When DeMar DeRozan was a rookie with the Toronto Raptors in 2009-10, the scene rarely varied.
Roughly two hours before tip-off he would be seated with one of the team’s assistant coaches –usually Eric Hughes, now with the Brooklyn Nets – on the team bench, getting ready for his pregame warm-up.
The two of them would be poring over a laptop computer, watching video of how teams would defend him and how to defend other teams’ top players and then he’d get on the wood and get to work.
And he’d work some more. The morning after games he’d come in to the Air Canada Centre practice facility for more work. And then at night after practices he’d come back for another session. He worked on his shooting and his ball-handling. He recognized he was an unpolished product drafted No.9 overall mainly on his athleticism. He knew his game was a long way from where he wanted it to be.
It was an inspirational story waiting for an uplifting conclusion.
The only problem was that for the longest time it seemed like all the time and dedication and effort didn’t seem to be doing anything.
DeRozan got plenty of playing time in his first three NBA seasons on teams that always lost more games than they won. He started 65 of 77 games as a rookie and every game in his career since. He’s had no health setbacks, missing just 30 games in his eight years as a Raptor.
But his improvements have come in increments, if at all. His minutes jumped from 21 a game to 34 per game – right around his career average – in his second year and his scoring totals jumped accordingly. But since settling in at about 35 minutes a game in Year Two, the best thing you could say about DeRozan for the next three years of his career was that he was consistently average, scoring about 17 points a game while shooting in the range of 45 per cent from the floor. He wasn’t a good passer or playmaker. He was a decent rebounder for his position and he got to the free throw line about five times a game.
He worked feverishly to become a better shooter, but never shot all that well.
But things do change. DeRozan is proof.
Wednesday night late in the second quarter against the Golden State Warriors DeRozan pulled up for a contested two – his specialty – a 16-footer at the free throw line. The bucket gave him 15 for the half and vaulted him past Chris Bosh’s 10,275 career points to make DeRozan the highest scoring Raptor of all time.
It was a moment that has seemed inevitable for a while now, but that shouldn’t diminish it. As DeRozan has steadily ploughed through the Raptors record books – he leads the franchise in games played, wins, and will soon lead in minutes played, shots taken and made, free throws taken and made and who knows what else – it’s become a running joke of sorts. “What crazy stat y’all got for me now,” he’ll say.
There is more to come. He’s the first Raptor signed to play his entire prime with the franchise and presuming he plays 15 seasons or so in Toronto – not unreasonable – it’s hard to imagine a record he won’t hold.
“It’s great,” he told reporters after he posted 29 points, six assists and five rebounds in the Raptors 121-111 loss to Golden State. “I would’ve been a lot better if we got the win but to be first in franchise history, it’s definitely an honor. I’ll probably feel a little better about it once we get a win, but just to continue to play and build on that is definitely awesome.”
Players know how hard it is to achieve career-type marks. They fully appreciate how hard it is to remain in one place in a league that pulls you in a hundred directions. Pros respect consistency and it’s obvious DeRozan has earned that respect from his peers.
“It just shows the commitment, how good he is at basketball and it’s an honor for me to be a part of this and to witness it the last five years and now to see a guy I played against as a rookie, he didn’t play much, one maybe twelve, thirteen minutes a game to a guy who is playing forty minutes a night, top four in NBA scoring and just works his ass off,” said Kyle Lowry, DeRozan’s backcourt mate. “It’s a true accomplishment for him to be an all-time leading scorer. It just shows the commitment and just the longevity that he wants to be in in Toronto.”
The thing that makes DeRozan’s story different than most is that it took nearly five years for the results of his hard work to begin to show – a long time by the standards of the NBA development curve. Finally in 2013-14 he came a breakthrough of sorts. He scored 22.1 points a game – the highest total for a Raptors not named Vince Carter or Chris Bosh to that point. He got the free throw line eight times a night – a huge evolution in him honing in on how he wanted to attack defenses. He was an all-star for the first time and helped lead the Raptors to the playoffs.
He reached another level last season, the seventh of his career; scoring more and with increased efficiency and setting a career mark for assists. And in year eight has made another jump still.
Which is why DeRozan passing Bosh (and along the way Carter) is so significant. It’s very evident that his work is only now beginning to pay its full dividend and the best is yet to come.
What’s it been like watching DeRozan’s journey to becoming the Raptors franchise icon? Well, personally speaking, it’s been a tremendous reminder that predicting the future is a dumb thing to do, not that we’ll ever give up trying.
I’ve watched nearly every minute DeRozan has played for the Raptors and certainly in the early years I never would have predicted this kind of success for the kid from Compton.
Based on his first couple of seasons when he spoke reluctantly and quietly – publicly at least -- I never would have thought he’d become the, comfortable and accessible team leader and spokesman he’s shown himself to be the last three or four years. A teenager who rarely talked is no a father of two and a veteran and someone who can banter and joke with ease but who can speak with force and confidence when the moment requires.
Based on the progress he made as player in his first three or four seasons, I had him pegged – and I was far from alone in this – as a high volume, low efficiency scorer who put up numbers on bad teams. It was hard to envision him lifting a team past mediocrity. I always respected his evident commitment to his job, I just figured if the results weren’t paying off in years two and three and four I wasn’t all that convinced there was a big pay-off coming.
And even after he raised the level of his play in his all-star years, helping the Raptors to three straight playoff appearances, I wasn’t completely convinced he had another level to get to, which was fine.
Where he was at was pretty good. The quality of his play combined with his character and his commitment to the franchise and the city had me sold on Masai Ujiri breaking the bank to resign him last summer.
But now as he’s in the midst of the kind of NBA season that hall-of-famers produce – the list of players who have averaged at least 27 points, five rebounds and four assists a game as DeRozan is this year is short and populated almost exclusively by NBA royalty --- DeRozan has changed my mind again.
He’s only 27 years old. Another three or four seasons after this at this level and who knows what he can accomplish in Toronto.
DeRozan becoming the franchise’s leading scorer is about all kinds of things. It’s about a fledgling organization that has struggled to keep its best players for throughout their prime years. It’s about a player who has never put a limit on himself – even though others have, consciously or unconsciously – and has simply kept working on his skills and his fitness, confident that the results will come.
But mainly it’s about where this will all end – and here we go trying to predict the future again.
One day DeRozan will retire as a Raptor and his number will go up in the rafters at the Air Canada Centre. He’ll be in conversation for a statue. The answer will be: yes. He’ll have records by his name that will take the next great franchise player decades to break. He’ll have set the bar for what it means to represent Toronto in the NBA, having gone out and fought for the respect the market deserves. He’ll be around the team and the city for years after his retirement, reminding those that come along in his wake what the standards for excellence and commitment are here.
DeRozan becoming the Raptors all-time leading scorer isn’t about history. It’s about the future, I feel sure of that.