighting skills. Only this, far taller native of Los Angeles does his work with a basketball. And the most exquisite footwork since the adopted and perhaps most famous modern Angeleno, Kobe Bryant.
When most people think of DeMar DeRozan they think of a scorer who knows how to get to his spots. Meaning, he knows there are areas of the court where he scores well, and defenders be damned, he finds his way there.
Chase Hughes of NBA Sports Washington asked players about the art of getting to your spots:
"You think about guys like DeMar DeRozan. He does it every single night. He does it with hands in his face, through pump fakes. That’s a great player."—Kyle Kuzma
“That’s the first name that got into my mind. DeMar is really good at it, —Deni Avdija
“When he gets to his spot, there’s nobody that can stop him.”—Nikola Vučević
Here’s what I see happening: many players are amazing at getting to their spots. Stephen Curry might be the best ever. What as nudged DeRozan into position as the fourth-most likely MVP this season is when he gets to his spots, he gets points.
Fencer Valentina Vezzali has nine Olympic medals, six of which are gold. She says she succeeded over more than two decades because “they thought I was doing a specific thing at a specific time, while in truth I was preparing something else.”
Fencing is a science, a sport where footwork and timing are the lifeblood of a successful bout. Each competitor is trying to defend, attack, or both.
Two NBA players in isolation are in the same kind of battle, and that’s where it become clear only DeRozan has people fooled.
There’s a lot going on here in this one on one battle.
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