There are only two pictures on the walls of the players’ lounge across from the Raptors locker room. One is a framed collage of Vince Carter in the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. On the opposite wall, between a mounted flat-screen TV and bookshelves lined with basketball autobiographies and motivational reading, is a photo of DeMar DeRozan in the 2010 contest. DeRozan sees this every day, one of many not-so-subtle reminders of what the organization expects from him. That he will be, like Carter, the face of the franchise and the guy who can take the Raptors deep into the post-season. At only 23 and in his fourth NBA season, he might be that guy already.
Four storeys up, the sound of squeaking sneakers on the Air Canada Centre’s practice court is drowned out by Dr. Dre’s anthem “The Next Episode” blaring through the loudspeakers. It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday in late September, and DeRozan is back on the court for the second time today. The Compton, Calif., native is the lone Raptor in the building, earning his reputation as the franchise’s pre-eminent gym rat. His fiancée, Kiara, looks on from the sidelines as DeRozan goes through a series of moves—baseline jump shots, catch-and-shoot scenarios on the wing, turnaround jumpers from the high post. Like him, she doesn’t react to a made shot but grimaces with each miss. With each heave—he’ll take a couple of hundred before this hour-long session is over—sweat pours through the shirt on his six-foot-seven, 220-lb. frame, which is noticeably bigger after a summer spent in the weight room. If there’s any doubt as to whether DeRozan knows that this season is the most important of his career—and that his performance will go a long way to determining whether or not the Raptors can put together a winning campaign for the first time since he was drafted in 2009—it’s being put to rest here. “Take a seat,” the late Nate Dogg urges through the speakers. “Hope you’re ready for the next episode.”
That will come on opening night of the regular season, when, moments before tipoff, DeRozan inks a four-year, $38-million extension, erasing the uncertainty of what was to be the final year of his rookie contract. The Raptors have seen enough from the 2009 ninth-overall pick to know that they want to invest long term. Hard work really does pay.
It was an eventful off-season for DeRozan. Between touring China with Nike and taking part in open runs in Los Angeles, he was one of just 12 NBA players—including DeMarcus Cousins, Kyrie Irving and John Wall—invited to train with and practise against the U.S. men’s Olympic squad in preparation for the London Games. “I was guarding everybody,” DeRozan says. “Kevin Durant, Kobe, Carmelo Anthony. It meant a ton to be selected, just to be mentioned in that pool of guys. I learned so much.”
That was a familiar theme for DeRozan all summer. And much of that learning came from time spent with NBA legend Gary Payton (the two share a trainer and an agent, plus Payton and Raptors coach Dwane Casey are still close from their days in Seattle, where Casey was an assistant). Casey remembers running Payton through the same set of drills—variations on post-up moves and techniques to draw fouls near the rim—that DeRozan has now adopted as part of his daily regimen. “Gary went from being a perimeter player to being one of the best post-up guards in the NBA,” Casey says, “and that’s where DeMar is at [in his development]. He can shoot the ball, but he’s going to have the athletic and strength advantage over a lot of his matchups.”
The early returns have been impressive. Through the first two weeks of the season, nearly 70 percent of DeRozan’s field goal attempts had come from the extended post as the confidence in his ability to back down smaller defenders grows.
That self-assurance is on display in other facets as well, especially in terms of his veteran role on this young Raptors club. “His teammates should be looking at DeMar as a guy who’s been there,” says Payton. “When they come to him, he’s got to say what he needs to say: ‘I’ve been in the league four years. Trust me, bud—it ain’t gonna work like that.’ And they’ll respond to him.” Casey says he noticed a difference as early as the first week of training camp. “No question. He’s talking to guys on both ends of the court, showing them where to go,” Casey says. “He’s developed into a leader.”
As one of the longest-tenured Raptors—only Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani have been here longer—DeRozan is beginning to embrace that role, particularly with rookies Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. “Coming into the league, everything is new. You hear stories, but you don’t understand it until you’re here,” DeRozan says. “I figured out quickly [as a rookie] that you just have to listen. Otherwise you won’t last.”
AT HIS HOME, A 54TH-FLOOR penthouse condo overlooking the city and Lake Ontario, DeRozan collapses on a massive brown leather wrap-around couch that complements the equally massive TV at the other end of an open-concept living room with ceilings so high they seem like they were raised specifically to accommodate professional basketball players. He puts his size fourteens up on a white marble coffee table and, without hesitation, picks up a controller and fires up Madden NFL 13. His older cousin Shaun, sitting beside him, picks up the other controller, while a buddy and former high school teammate, Bernard, starts playing tunes from a laptop. DeRozan’s competitive juices are on full display—he gets out to a 14–0 lead in the first 50 seconds and doesn’t let his foot off the gas, calling Shaun his “test dummy.”
