Four days before the Raptors season ended, marking four straight years of DeRozan missing the postseason, in a darkened hallway outside of the team’s practice court, DeRozan sat at a table filling out his picks for NBA polls. He talked about the year that was, about life away from basketball and about his feelings for the city that has become like a second home ever since he was drafted by Toronto when he was only 19 years old.
As he answered questions with a pen hovered over names of his fellow NBAers, deliberating aloud who would be his pick for best teammate in the league, it was hard not to pay attention to the hand not holding the pen. Along the outer edge of DeRozan’s left hand is a flowing ink script spelling out “Loyalty.”
Four years into covering DeRozan, sometimes quiet, often reflective, always working, it has perhaps become the best descriptor for him.
“This season was an emotional roller coaster,” DeRozan said. “A lot of ups and downs. The feeling on it is definitely tough, it’s tough to swallow especially for me personally. Being my fourth year, I’m dying to get to playoffs. It’s hard to explain in one word to sum up the season. How bad we started off the season, we still had more than one shot to try to make a run and get into the playoffs. That’s the tough part to get through. It’s just been a tough one. A real tough one.”
An NBA assistant coach once said that the danger in having young players on losing teams is that they can become used to losing. Passing this information along to DeRozan is the only time during the conversation that there is tension. Brushing off that idea immediately, DeRozan is adamant that despite having yet to taste the postseason, this is not a worry with him.
“I’m never in life going to be used to losing,” he said. “There is no way around that. The only thing that keeps me from not being frustrated is having my loved ones, my family around me. My close friends around me. Being able to talk to them, take my mind off basketball sometimes when things really get tough. That’s one thing I always lean to. They keep me sane when going through tough times like this.”
As the year came to a close, the solace DeRozan sought once again came on the basketball court. After games he would sometimes return to the arena past midnight with his cousin — an ever-present figure who has been with DeRozan since his second season in the city and who works out with him in the summer — for shooting contests to improve the accuracy of the three-pointer he says is his priority for next season. Without any more games to play, he is ready to get his offseason started.
“That’s my positive going into summer,” he said. “Knowing that I can get that much better than what I was the previous season. That’s why I look forward to it. My biggest thing this summer is proving to myself that I can be 10 times better than I was before. Getting more comfortable with things that I was lacking.”
Looking back on the year, despite the collective disappointment, there were positives for DeRozan. While he was not the one pointing to them, they were there. An improved court awareness led to smarter passes. There was the post game he unveiled in the first months of season, learned from Hall of Famer Gary Payton. More than a few times both DeRozan and head coach Dwane Casey made reference to the game slowing down for him, something that only comes with time.
Despite his improvements, DeRozan struggled when asked to name a personal highlight from the year.
“Personally, I don’t even know,” he said. “I wouldn’t think there’s nothing individually, but as a team our highlight was when we really got it together and went on the five-game winning streak more than once and we were understanding we could play with everybody. That’s just a highlight of my year, that we knew we could play with any team no matter who it is and we were in games to the last moment and it comes down to us in the last two, three minutes, executing. The highlight of my year was proving we can play with anybody at any given time, we’ve just got to play a full 48 minutes.”
After signing a $38-million, four-year contract extension on opening night, DeRozan expressed gratitude, but said it would take time to sink in. Six months later that still hasn’t happened.
“I forget I even have an extension, a contract, whatever you want to call it,” he said.
“I swear, I promise you, I don’t even think about it. Sometimes teammates joke around with me, but I don’t remember until they joke around with it. I really play this game for the love of the game. It’s just exciting to me to go out and play basketball in front of thousands of people at the highest level in the world. I really honestly don’t think about it. I’m thankful for it. I’m happy to be here for another four years because I want to be the guy who stuck here through the tough times.”
A rookie whose locker was beside Chris Bosh’s during his final season in Toronto, DeRozan has seen both how this city embraces its star players and how starved it is for success.
Both of these things fuel him, giving extra motivation.
“That’s all I want the fans to know,” he said. “I’m never going to give up on this city until the city gets what it deserves. That’s how I truly feel. That’s how I’ve felt about every situation I’ve played in, on every team. I’m not the type of guy, if we’re losing, I’m not…I’m here to turn things around.”
After a season that began with hope was grounded by reality and ended in bittersweet disappointment, DeRozan was ready to make a bold proclamation.
“One thing about next season, I know for a fact we’ll be in the playoffs,” he said. “No question. I’ve been saying I hope, but we’re going to make it. We’ve got the talent to do it.”
Asked if that was a guarantee he wants to stamp his name beside, he nodded emphatically.