Despite some rough patches, DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors are making strides this year.
BY CRAIG MOY
One of the more intimate pleasures afforded to fans of professional sports is that we get to see our favourite players grow up right in front of us. Forget “rooting for the home team,” look past the highlight reels. If you follow pro sports what you’re really doing is following athletes as they go to work, as they try each day to do a better job than the day before, as they develop their skills, as they mature.
Toronto Raptors supporters know what it’s like. Over the franchise’s 17 years in the NBA, it seems as though we’ve always had at least one talented kid to urge on to greatness. First there was plucky point guard Damon Stoudamire, then Vince Carter, and after him Chris Bosh. This season, we have witnessed the emergence of DeMar DeRozan.
A Raptor since entering the league in 2009, DeRozan has long been touted as a player with a high ceiling—someone with raw talent and the willingness to work hard to refine it. His game hasn’t always lived up to our (perhaps unreasonable) expectations, but he has managed to improve in each of his four NBA seasons. And the people who matter have noticed. Last summer, DeRozan was among the players selected to the U.S. Olympic basketball training squad—the team tasked with challenging stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in preparation for the 2012 London Games.
“That was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had as a pro,” DeRozan says, “just to go up against the top caliber of players every single day and really understand how they approach the game day in and day out.”
This eye-opening couple of weeks transitioned nicely into a successful Raptors training camp and preseason, and then, on the eve of the team’s home opener, the signing of a four-year, $38-million contract extension.
“I want to be a part of something great here in Toronto.” —DeMar DeRozan
The confidence shown him is now bearing fruit. Nearing the halfway point of the 2012/13 season, DeRozan is Toronto’s leading scorer and stands amongst the top 30 NBA players in a number of other statistical categories. There’s still room for progress—his assist numbers are arguably low for his position and he’s not exactly a dead-eye marksman from beyond the three-point line—but watch any Raptors game and you’ll nonetheless see that DeRozan’s mid-range game looks smoother, he’s grabbing more rebounds, and he’s become one of the league’s stronger post-up guards.
Of course, one player’s achievements rarely add up to a winning team. Pegged by many to contend for a low playoff seed, the Raptors instead got off to a woeful start, winning just four of their first 23 games while trying to integrate new players, dealing with a spate of injuries, and mysteriously regressing from the tough, defence-first approach instilled the previous season by coach Dwane Casey.
“We had to adjust every week,” DeRozan says, “not having this player or that player. We were always adjusting, trying to understand who we were, trying to get the defense down pat. There was just a learning curve. Some teams catch on faster than others.”
It’s been slow going, but something finally appears to have clicked. The sidelining of talented but aloof forward Andrea Bargnani to a torn elbow ligament not only pushed DeRozan to the fore as the Raptors’ undisputed franchise player, it also meant more minutes for rugged big man Amir Johnson, who has responded by playing some of the best ball of his career. Journeyman Alan Anderson and off-season acquisition Kyle Lowry have proven solid if not-always-consistent contributors, and DeRozan’s backup, Terrence Ross, has mostly shed the deer-in-the-headlights look typical of NBA rookies to become a scoring option off the bench.
Interestingly, Ross’s presence has given DeRozan the opportunity to grow into another role: that of a leader. It may seem a bit cute, the image of a 23-year-old mentoring someone just 18 months his junior, but with three and a half full seasons under his belt as an NBA starter DeRozan is practically an old hand. He’s learned a lot. He also knows there’s more learning to come.
As of Where‘s late-January press time the Raptors still have a losing record (16–29); that’s not wholly surprising. Much more heartening is that their young core is finally playing as a team, truly competing against even the most elite opponents. For long-suffering Toronto fans, that’s a blessing. It’s also a cause for hope: that we’ll continue to see DeRozan and his comrades blossom into bona fide contenders on the basketball court.
Update: Just after this article was sent to press for Where Toronto‘s March edition, Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo swung a deal to acquire Rudy Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies, in exchange for promising forward Ed Davis. (The team also sent veteran point guard Jose Calderon to Detroit as part of the trade.) The athletic swingman has meshed reasonably well with DeRozan; in February the Raptors amassed a 7–5 record behind their marquee scorers’ combined 40.2 points per game, though two straight losses to end the month significantly diminished the team’s hope of squeaking into the playoffs.