By Eric Koreen, SBNation
Few ever envisioned DeMar DeRozan as The Man for the Toronto Raptors, and during his seven years in the league’s Canadian outpost, he never has been. Not really. DeRozan has been perpetually behind, or at best beside, someone else throughout his tenure. The list includes Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay and now Kyle Lowry. In many ways, DeRozan has always been a glorified Other Guy.
Yet, he has not carried himself like a supporting player, nor played like one. It’s part of his stubbornness that can charm and infuriate in equal measures. As an Angeleno who came of age around the turn of the millennium, DeRozan treasured Kobe Bryant. While he lacks Bryant’s borderline-sociopathic personality traits, he has all of his outsized confidence, and at least a large chunk of the boulder on his shoulder.
Even as an unassuming rookie, DeRozan was eager to take on as large of a profile with the team as possible. When Bosh was set to leave Toronto for Miami in the summer of 2010, DeRozan tweeted, “Don’t worry, I got us.”
DeRozan doesn’t remember posting the tweet in question, but he sees it in his replies constantly. He recognizes his confidence in it, too.
“It’s crazy when I see that. I know that when I wrote it, I meant it. I meant it,” DeRozan said. “Now was the opportunity for me, whatever it was – I didn’t know what it was – but I just felt like it was my opportunity to take whatever it was and run with it. I didn’t know exactly what it is. I’m always one of them optimistic dudes and believe in working hard. Once you sacrifice and put so much time into something, something is going to come back around for you. (I’m sure) that was real when I tweeted that. That’s really how I felt.”
Points to DeRozan for boldness, but the notion seemed absurd at the time. A year removed from a lottery selection, there were few signs of an emerging superstar during his rookie year. DeRozan started 65 of his 77 games that year, and shot almost 50 percent from the floor, still a career best. However, he was low in the pecking order — behind Bosh, Bargnani and others — on what might have been the most disappointing Raptors team of all time.
“We had one little play we would run for him out of a timeout once in a while just to throw him a bone,” said Eric Hughes, a longtime Raptors developmental coach who worked closely with DeRozan until 2013, when he left to join Jason Kidd’s coaching staff. “He got all of his stuff in transition and getting easy baskets. But there were no plays run for DeMar DeRozan in his rookie year.”
Even after Bosh left, the Raptors were still trying to make Bargnani into an offensive fulcrum. Eventually Bargnani’s position of prominence went to Gay, and neither was a good fit for DeRozan’s development. All of Toronto’s go-to scorers required the ball, and liked to take their time when they got it, DeRozan included. The Raptors launched mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper and DeRozan’s numbers in his second, third and fourth seasons all looked similarly uninspiring.
Precisely when NBA stars are supposed to come into their own, DeRozan‘s progress was static. He was not an intuitive passer. He was not a three-point shooter. For all of the trouble the Raptors took to create open jumpers for him — screens, curls and pindowns — DeRozan was little more than an average long-two shooter. He got to the free-throw line, but not at an astounding rate.
Hughes recalled DeRozan wondering why Dwyane Wade would get calls that he would not, and the coaching staff pointed out that he was so slight that he was avoiding contact. Add that to the Raptors’ patented sub-mediocrity, and DeRozan would not get the benefit of the doubt from referees.
Former general manager Bryan Colangelo gave DeRozan a four-year, $40-million extension on opening night of the 2012-13 season, and it was widely panned as a needless commitment to just another high-usage, empty-calorie scorer on the wing. Colangelo defended the move in a number of ways. DeRozan loved Toronto. He was still only 23, with room to grow. Most importantly, DeRozan worked his ass off. DeRozan would never cheat the organization.
Colangelo repeatedly changed the equation, swapping coaches and offensive focal points. However, DeRozan had been the Raptors’ draft pick and they badly wanted him to become more of a leader, both inside the locker room and in the community.
