If you wanted any indication of USA Basketball’s opinion of Raptors star wing DeMar DeRozan, consider those who didn’t crack the final roster for the upcoming FIBA World Cup in Spain: Damian Lillard, John Wall, Paul Millsap, Gordon Hayward and Kyle Korver.
Some have called it “surprising”, others “well-deserved,” but make no mistake about it: DeRozan’s inclusion on Team USA represents another giant leap forward in what is shaping up to be a rather impressive career.
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As USA gets set for their first game (against Finland on Saturday), DeRozan, 25, finds himself in a starkly different role from the one he played just two years ago. Back then, he spent part of his summer preparing for the London Olympics with Team USA as a member of the Select team, essentially a glorified practice squad for the “A” team to tune up against. It was a big moment for him, to be sure, playing against and learning alongside guys he grew up admiring, like Kobe Bryant. But it still meant watching from home while his countrymen captured Olympic gold in London.
Now? He’s played a big role in scrimmages and will have the opportunity to carve out a meaningful place on the team with World Cup gold on the line.
That DeRozan’s game has reached new heights in recent years is no secret, and it’s the work he does behind the scenes that left a lasting impression on the coaches and architects of Team USA—some of the best minds in basketball. Since the Raptors drafted him with the ninth pick in 2009, he’s worked tirelessly to improve and expand his skill-set and, arguably, shown more year-over-year improvement than any player in the NBA.
And he’s been rewarded for it, named an All-Star for the first time last season, leading the Raptors to the playoffs for the first time since he joined the team, and now, with the opportunity to represent his country, joining a fraternity more exclusive than the Skull & Bones.
Few, if any, have monitored DeRozan’s development closer than Chris Farr. A long-time basketball coach, Farr has been training DeRozan every summer since '09, when he was tasked with getting the high-flying teen draft ready.
Farr, who also trains Damian Lillard (among others), has developed a rigorous regimen that has been made popular by a series of YouTube videos starring the Trail Blazers point guard. But he's quick to point out that DeRozan was the first player he put through the routine, and that the Raptors star quickly adopted the dogged work ethic Farr wants to see from all his players.
“Most talented athletes,” Farr explains, “make it look effortless, simplistic. But he puts in the work and has a skill that some athletes don’t have, regardless of their talent: the ability to listen. Used to be that it was automatic, but nowadays I consider it a genuine skill. Not only does he buy in, he listens and retains information, and then executes the plan.”
“The plan” changes every summer, after much consultation between the two, with a different skill dissected in the lab—free-throw shooting, dribbling, outside shooting, post play and so on. And every fall, DeRozan walks into Raptors training camp a markedly better player than the year before.
This summer, the two have focused on ball handling and passing, spending three to four days a week on the court in both Los Angeles and Oakland prior to Team USA training camp in Las Vegas. The coach is already pleased with the early returns, which should continue to help DeRozan both in Spain at the World Cup and during the upcoming NBA season.
“When you score like he does,” Farr says, “sometimes they look at you and don’t think you can pass. But that’s a part of his game that he’s building on. Previously he was mostly only asked to score. Now he can let the game come to him and he can take his time. He knows he’s comfortable and can help make plays for others.”
DeRozan has a lot to offer his new team, even if he will play a considerably different role than with the Raptors, where he is the clear-cut go-to scorer—duties that will likely fall to one of James Harden or Steph Curry on Team USA. Instead, DeRozan will get the chance to utilize more aspects of his game as a facilitator who can fill the lane and use his size and comfort down low to post up smaller international guards, or perhaps even matchup with opposing fours.
That's if he gets minutes, though. Because, as we saw in the team's exhibition warm-ups, a roster spot doesn’t guarantee you’ll see a minute of playing time. When he did play in exhibitions, DeRozan excelled, notching a team-high 13 points on an efficient 6-of-9 from the floor in a tune-up massacre of the Dominican Republic.
But during USA’s two other exhibitions, he never left the bench.
And that might be the best thing for him.
“To be honest,” Farr admits, “I’m kind of glad. DeMar is a fighter; he’s better when his back is against the wall. I tell him it takes a little bit of dirt to grow, and sometimes you need certain setbacks to reach your destiny. He uses some of that—getting overlooked at times—to motivate him.”
You don’t have to look very hard to find examples. In the past couple of weeks alone, the Raptors star was left off an ESPN list projecting the top 10 shooting guards in the NBA next season, and after Team USA’s final roster cuts were announced, Sports Illustrated ran a piece calling DeRozan “the biggest surprise inclusion” and projecting that “if everything goes according to plan" he'd only earn "a bit part on this roster.”
DeRozan knows how to deal with slights like these, perceived or otherwise. It's something he and Farr discuss often, and it came up again after DeRozan watched the USA games from the sidelines.
“He can’t pretend like he was happy every moment sitting there, because he wasn’t,” Farr says. “But he didn’t make a big vocal deal about any of this, he just went to work. I tell him to be a verb, an action word. Don’t talk about what you’re going to do—get it done.”
Watching the player DeRozan has become—poised to embark on another all-star campaign on a playoff team and just a few days away from his Team USA debut—Farr can’t help but think back to their earliest days working together and all the progress DeRozan has made.
“He has become a professional athlete,” Farr explains. “He’s on time, he works hard, he listens and when you do all of these things, you have these kind of results. So they can sit him down and hold him, but when they take that seatbelt off, he’s going to be ready. It’s like I tell him: Life ain’t nothing but opportunity, the rest is the space between.”