TORONTO - Three weeks ago DeMar DeRozan was happily taking advantage of a flawed partnership with Rudy Gay.
The Raptors' two leading scorers were never able to co-exist the way they hoped or the team had envisioned, but individually DeRozan was thriving, in the midst of a career season.
During his brief tenure, Gay's presence meant far more to his team, to DeRozan, than his sub-par production. Despite his poor shot selection and declining percentages, the former Raptors' forward consistently topped the opposition's scouting report, drawing the attention of their best defender(s) and making the game a whole lot easier for his emerging sidekick.
No longer Robin to Gay's Batman, DeRozan has assumed the lead role and is embracing the added responsibility that comes with it.
"Lately I've been trying to do a lot of different things," DeRozan told TSN.ca last week. "Getting my teammates involved, trying to rebound, trying to get steals, do a lot of other things that keep me going that probably before I didn't used to do."
"I let my shot [dictate] my game, but now I just trust my teammates. I just try to go out there and do other stuff because I know I can be a decoy with how much of the defence I draw."
For all his ability and the consequential attention it would attract, Gay was never willing to be a decoy in Toronto, at least not consistently. He was too prideful, a result of the self-imposed expectations that come with a max salary in the NBA. The moment had to be his, which to him meant the shot had to be his. Opposing defences feasted on that predictability and more often than not DeRozan became the forgotten man.
A career 26 per cent three-point shooter, DeRozan was firing the long-ball at a 37 per cent clip in 18 games before Gay was dealt to Sacramento earlier in the month. In his fifth season, DeRozan was averaging career-highs across the board but his growth and maturity has become most evident in the aftermath of the trade.
Despite the added responsibility in 10 games since the trade, his shot attempts have not increased (17.9 per game, up from 17.7) and his scoring average has dipped just slightly (20.5 points per game from 21.4). Instead, his assists (4.5 per contest, from 2.7) and rebounding numbers (4.7, from 2.7) have gone up.
The ball is moving more than it has in a long time, the team is playing together, winning together and DeRozan's fingerprints are all over it. The Raptors are 9-2 when DeRozan registers four or more assists this season.
"I understand a lot of teams, mostly all the teams are going to key [in on] me so I use that to my advantage and just try to get my teammates going," he said after matching a career-high with nine assists in the overtime win against Dallas on December 20th. He's not cowering from the defensive pressure he's facing, he's also not trying to do too much.
"[Teams are] showing him a lot of respect, trying to get the ball out of his hands," Dwane Casey said of the 24-year-old guard. "He's done an excellent job of passing out of it. His scoring average will probably go down a little bit but it's going to help someone else."
So far, sophomore Terrence Ross has been the primary beneficiary. The Raptors' second-year guard, whose playing time has increased by over 10 minutes per game since the trade, is excelling in the starting lineup alongside DeRozan on the wing.
Although DeRozan's three-point percentage has plummeted without Gay in the lineup - shooting 19 per cent from long distance over the last 10 games - Ross has seen his go from 34 per cent pre-trade to 48 per cent since, setting a new career-high with seven-made triples (on 11 attempts) in Saturday's win over the Knicks.
"I think it's helped T-Ross," Casey said, "because [teams are] double teaming [DeRozan] and leaving him open."
"I'm just taking what the defence gives me," added Ross, who is averaging 14.4 points in nine contests as a starter. "DeMar [has been] consistent all year, he can go out and score in different ways and it kind of opens up things for me, Kyle (Lowry), Jonas (Valanciunas) and everybody else."
His shots have been reminiscent of those DeRozan got, and made consistently earlier in the campaign, many of them coming from the corner. The corner three is the most efficient shot in basketball and the 21-year-old is perfecting it.
Ross ranks 11th in the NBA, knocking down 24 corner threes this season while shooting them at a 49 per cent clip. He leads the association with 16 corner threes made since December 8th, when the Gay trade was consummated, shooting a remarkable 55 per cent from that region. Ross is developing a niche, one that could see him become increasingly valuable to the Raptors' attack and it's all predicated on the leadership of the team's best player.
"He's just playing with confidence," DeRozan said of Ross, his protégé. "I tell him, don't go out there second guessing yourself. You have the ability to do anything on that court, you jump higher than everybody on that court, you're a great shooter, you could do so much just use it and don't worry about messing up so much. That's what he's doing."
"I know I can score, I can get up shots when I need to but I look at it like, let me use myself to get Terrence an open shot or use myself to free up Kyle or create a shot for somebody else," he continued. "That's what it's all about because I know I draw so much attention, I just use that to my benefit."