For DeMar DeRozan, locker room clean-out day has always been unpleasant. In addition to having to remove your workout gear from the locker that has been the home away from home, it means standing in front of media members to detail what went wrong. It means talking about failures and shortcomings and trying to explain why goals were not accomplished while trying to deal with the disappointment of the season ending.
This year, it was different.
Losing out on advancing to the conference semifinals by a single point, Sunday’s game was fresh in DeRozan’s mind a day later. Still, for the first time in five seasons as a Toronto Raptor, DeRozan could speak with pride about what the Raptors accomplished
DeRozan didn’t reflect on his own successful season much, choosing instead to speak about the team as a whole. If there was a recurring message throughout this year’s exit interviews, it was that this team felt like a family and the players wanted another go-round with as much of this group as possible.
When Masai Ujiri and Dwane Casey spoke a day later, to announce Casey’s new three-year deal, their mandate was the same. They believe in this roster, too.
“As far as I’m concerned, keeping our core group going forward, with Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Patterson and Nando, those guys are priorities for us,” Ujiri said. “And if you want to build, I think, a team where we have young players, we have to build continuity. And I think the priority for us will be the draft first. We have that coming up, and we have to attack that as hard as we can. And then when free agency comes, we have to attack our guys first.”
Lowry Makes Strides On, Off Court
While DeRozan refused to answer questions about the free agent status of Lowry’s free-agent status aside from saying he wasn’t worried about the team’s chance at retaining him, Ujiri did speak about the importance of bringing the point guard back.
“It’s very important for us in terms of continuity,” Ujiri said. “Kyle has had a phenomenal year. I thought Kyle was a huge, huge key to our season … Negotiating is easy for me if we want Kyle to be here and Kyle wants to be here. Negotiating becomes tough when either party maybe does not want to the player to be here or the player does not want to be here. I think we’ll be fair with Kyle and we’ll figure it out and I think it’s important.”
In his first year as undisputed floor general and leader of the team, Lowry turned in a career year, averaging 17.9 points and 7.4 assists per game. He narrowly missed out on being selected as an All-Star and emerged as one of the best guards in the Eastern Conference. Casey and Ujiri both pointed to the strides that Lowry has made off the court, suggesting they have carried over onto it.
“He’s grown as a person tremendously to be coached and to work with,” Ujiri said. “His teammates, everybody has said that. We’re very proud of him. And so we’ll go through that process, but we’re optimistic stuff will happen. To be honest, too, we’re building a team where we have to be confident with ourselves.”
After Toronto’s Game 7 loss, Lowry took to the podium and spoke about his coach growing into a great coach over the course of the year. A day later, he said this group was the best he’d ever played with.
Coming into the season knowing that the organization was counting on him to be their point guard, Lowry did not take the opportunity for granted. Building on the progress he had shown a season ago after the team traded Jose Calderon, Lowry began to trust his coaching staff.
“Once Jose [Calderon] was traded it got closer, he understood what we were doing,” Casey said. “I understood what he was going to do in certain situations, trusted him, that trust built, he trusted me that I was telling him the right information, and is it always going to be perfect? No. There’s no head coach out there that I’ve been around that’s always been perfect, but it has grown, and it is still growing, and because I think Kyle has grown as a man, as a father, as a husband.”
Casey mentioned that the team had spent time together during the previous offseason for former Raptor Rudy Gay’s wedding. Always checking up on his players, Casey pointed to that time away as a positive for his relationship with Lowry.
“I think that was valuable, seeing him away from basketball, spending time with him away from basketball,” Casey said. “And time and understanding helps with all relationships. That’s where I feel going into the future, it’s even going to be better.”
With each of his players already giving the co-sign for his return, Casey sounds like a man who is excited to get to continue developing Toronto’s young talent.
When asked by a reporter about the moments he was most proud of this season, Casey couldn’t keep it short. In a year with so many milestones and franchise records, Casey mentioned moments of individual growth and improvement rather than specific victories.
“Jonas, I would say his growth in Game 1 [against the Brooklyn Nets],” Casey said. “I was shocked. I was excited and shocked at the same time, the way he came out. I thought he dominated in Game 1 in a way I haven’t seen a second-year player do. That was the moment I said this young man is going to be [special]. Throughout the year he had shown that type of play on and off, as far as his growth. I don’t know if there was a specific moment. I thought Game 1 was a place where I think Jonas showed his growth and his potential at reading situations.
“DeMar has shown it all,” Casey continued. “He was a picture of consistency all year, as far as what he can do, passing, his pick-and-roll … Terrence [Ross], the Clippers game [where he scored 51 points]. Unbelievable … that game, was unbelievable. He couldn’t miss. That was a glimpse at what he could do if he continues to work. It was more throughout the year than it was one specific instance.”
From the bond he has developed with Lowry, to the hand he had in helping DeRozan become a first-time All-Star, Casey is proud of his players for their commitment. With his general manager assuring that the team will continue building, he’s looking forward to where the journey will take them.
“The upside of our players, that’s what’s the beauty about our team,” Casey said. “Our upside is there.”