From the moment the Toronto Raptors drafted DeMar DeRozan, coaches and teammates raved about his work ethic. Through four frustrating years of team struggles and scrutiny, DeRozan attacked every offseason, kept working and believed it would pay off.
After inking a four-year, $38 million contract extension in 2012 he heard the critics. People questioned the team’s decision to reward a young player who, up to that point, hadn’t been able to elevate his team to the postseason. Opting to keep his focus on the things he could control, the contract brought DeRozan more attention but didn’t change his approach.
Things clicked for DeRozan last season. A veteran on a Toronto team that had been through what he called “damn near 60 players” over his tenure, his teammates trusted him to be their guy. With point guard Kyle Lowry in his ear encouraging him, the 25-year-old swingman put together the strongest effort of his career. Most important, the Raptors had a winning season.
Being named an All-Star for the first time was a huge honour for DeRozan, but the highlight for him was helping to get the Raptors to the playoffs after a five-year drought.
“I think his focus level [is different],” Houston Rockets star James Harden said during USA Basketball training camp. “He’s not getting sidetracked by the small things anymore. He has one goal and that’s to be the best player he can be and he’s done a great job of it. He’s matured and he’s definitely a great player, an All-Star.”
Both Los Angeles natives, Harden and DeRozan have known each other for years. Getting to spend time together on the sidelines of Las Vegas Summer League or suiting up at the Drew League in L.A., the two have remained close since being drafted in 2009.
“That’s like one of my best friends,” Harden said. “We’ve grown together. He’s doing so well in Toronto now. I’m definitely proud of him. He’s out here now at USA Basketball with me and we’re just two guys form the same city trying to make it.”
Making The Postseason Jump
DeRozan praised the growth of Paul George’s game every time the Indiana Pacers came through Toronto. In Las Vegas — and before the tragic injury George sustained in the scrimmage at the conclusion of the week — it was George who had kind words for DeRozan.
“I think DeMar did take that jump as far as being a player that can lead his team in the playoffs,” George said. “He did that. Once the move with Rudy Gay happened he really put the team on his shoulders. I knew it was going to come around. Me and DeMar, we’ve clashed way back since high school so I’m very fond of his game and I’ve got the most respect for his game, but I’ve seen this coming.
“A lot of younger guys they have a hard time adjusting to the NBA and trying to find their game and their niche,” George continued. “DeMar found his and you see his confidence growing. You see him adding new stuff every summer. He’s a professional. He’s a true professional about his approach to this league. Now he’s just so comfortable. He gets to those spots and he knows how to score in his spots.”
DeRozan spent a week in Houston this summer working on his post moves with Hakeem Olajuwan and then zeroed in on improving his handle. Recognizing that he could become better with his left hand, he started to do normal tasks — writing, eating — with it. He’s also enlisted the help of a ball-handling specialist and goes through an hour-long dribbling workout with him after his weight room and on-court sessions with Raptors assistant coach Jesse Mermuys.
After serving as the head coach of the Raptors summer league team, Mermuys has spent the offseason living in Los Angeles. Working with DeRozan during the season when he wants to get extra work in at night, Mermuys already knew the reputation of being a gym rat came honestly.
“He’s amazing,” Mermuys said with a laugh. “I always considered myself the hardest worker I know and then I met him. There’s times where I’m like, ‘There’s no way I want to go back to that gym right now,’ but he wants to go to the gym and I’m like, ‘Man, this guy’s killing me.’”
All of the late-night shooting sessions during the regular season couldn’t prepare Mermuys for the level of devotion he would see from DeRozan over the summer.
“He does it all,” Mermuys said. “He does everything that you could possibly do. There’s nothing left that he is not really doing. He works with me, he’s working with this ball-handling specialist guy who is training the guys and does a nice job with ball-handling stuff. He’ll work with me for an hour then work with that guy for an hour afterwards. He watches film. He keeps me busy getting him film. He watches the film I bring him if we’re working on something, and just in his spare time he watches games. He watches old-school games. He watches Synergy.
“The guy is so committed to becoming a great player that no matter what happens, no matter where he ends up in his career or in his legacy he’ll definitely be able to say he has no regrets and that he did everything he possibly could to maximize his power. That is such an amazing thing. Especially in the NBA where one season is such a grind, a lot of the guys in the summer want to relax, they want to hang out, they want to party, they want to do all of those things just because of the gruelling season.”
Getting To The Next Level
Having finally experienced NBA basketball beyond April, DeRozan thinks about Toronto’s Game 7 loss to the Brooklyn Nets every day he’s in the gym.
“We’ve dealt with tough times early in our careers,” said Washington’s John Wall, who also made it to the postseason for the first time. “I dealt with injuries, he dealt with trying to improve and get around the right system and a coach that trusted him and trying to play the right way. I was excited to be in the playoffs and I know he was too. We have a great friendship that you don’t have with most people in the league. Some people you just call a friend because y’all play against each other and you see them, but that’s one guy I can say I’ll be friends with after basketball is over.”
Wall and DeRozan don’t get to see each other often during the season, but their friendship is rooted in the days before NBA contracts and tryouts for USA Basketball. Each is thankful for the other’s presence.
“John is like a brother to me, honestly,” DeRozan said. “That’s my man. My man, my dog. Just outside of basketball. He’s been to my house, my mom’s house. He used to come over to my mom’s house in the summer time and play video games, whatever.”
From spending time at DeRozan’s mother’s house while growing up to now spending time with DeRozan’s one-year old daughter, Wall is proud of where the two have ended up.
“It’s crazy, man,” Wall said. “I enjoy being around his family. His daughter, she’s so fun. Every time she comes to the game…she’s sitting courtside. Taking pictures with her afterward. They’re just a great family. It’s kind of easy to connect when you’ve got a guy that comes from the same struggle that you did and he’s just a humble guy. A guy that works hard and proves himself. Everybody said he couldn’t play, he was just athletic, he worked on his game and now he’s an All-Star.”
As DeRozan prepares for each day the same way he has each of the years he has been a pro, George is confident he will continue to build on his success.
“I think this year was just a taste,” George said. “Now, when he comes back to his team he’s going to know how to get to that level and he’s going to expect a lot out of his teammates to get to that level.”
Mermuys also doesn’t have any concerns about where the future will take DeRozan or where DeRozan will lead the Raptors.
“He’s just a different breed,” Mermuys said. “He just eats it, sleeps it and dreams it 24/7.”