TORONTO — One was a collegiate star and five-star recruit out of famed USC, the other an unheralded point guard prospect out of Saint Mary’s by way of Australia.
But DeMar DeRozan and Patty Mills shared a path en route to the NBA and an experience neither will forget.
A decade later, the two find themselves as teammates with the San Antonio Spurs, the franchise Mills has called home for seven seasons before DeRozan was famously traded there last summer.
But back then, they were both fighting to prove themselves ahead of the 2009 NBA draft. The two shared a trainer, Chris Farr, a former assistant coach on the staff of Hall of Famer Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State. Farr, Oakland born and raised, had brought his two students back to his hometown for a series of pre-draft workouts.
Their days began with a run on the beach, DeRozan struggling to keep pace with Mills, who has since earned a reputation as one of the quickest players in the league.
“You’d have thought Patty was a cross-country runner,” DeRozan says. “He pushed me to another level.”
That was the idea. Mills was working to become a pro player in his own right, but he also represented a valuable learning tool for the ex-Raptors all-star, who on Friday made his return to Toronto for the first time since last summer’s shocking trade (you may have heard something about it).
“It was intense,” recalls Mills, looking back on his earliest memories of DeRozan. The two would spend long hours in a sweaty gymnasium, playing full-court games of one-on-one — a challenge even the NBA’s best defensive guards would struggle with, let alone one who was trying to address his own deficiencies on that end of the floor.
As he developed in the years since, DeRozan’s name — his brand, if you will — has been built on two things: loyalty and hard work. That hot summer in Oakland spent chasing Mills around the gym required plenty of the latter.
“It was the first time I had gotten a glimpse into the work ethic that DeMar had,” Mills says following San Antonio’s 120-117 loss to the Raptors in front of a notably loud, sold-out Scotiabank Arena crowd. “We’re both totally different players but were really able to feed off each other during what felt like the first process to becoming an NBA player. I loved it.”
Their paths went in decidedly different directions from there. The Raptors drafted DeRozan with the ninth overall pick, tabbing him as their star-of-the-future shortly thereafter. Mills fell to the second round, the 55th overall pick, selected by the Portland Trail Blazers.
After two seasons in Portland that featured several trips back and forth to the G League, Mills signed with the Spurs as a free agent ahead of the 2011-12 season. He would spend two of his next three seasons competing in the NBA Finals, establishing himself as San Antonio’s sparkplug and a key weapon off the bench, and has seen playoff ball every season since.
While DeRozan’s star rose higher — by his fifth NBA season he was a consistent 20 point-per-game scorer and a perennial all-star — his Raptors teams never got near the post-season success of Mills and the Spurs, the true measure of success in the NBA.
This season has been trying for DeRozan. He left the place he wanted to call home — and not by choice. And while he’s joined an iconic organization with the Spurs, playing for an all-time great coach in Gregg Popovich, the season has had its challenges as he’s looked to establish his role in his new setting. For the first time in four seasons, he wasn’t named an all-star, and at 33-27, his team is fighting for a playoff spot, currently tied for the eighth seed in the NBA’s competitive Western Conference.
There have been notable differences in his game, like his increased responsibility as a passer on a Spurs team that lacks a high level at the point guard position. On Friday, he led San Antonio with eight assists and is carrying an average of 6.1 assists per game on the season, a career-high that breaks the mark he’d previously set last season.
But by crunch-time in what was an exciting back-and-forth finish, his team turned to DeRozan to get to the free-throw line and make shots down the stretch, as had been the case throughout his Raptors career.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore the evolution’s in DeRozan’s career. And whatever he achieves it will have been through trademark hard work.
Mills, who generally sits beside DeRozan on flights as the two spend a lot of time together off the court, knew that DeRozan’s legendary work ethic was an integral component to his success long before either were NBAers.
Now that they’re teammates it’s more clear than ever.
“I loved working with him, but then the gap that we had from then until now was obviously nine years,” says Mills. “Now that I have a chance to be a teammate…I love playing with him on the floor, and I love the way that he goes about his business.”