The NBA All-Star Game is pulling up to Toronto for the first time in history next month and it is now official: the Toronto Raptors, the franchise that forever couldn’t shoot straight, will have two players representing them in their home city, with the world watching.
The latest addition couldn’t be more deserving, or more proud of the moment:
“It’s big, it’s big,” said DeMar DeRozan, who was added as a reserve to the Eastern Conference all-star team in an announcement before the Raptors’ 103-93 win over the visiting New York Knicks at the Air Canada Centre for a franchise-record 10th straight victory. “I take pride in putting on the Toronto Raptors jersey since I’ve been here. And now to have the All-Star Game here and have two guys participating, it doesn’t get much bigger than that. It’s definitely a blessing.”
DeRozan’s all-star teammate Kyle Lowry was voted in as a starter last week for the second-straight year for the Feb. 14th showcase, the first time the game has been held outside the United States.
With the Raptors making a rare Thursday night appearance on TNT in the U.S., DeRozan and Lowry made sure to put on a good show in case there were any lingering doubts about their worthiness for the mid-season honour, the second for both. They each scored 26 points, with Lowry contributing 10 assists and DeRozan four.
“They played like All-Stars,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey.
For DeRozan, it is recognition well deserved and widely expected, but you never know. Even as DeRozan was putting together an impressive start to his seventh season, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey didn’t want to take too many chances.
He set out to do some soft-sell backroom lobbying, texting his fellow coaches to make sure they were up to speed on how deserving DeRozan was of their vote.
“After communicating with [the other coaches], it wasn’t [necessary] because everyone was emphatic and enthusiastically saying they were going to vote for him,” said Casey, who has coached DeRozan for five seasons. “But with his play he didn’t really need any texting or anything like that.”
In this case, the numbers don’t lie. DeRozan, 26, is ninth in NBA scoring with 23 per game; second in free-throws made and third in free-throws attempted and on pace for a career-high 4.1 assists a game. He’s also posting a career-best defensive rating on a Raptors team that is 31-15 and in the hunt for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
He and Lowry represent the NBA’s second-highest scoring backcourt tandem behind Steph Curry and Klay Thompson with Golden State. Perhaps most significantly, DeRozan has done it well into a career which not many believed would have resulted in the No .9 overall pick in the 2009 draft becoming one of the top players in the NBA.
But even as DeRozan was trying to find his way as a defensively uncertain shooting guard who wasn’t a particularly good shooter or ball-handler, he kept working at it. It was the doubts he encountered as the Raptors bounced around the bottom of the standings that helped energize him.
“You always think about the tough times, losing records, getting criticized,” he said. “People saying I can’t do this, I can’t do that. I am this type of player. All of the negativity you have to deal with. You look back on it and think about it. You really look at it and understand it as hard work. It’s cliché I know.
“[But] it’s like being in a fight sometimes, you know? You’re going against a bully and the bully keeps knocking you down. You figure out a different way to approach it every time. You just stick at it. That’s the DeMar approach to basketball, to life, to everything.”
Lowry’s challenge was more his attitude and hot-head reputation around the NBA, having clashed with his bosses in Memphis and Houston before landing in Toronto, where things weren’t always smooth sailing early on either.
But Lowry’s ability to dominate games was never hard to see.
DeRozan’s challenge was different. An elite athlete who was drafted after one year at USC, DeRozan would acknowledge he came to the NBA with gaps in his fundamentals and his understanding of the game.
But he brought with him a determination to work until the gaps were no more.
As a rookie, he spent long hours beside his assistant coaches before games as they used video on laptop computers courtside during pre-game workouts to go over opponents’ defensive tendencies. Off nights were often spent in the Raptors’ practice gym working on his skills. Over the summers, he used to add elements to his game, year by year.
And all along, his commitment to the city of Toronto and the team that drafted him never wavered - not an insignificant quality given DeRozan will likely become a free agent this summer and will command significant offers from across the NBA.
“Some guys, a few guys have bailed [on the Raptors] and he’s been loyal,” said Casey. “He’s a loyal young man, he loves the city. He loves his teammates and I think this is a reward for that and for how hard he’s worked those hot afternoons down in Compton at his high school gym.”
He was first recognized as an all-star in 2014, but DeRozan said that making it for the second time would be a little more special, particularly given he missed making the All-Star Game last year after sitting out 21 games with a groin injury.
“My mindset was to be better than I was when I was an all-star and I thought that would lead me to be an all-star,” he said. “I thought I was playing well last year, coming off playing with the U.S. team, we had a great season and then I got hurt. But that’s always the goal; I just want to be better. So with me thinking, I am going to be better there is no question that I thought I should be here. Especially team wise, I understood we were going to be a much better team and whatever I did on the court, I let speak for itself.
Casey is confident that his second All-Star Game appearance won’t be his last. As good as DeRozan has been, he can still get better.
“He’s got another level, defensively,” said Casey. “His three-point shooting can go to another level. He’s going to get physically stronger as he gets older, that’s going to help his game. He’s taking hits and playing through it, which he didn’t do two or three years ago. That level is going to come through experience and maturity. The game is going to get even slower for him and good things can only happen.”
They already are.