When he’s not on a basketball court or in the gym, chances are you can find DeRozan here. He’s a self-proclaimed homebody who’d rather spend his time with a tight circle of friends and family, the most down-to-earth “entourage” you’ll ever meet. “I just want to be around the people I’m close to, that I have a shared history with,” he says. DeRozan met Kiara during his lone season at USC, the two drawn together by their mutual passion—or obsession—for basketball. Nowadays, she’s DeRozan’s “go-between” on everything, which, she says, is a full-time job. She’s also a fixture at Raptors games, where she can be heard calling out plays and defensive rotations from her seat behind the basket. (“You were all over our game tape,” former coach Jay Triano would always tell her.)
“Do you realize it’s been five years since we were in Compton?” Shaun asks at halftime of the Madden game. DeRozan shakes his head in disbelief. “Wow,” he says. “That went by fast.” In 2007, DeRozan was a star for Compton High, a McDonald’s All-American and national dunk contest winner. But his first brush with celebrity came years earlier, while he was playing for Percy “Master P” Miller’s AAU team and developed a friendship with the rapper’s son (Don’t Call Me Lil’) Romeo. Whenever the two travelled together, fans would swarm Romeo and ignore DeRozan. One day they’ll recognize me, he’d think. And he was right. These days, DeRozan can’t go anywhere without being noticed—when he went to Canada’s Wonderland recently with Kiara and Shaun, the trio lasted five rides before too much attention forced them to leave.
Growing up in Compton, DeRozan had to avoid the typical temptations you’d expect, but as he puts it, “You’ve got to separate yourself from that if you think you can make it.” He says he knew he had a shot to be an NBA player in high school. “People tell you something enough times, you start to believe it,” he says. Shaun says he knew it when his cousin was in seventh grade, the first time the kid threw down a windmill dunk.
Since the Raptors drafted DeRozan, he’s shed the “dunker” label, adding elements to his game like the increasingly reliable mid-range shot he continues to work tirelessly on. When Casey sent an email out to his players informing them when coaches would be in Toronto during the off-season for voluntary workouts, DeRozan and Kiara were the first to head north of the border. A few days after that email, they hopped a 10 p.m. flight from their home in Las Vegas, and by the time they reached their Toronto apartment it was 7 a.m. At 9:30, DeRozan was at the ACC training, and he went back for shoot-around that afternoon.
But, as Casey explains, that’s exactly what the Raptors expect of him. “He and [assistant] Eric Hughes have put in more time in the gym than anybody—but that’s what you’ve got to do to be not just good, but great.” Casey likens DeRozan’s work ethic to that of Dirk Nowitzki, whom he coached to a championship as an assistant in Dallas. “Not only did [Nowitzki] put in the time during pre-season, he did it the entire year, even in the playoffs. At 9 or 10 at night during the Finals, he was in the gym working on his three-point shot, free throws, rituals and drills. He just didn’t stop. If he can do it—an MVP, champion and future Hall of Famer—why can’t young guys do the same thing? DeMar has developed those habits.”
DeRozan is also developing a thick skin for the local media, always quick to point out his flaws, many questioning the merits of the Raptors’ decision to extend him long term. But as Vince Carter knows from experience, that’s something you’ll never escape in Toronto. “DeMar has tremendous upside, and his progression has been impressive, but in Toronto they only want the best,” Carter says. “You just have to look past that and concentrate on doing what your coaches and the organization ask of you. And that can be hard.”
Kiara can sympathize. “I read what’s written about him and I just want to go on all the blogs or whatever and write, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about,’” she says. “He’s always telling me, ‘Why do you bother reading that junk?’ He’ll say he doesn’t, but he sees that stuff. It fuels him. He needs to be pushed and he shows up when he’s challenged.”
Now that his future with the Raptors is certain, DeRozan has only one thing on his mind: putting Toronto back on the NBA map. “He needs to make the playoffs. It killed him watching [buddy] James Harden in the playoffs,” Kiara says, a week into the season. As for the contract extension, she says, that hasn’t changed him one bit. “A lot of times there’s a fear that you’ll relax, there’s guaranteed money and all that. It’s not about the contract. He hasn’t really mentioned it—he won’t stop talking about the Indy loss [on opening night].”
But DeRozan admits the deal is a relief. This is the franchise that plucked him from college and the city he’s never shied away from calling “home.” (The couple is currently shopping for a house in Toronto.) He’ll play a big role in determining whether the Raptors make it back to their glory days. Like his team, DeMar DeRozan is all in.
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.