“There’s a long list of one-time all-stars,” DeMar DeRozan once told me, “and I don’t want to be on it.”
It was three years ago, during the summer following his first appearance in NBA’s mid-season exhibition. DeRozan had just finished his second solo workout of the day, spending the last hour alone in the Toronto Raptors old practice gym at the Air Canada Centre putting up hundreds of shots— turnaround jumpers, fadeaway with an imaginary defender in his face, driving floaters, and more of the arsenal he’s been burning opposing teams with ever since.
At that point in his career, DeRozan had already taken a significant leap forward in his progression. The skinny shooting guard who came out of college with questions about virtually every aspect of his game save for his leaping ability had improved year-over-year, both statistically and observationally.
His game wasn’t the prettiest, or altogether typical of the average two-guard (mainly because his handles still needed work and he wasn’t a long-distance shooting threat). But by that 2014 all-star season— his fifth in the league— he had shown an ability to score the basket and use height and increased bulk to his advantage, developing a high-post game that borrowed heavily from his basketball idol, Kobe Bryant.
Two seasons later (after an injury-plaged 2015 campaign) DeRozan’s desire came true and he was named to his second all-star team in 2016, establishing himself, along with Kyle Lowry, as a key figure in helping to turn what was a laughing stock of a franchise when he was first drafted 9th overall in 2009, to the East’s second-best team.
Even after signing a five-year extension last summer— the NBA’s second-largest contract— you wouldn’t be totally blamed if you thought we’d seen the best of what DeRozan had to offer (or close to it).
And then came this season.
By virtue of the fact that he was only 26 when he signed the deal and that his work ethic is well-documented, it was safe to assume he’d continue to get better. But this?
On Thursday night, DeRozan added another accomplishment to what’s becoming a rather long list of ’em. He was named a starter for the East all-star team, voted in by fans. In nabbing his spot in the starting five, DeRozan, who was third in voting after the last round of results were revealed earlier this month, leap-frogged Chicago’s Dwyane Wade to earn the honour.
‘Earn’ being the operative word.
By now we know about DeRozan’s torrid start to 2016-17, dropping at least 32 points in ten of the Raps’ first 12 games and posting scoring numbers unseen since Michael Jordan’s early days. He’s only continued from there, named the conference player of the week three times and currently sitting fifth in the NBA in points per game at a career-best 28.2 (previous best: last season’s 23.5 ppg).
And while many Raptors fans would have liked to have seen Lowry, undeniably the Raptors’ engine, join his teammate in the East starting five (or even supplant him), as I outlined earlier Thursday the fact is DeRozan has been the most consistent performer on a team poised for another deep playoff run.
None of these things, of course, would have guaranteed being named an all-star starter. After all, DeRozan, it seems, has always been appreciated more by his peers than by the press and public. The most famous example, of course, might be when Sports Illustrated ranked him as the NBA’s 46th best player heading into this season (behind the likes of Nic Batum and Khris Middleton). Even Raptor fans, just a scant six months ago, were decisively split as to whether or not they wanted the club to re-sign him to a max-money contract in the first place. Needless to say, DeRozan’s name doesn’t come up on the list of top-selling jerseys, either.
We all know that starter status at the all-star game is more akin to a popularity contest than an indication of the NBA’s best (case in point: prohibitive MVP favourite Russell Westbrook didn’t make the cut out West, losing votes to starter Steph Curry). But it remains a significant achievement nonetheless. Just like being the best player on a conference finalist, as DeRozan was last spring, or winning an Olympic gold medal, as the 27 year-old did last summer in Rio with Team USA.
While he’ll still spend his off-seasons breaking down his game and looking for areas to improve, he seems to have found a comfort zone this year, accepting his flaws (he attempts the fewest three-point attempts since his sophomore season) and accentuating his strengths (his mid-range game and ability to get to the basket).
Obviously, it’s working for him. And NBA fans, it turns out, have noticed.