They said he couldn’t handle the ball. They said his shot was broken. They said he would never be a plus defender. DeMar DeRozan fixed all of that, and then some.
When DeRozan entered the league in 2009, optimism in Toronto was through the roof. It was widely believed that the Raptors had finally found their replacement on the wing for the late Vincent Lamar Carter. DeRozan was a raw, high-flying speed demon that never seemed to be in the right position on the court, but always managed to dazzle the crowd at least once per game in his rookie season.
Unfortunately for DeRozan (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), that rookie season coincided with “the beginning of the end” of the Chris Bosh, post-Carter era. Looking back, this was the Raptors at a low: Bosh would not play in the 82nd game of the regular season due to an injury he was cleared to play with and the Raptors would cede the 8th and final Eastern Conference playoff spot to the Chicago Bulls. A lone highlight was Andrea Bargnani, who hadn’t gone full-Knick mode yet, but the signs were mounting that an implosion could be around the corner. Outside of Bargnani, the rest of the roster seemed to be in constant flux, including the head coach position.
It was in this flux that DeMar seamlessly transitioned into the position of alpha dog. With his new position as leader of the team, DeRozan did what he does best: work, and continue to get better. This article from Holly Mackenzie on Raptors.com points out a fantastic quote from Paul George on the tremendous work the fellow Californian has put in every summer:
I think DeMar did take that jump as far as being a player that can lead his team in the playoffs. … He did that. Once the move with Rudy Gay happened he really put the team on his shoulders. I knew it was going to come around. Me and DeMar, we’ve clashed way back since high school so I’m very fond of his game and I’ve got the most respect for his game, but I’ve seen this coming.
A lot of younger guys they have a hard time adjusting to the NBA and trying to find their game and their niche. … DeMar found his and you see his confidence growing. You see him adding new stuff every summer. He’s a professional. He’s a true professional about his approach to this league. Now he’s just so comfortable. He gets to those spots and he knows how to score in his spots. (source)
As a result, his rebounding, passing, shooting percentages and points per game all began to climb, but more noticeable than anything else, was the way the DeRozan was commanding the game. Gone was the timidity and meekness of his rookie season; replaced with mean-mugs, stare downs and shouts to the ACC rafters after being fouled. He was reading situations on the court better than he ever had. He knew when to pull up for the midrange jumper, and when to drive into the teeth of the defense in order to draw a foul.
During a 13 game stretch from Feb 10th to Mar 14th where the Raptors went 10-3, DeRozan scored 30+ points 5 times and got to the line 10 times per game on average. The key game within that stretch, and potentially for DeMar’s entire regular season was a blistering cold -18 day in Toronto in which DeMar was red hot. Watch the video above again and count the times DeRozan’s made buckets even grazed the rim; one time, on a driving layup for the final 2 points of his 32 on the night. More impressive is the fact the DeRozan was doing this against a pair of premier perimeter wing defenders in Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala.
This new found confidence, command and swagger can be seen as a direct link to The Toronto Raptors unpredictable success in the Eastern Conference, today; but DeMar could not do this alone. His leadership, along with that of resident bulldog/point guard, Kyle Lowry, is what has truly transformed DeRozan’s game and the hopes of Toronto Raptors’ fans as a whole. Terrence Ross, Jonas Valančiūnas and Amir Johnson have all taken enormous steps in their progression thanks to playing alongside Lowry and DeRozan, and learning the ins and outs of what it truly takes to becoming a great player in the NBA. Players like Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez seemed to immediately buy into what DeRozan’s Raptors were all about: hard work. Dwane Casey has stressed this from the beginning: in the form of a giant rock, but also in the every day practice of the team.
And that’s just it. It’s always come down to the aspect of being willing to put in the hard work necessary in order to improve. Whether it’s competing/destroying the competition in The Drew League annually and without fail, or his well-deserved USA Basketball invite, DeRozan continues to find ways to improve his already well-rounded game. Look at these two stills:
Pose aside, DeRozan has bulked up consistently, building his body and maintaining consistent improvement. Roll back the tape on DeMar’s career and you will see the addition of post-up moves; 8.0 FTA per game up from 4-5 FTA; better footwork and handling. You’ll see Duncan-esque arms around a teammates head when they’ve done good or bad. You’ll see the maturation of a player who simply gets “it”.
All of his improvements came out to shine in the Raptors 7 game series against the Nets in last year’s first round of the playoffs. Outside of Game 1 where DeRozan went through some of the usual first game playoff yips, DeMar went on to average 24 points per game, due in part is his ability to get to the stripe, where he managed an incredible 11.3 FTA. DeRozan’s 79 free throw attempts were the 9th most attempted during the 2014 Playoffs even though the Raptors were eliminated in the first round. Think about that one. Outside of Blake Griffin (6th, 96 attempts), every player in front of DeRozan made it to the Conference Finals.
The 2014 Playoffs allowed DeRozan to showcase his game on the NBA’s biggest stage, and the world took notice. Looking back to what his teammates and colleagues have to say about him, Paul George is quoted saying that the 2013-2014 season was “just a taste”. Raptors and DeRozan fans know exactly what he means, because the All-Star guard has continuously doled out new servings in each of his five seasons in the league.