“I’m still looking at it like I’m a kid from Compton. I was living in Compton two years before this, right? Now I’ve got all of this. It was so much,” DeRozan said. “I always wanted my game to speak for itself before I did anything else. Even with all of that stuff, I felt like I was still going through a lot of criticism, a lot of doubt, doubt, doubt. All I saw was more doubt than, ‘Oh yeah, he’s going to be great.’ That was fueling me to become the player I think I am today. It stopped me from really opening up early on because I was so focused on basketball. I didn’t care about nothing else. That was on my mind constantly.”
After trading Gay early in the 2013 season, the Raptors finally began to jell and DeRozan has been a huge part their success. He was Toronto’s lone All-Star that season, and after a groin injury derailed his progress last year, DeRozan has been spectacular this season. His get-to-the-rim tunnel vision has been replaced with drives and dishes, and his pick-and-roll play has been a revelation. Long a fixture in the post, DeRozan has used his knowledge of footwork, positioning and changing speeds to trap defenders behind him on the move, much like Joe Johnson.
“The maturation of his game in the post, his craftiness, getting to the line — he’s a veteran now,” Bosh said recently. “It’s just crazy to see.”
That is where Colangelo’s bet on DeRozan‘s character really paid off. Nearly every NBA star works hard, but DeRozan is at a different level. General manager Masai Ujiri, who took over from Colangelo, laughed as he recalled visiting DeRozan at his high-school gym this past summer. It was the only place where Ujiri could get an audience with his player. During the team’s Christmas break in 2014, DeRozan called former assistant coach David Gale to the gym in Los Angeles so that he could work on anything the doctors permitted.
“DeMar works harder than anyone on the team, and that’s with all respect to Kyle,” said Gale, who now serves as an assistant with Raptors 905, the team’s D-League affiliate. “Kyle works really hard as well. DeMar, he’s a gym rat.
“It’s rubbed off on Kyle. I didn’t know Kyle before (he was traded) here. But DeMar had his routine of coming in the night before games. Kyle started doing that last year as well. (DeRozan is) just a basketball junkie. It definitely makes the basketball atmosphere or winning culture more of a possible thing.”
DeRozan‘s improved play has opened up the world for the Raptors. He runs the pick-and-roll expertly, a shock to the system for those who remember how often he would lose the ball in traffic in previous seasons. DeRozan attacks relentlessly, a former pejorative statement that has turned into one of his best qualities with some added experience and intelligence. Only James Harden has shot more free throws.
“I could care less what somebody thinks about my shot attempts or whatever, because a lot of times when I do take difficult shots … they feel more comfortable for me than the wide-open shots,” DeRozan said. “I think it was more understanding that I’m bailing out the defense a lot of times (with mid-range jumpers). I wanted to put more pressure on them to put them off balance when they’re guarding me, making them not sure what I’m going to do: if I’m going to drive, if I’m going to post-up, if I’m going to go for a foul or a pump fake. There are so many options. I want my defenders to have that in their minds so that whatever I do, I feel more comfortable in knowing I’m not letting them off of the hook.”
His passing has evolved, too, with DeRozan‘s drive-and-kick game going from good to magnificent. Just witness Luis Scola, who hit 10 three-pointers in the first eight years of his career and has hit 40 already this year.
“Literally, all of my threes come from him,” Scola said. “If it’s not 70 percent of my threes, it has to be pretty close to that.”
Ujiri is perpetually spiritual about basketball. In his words, DeRozan is playing with more “meaning” this year. ”It’s shot selection. It’s gotten better,” Ujiri said. “The time of the game when he takes the type of shot he takes, where he’s shooting from (have all changed). ‘Should I take a jump shot? Should I pass it out?’ You see that game-winning pass in Washington (in November)? He almost had an opportunity to do an acrobatic shot, which is something DeMar would have done. You know him as well as I do. It’s something he would have tried. He made that pass to Cory (Joseph, who won the game at the buzzer).”