MacKenzie: DeRozan embraces leadership role

DeMar DeRozan is taking a greater leadership role for the Toronto Raptors on and off the court. (AP)

LAS VEGAS– Sitting along the perimeter of UNLV’s Mendenhall Center after Team USA minicamp’s first practice session had concluded, DeMar DeRozan beamed while speaking the universal truth about being a parent.

“It just changes your whole life,” he said.

After a week of player-organized practices with his Toronto Raptors teammates in Las Vegas, another week of watching Toronto’s Summer League squad and a few same-day flights to and from Los Angeles to play for the Money Team in the Drew League, DeMar DeRozan has moved onto his next adventure: Suiting up for in USA Basketball’s minicamp.

While it’s been a basketball-intensive stretch, DeRozan couldn’t be happier. Proud to wear USA across his chest, there isn’t anywhere the 23-year-old swingman would rather be in July.

Gesturing around the packed gymnasium, DeRozan explained how the intensity of the workouts with USA Basketball fuels him when it comes to thinking about his upcoming season with the Toronto Raptors.

“Stuff like this makes me want to work that much harder,” he said. “Not to do it just for myself, I want to bring it to a team perspective and have the same success that I have individually, team-wise. That’s big. That’s the next step for me, really bringing that out with myself and with my team. Not just myself, the whole team and the whole country of Canada be recognized.”

While DeRozan will never be the loud and showy type, he has learned how to use his voice within the Raptors locker room. With some urging from head coach Dwane Casey and the assistance of veteran Rudy Gay, he is ready to help lead his team this season.

“I was quiet coming into the league, I barely even talked,” he said. “But you know, experience and the hardship that I went through these last four years, me and Amir [Johnson] are the only two left that have been on the team since I’ve been on it. So stuff like that helped me grow and understand what it takes to be a leader and what it takes to make the next person be a winner on this team.”

In addition to sitting courtside to watch the Raptors play against the Suns —sticking around after the game to poke his head into the locker room and give hugs, handshakes and daps to each of his teammates— DeRozan spent a chunk of time sitting with fellow Californian, James Harden.

With crazy schedules during the NBA season and plenty of obligations in the offseason, the opportunities to reconnect in person can sometimes be few and far between. The time with Team USA has served as a chance to reflect for DeRozan.

“A lot of people don’t know me and James grew up together,” he said. “You look at Jrue [Holiday], me and Jrue yesterday were talking about what we did in sixth grade. Stuff like that is just crazy. You look over at a dude like that, we all grew up and came from the same system together. There’s a lot of guys. Greg Monroe, I can go back to when he was 13, playing in nationals, playing against him, knowing him since then. It’s definitely big. Kemba Walker. I can go on all day. I’ve known a lot of guys since we were young teenagers and it’s definitely big just to see how far we came and the growth we [made] not just as basketball players but as men at the end of the day.”

With Harden becoming a franchise player and Holiday recently getting married, there was plenty to catch up on.

“I told Jrue yesterday it seems like we’re getting old,” he said. “I swear, I remember Jrue had braids when we was kids and next thing you know we got our own families we gotta take care of and we got our own responsibilities in life.”

Becoming a first-time father in May —Mother’s Day, to be exact— DeRozan played the role of proud father to perfection while in Vegas. Daughter cradled in his arms, fiancée by his side, cheering on his teammates, he was content.

Asked about the early introduction to basketball for his daughter, he smiled and gave credit to his fiancée.

“She’s gonna make sure [my daughter] plays basketball,” he said. “I know her. She’s going to make sure she plays basketball. I was arguing with her, like she could be a ballet dancer. Whatever she tells me she wants to do, go ahead, I’ll support it.”

“It’s just fun to just have that type of competitive family, especially have my daughter have a mother like that. Competitive in everything and really into sports instead of just getting her nails painted every day, or stuff like that. It’s definitely cool.”

His new and most important responsibility has served as a new and deeper motivation for him.

“Not that I have before made excuses, but when I go through something or something’s not going right, I just think of her and I have no excuse in this world or no complaint that I can have in the world when I look at my daughter,” he said.

“That’s just the greatest thing I ever could ask for. I’d give up everything in the world just for that little girl, man. It’s just big. People tell you when you have your own you’ll see how it feels but you really don’t know until you have your own. It’s the most craziest thing ever.”

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