TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan isn't doing anything drastically different. He's just better. In the first quarter against the New York Knicks on Monday, the Toronto Raptors shooting guard received a pass on the left block like he did a few times a game last season. Tim Hardaway Jr. didn't stand a chance. DeRozan hit the rookie with a series of fakes, then an up-and-under move and a pretty lefty layup. The fancy footwork earned him some powerful praise postgame.
"He looked like he'd been working with Hakeem down there," Toronto head coach Dwane Casey said.
About a minute later, DeRozan had the ball in the same situation. This time a double team came. He kicked the ball out to Rudy Gay, cut to the corner, received a pass from Gay and drained a three. Both buckets seemed so simple.
By the end of the first half, he had an easy 17 points on 6-9 shooting. He finished the game with 21 and seven rebounds in 30 minutes. All preseason DeRozan has outsmarted and outmuscled defenders. Smaller shooting guards get bullied, others get baited into biting on pump fakes. He came into the league a pure athlete, now he's great at waiting until you make a mistake, then punishing you.
DeRozan's post game came to the fore a year ago, partially the product of time spent with Hall of Famer Gary Payton. An L.A. native, it's no secret that DeRozan emulates his idol Kobe Bryant, but he's also studied guys like Andre Miller in the post. Now he couldn't be more sure of himself in those situations.
"I know if I can get a player in the air that I can get a foul or get a layup," DeRozan said.
In six preseason games he's averaged 14.3 points in 16 minutes, shooting 54 percent from the field. Good things happen nearly every time he attacks the basket and he's trusting the time he's put into his jumper. DeRozan has made more than a few outside shots with hands in his face, those ones that could be called questionable but look beautiful when they go in.
"DeMar looks like an all-star," Raptors guard Terrence Ross said. "He's one of my favorite players to watch."
While DeRozan has been receiving rave reviews for his preseason performances, he's really just picking up where he left off. It went largely unnoticed with Toronto outside of the spotlight and the playoff race, but DeRozan finished 2012-2013 with the best stretch of his career, averaging 23.9 points in 34 minutes on 56 percent shooting in his last eight regular season games. He's launching threes without hesitation and that's not exactly new. He shot 9-12 from downtown in the final three games of last season.
Casey credits DeRozan's maturity and his approach, saying that he treats every possession like it's the last two minutes of the fourth quarter. The coach has seen his shooting guard grow up since taking over the team two years ago. DeRozan's heading into his fifth season and, even if he's still learning himself, he's setting an example for others with his work ethic.
"That's why it's so hard when people talk about, ‘This guy's going to come in and take over the league,'" Casey said. "No, it doesn't happen overnight. It's a four-year process, a five-year process when you get a guy out of college. It's very rare a guy comes in and dominates and knows what it takes to dominate because he doesn't have life experiences to go through it. And that's where DeMar is and it's good to see."
Toronto's seen incremental improvement out of DeRozan over his first four years. The knock has been that his added strength and skills haven't had a profound impact on his per-minute production. If you've been watching all along, though, it's impossible not to have noticed how his game and his confidence have grown to this point.
"I definitely feel more comfortable than ever," DeRozan said.
For DeRozan, now it's more about consistency and efficiency than adding to his arsenal. Judging by how decisive he's been with the ball in his hands, it's easy to imagine him keeping it up.