Just seven games into the fourth year of his NBA career, DeMar DeRozan has been giving Raptors fans something to talk about while victories have been scarce.
For a fan base that wants so badly to root for something, to believe in someone, and to have hope for excitement, they have cautiously loved DeRozan while treading lightly in their expectations over his improvements, with raised eyebrows after the $40-million, four-year extension the team gave him two weeks ago.
While it’s been a roller coaster for fans, it’s been a steady, uphill climb for DeRozan himself. There have been fell swoops and extreme lows — during the depths of last season, playing without Andrea Bargnani in a lockout-shortened season that showed the painful process of a rebuild — but DeRozan has quietly kept everyone at arm’s length and continued to work at refining his skills and honing his game.
At 23 years old, it’s starting to pay off. DeRozan has been able to put points on the board for the past few seasons. It’s only now that he’s showing an understanding for when those points should come from him and when they should be coming from another teammate, on a higher-percentage field goal attempt from elsewhere on the court.
Sometimes we forget that these things take time. It’s okay to admit that we’re spoiled. Watching high school-to-NBA talents like LeBron James or one-and-done phenoms like Kyrie Irving and NBA-ready 19-year-olds like Anthony Davis, it can be easy to forget that for the average 19-year-old, especially the ones drafted because of their future potential, the jump to the NBA can be overwhelming.
Bigger, faster, stronger opponents, an additional 50 games in the season, more travel, back-to-backs, offensive and defensive schemes. The responsibility grows. And if you do enough to warrant an extension, the eyeballs and expectations only multiply hundreds of thousands of times for every million you’re making.
It most certainly is the best kind of life, but it can be a harder adjustment than we take into consideration.
Looking at the growth of DeRozan’s game this season, it’s clear that the patience he’s shown –and the patience that the team and coaching staff has shown in him — is paying off. There was the revelation that he watched tape of Dwyane Wade in the post during this past offseason because he wanted to overwhelm smaller opponents. There is now a post-up game on full display that wasn’t an option before. Even more than DeRozan’s ability to go to work in the post, though, is his willingness and understanding of when to pass out of the double-team when it comes.
“He is reading defences, he is passing the ball out, that. That is what I love,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey explained. “He is doing a heck of a job maturing as a basketball player. That is what is beautiful to see.”
With the spike in assists (DeRozan has tied his career-high of six assists in two of his last three games) comes more rebounds, something the team has talked about with him since his rookie year. Even more than the stats, though, is the confidence he is playing with. There’s an understanding of how basketball works that wasn’t there before. All of the pieces matter and they’re starting to fit together.
“Just try to do more than what I did before,” DeRozan said of his expanding game. “That’s rebounding, assists, playing defence, playing the passing lanes, getting steals. Just trying to do everything.”
At the beginning of this season, DeRozan read plenty of the criticism floating around on the internet.
“I do (read it),” DeRozan said. “Some people say they don’t read the negative stuff and everything. I use that as motivation. It’s frustrating at times, but it makes me want to work that much harder at the end of the day to prove ‘em wrong. Prove everybody wrong at the end of the day. That’s why I love this job so much, why I love coming in here. To prove people like that wrong.”
The Raptors currently have a 1-6 record. While DeRozan would almost certainly trade his individual stats for a higher number in the win column, one thing that has only increased during his time in the league is the time devoted to improving his game. Watching more tape and asking more questions, with a four-year extension signed, he knows his future is in his own hands now and he’s doing all that he can to increase his chances for success.
Casey repeatedly reminds the media that patience is key when working with young players.
One person he doesn’t have to remind is DeRozan. While people rooting for the Raptors are riding a roller-coaster of expectation and emotion, DeRozan remains level, patiently riding out the highs and lows while continuing his work to silence his doubters.
“Every time I go out there I feel like [the game] is slowing down,” he said. “it comes with experience. Understanding what type of opponent you’re going against, the team you’re playing against their style of play, little things like that.”
Little things like that, adding up to make a big difference.