DeMar DeRozan can recall the training camps when there were nine or 10 new Toronto Raptors to meet, and much of the familiarity built the previous season had been washed away.
He counts his blessings for the way it is today.
For most of DeRozan's early years in Toronto, each fall brought the daunting challenge of learning the tendencies of new teammates and creating new chemistry. The Raptors selected him ninth overall in the 2009 NBA draft, a 19-year-old swingman who had played just a single college season at USC. He opted to leave school early largely for what an NBA contract could do to ease the pain his mother suffered daily with lupus. The Raptors' general manager at the time, Bryan Colangelo, compared his athleticism to that of renowned Raptor Vince Carter.
"He's got a chance to be special," Colangelo had said in DeRozan's introductory press conference. "But let's let him do it on his own time."
DeRozan watched dozens come and go during his first five years in Toronto, names such as Andrea Bargnani, Chris Bosh, Hedo Turkoglu, Jose Calderon, and Rudy Gay. One constant remained with DeRozan – Amir Johnson, from Los Angeles just like him.
Together, they navigated the Raptors' painstaking process of building a roster and eventually, a winning culture."Oh man, we had so many teammates over the years, I couldn't even count them," Johnson said. "Yeah, we've become close; DeMar and I have definitely bonded. We're happy to see the growth of this team."
DeRozan's first four years in Toronto were all losing seasons, but his average points a game swelled with each year, his game improved and his value deepened. Last season, he ranked 10th in the NBA with a career-best 22.7 points a game, helping lead the Raptors to a franchise-high 48-win season and their first playoff appearance since 2008. From there, the 6-foot-6 workhorse threw himself into the off-season, hiring a ball-handling specialist, pushing his conditioning to the limits back in California and doing everyday things with his left hand in the hopes it could strengthen his off-hand play on the court. Any little thing to help sustain the magic the Raptors created last season, a playoff magnetism that had sold-out crowds stoked and rollicking in the Air Canada Centre and another 10,000 watching outside, just to be near it.
Now, entering his sixth NBA season, 25-year-old DeRozan has arrived. If it wasn't obvious before, reminders came in last year's all-star nod; via his 23.9 points a game in the playoffs; from how he combined with Kyle Lowry to create one the most electric backcourts in the NBA; or through DeRozan's selection to Team USA this summer for the FIBA World Cup. Lowry re-signed in Toronto to keep the duo together; the other three starters remain, too; and sixth man Greivis Vasquez declared his undying love for the city and its franchise to remain a part of it.
"I was here for the tough times and I think that put more hunger in me," DeRozan said, chatting this week in a corner of the Raptors' practice facility. "That's what it's always been for me. I was never in a perfect situation where everything was peaches and cream. I like to work from the dirt and make something out of it."
When Dwane Casey became head coach of the Raptors in 2011, he was inheriting a team that had gone 22-60 the year before, but he felt he had a special piece of the puzzle in DeRozan.
"I knew he was an athletic, skinny young man who had a lot of potential and a great approach to the game, and I thought 'This kid is a piece of clay' and I knew if he kept that same potential, he was going to be on his way," Casey recalled. "I've seen the progress of this off-season; he's got excellent command of the ball, much improved from over the last two years, so we're going to be running some pick and rolls for him because of his improved ball handling. People look at him now as a finished product, but he's far from reaching his ceiling as a player."
At the FIBA World Cup in early September, DeRozan had 43 points over nine games coming off the bench for a star-studded U.S. team en route to a gold medal. It may have appeared a bit role, but he spent valuable time sharing tricks of the trade with NBA stars such as Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry.
"When guys come back from playing with all those U.S. all-stars, they come back with a little swagger, like shoot, they can play with anybody if they can make that team," Lowry said. "I think he'll bring that back to us along with leadership."
When Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri asked what DeRozan learned from his Team USA experience, the shooting guard said an appreciation for coming off the bench, which signalled to the GM a new maturity. The experience also opened DeRozan's eyes to the growing respect the Raptors are garnering from the NBA's elite.
"From being around the other elite players, now they mention coming to Toronto or losing to us, or I hear 'Damn, we have to play y'all,'" an upbeat DeRozan said at media day. "That means a lot to me, because I remember the days when teams came in here feeling like it was a cakewalk."
DeRozan chose to let athletic young Raptors guard Terrence Ross work out with him in the summer, wanting to exude his leadership and help the 23-year-old unleash his potential.
"Normally I try to work out by myself, but I wanted to be with Terrence a lot, and really push him, so he could see how hard I worked and show him what it takes to be at the next level," DeRozan said. "Seeing how far he came this summer makes me feel like a proud big brother."
The family atmosphere that bonds the core stars seems to radiate through DeRozan. That familiar fiery, snarling game face DeRozan makes to celebrate a big play elicits a different snicker, eye-roll or fist-pump from each of his teammates. Lowry affectionately calls "terrible", but relishes the fire behind it. It was DeRozan that Lowry called before anyone when he decided to re-up in Toronto this summer and sign a four-year, $48-million (U.S.) contract extension.
"I never was worried. I never gave him a sales pitch; I just tried to be there as a friend, just support him. He had enough pressure on him," DeRozan said. "My sales pitch was all last season, all the things he and I did together – I didn't have to say nothing. I think he respected that, that I never pressured him. There aren't too many two-guards he could go play with and do what he did last year and I knew he understand that too."
Despite the attention DeRozan received last year, and his impact on the Raptors, Sports Illustrated ranked him just the 61st best player in the NBA entering this season, to which he promptly Tweeted "Real disrespectful #ProveEm."
"I like having a chip on my shoulder; it gives me another reason to work hard," DeRozan said. "I feel like they did me a favour."
Exciting as it was, the Raptors didn't make it past the Brooklyn Nets and out of the first round; they faltered in a heart-breaking Game 7 that still plays over in DeRozan's mind, one where they drew up a play to get Kyle Lowry a game-winning shot, but it was stuffed by Paul Pierce.
"I think about that last play all the time, feed off how bad that hurt – that feeling of losing Game 7 by one point, coming so close," DeRozan said. "I think we could have given Miami a better run for their money [in the next round]. I had a lot of questions in my head. Sitting at home, that was frustrating."
DeRozan was asked to address the team on the first day of training camp, and his message was clear – there's no going backward from last year, and while improvement is great, never stray from the underdog passion that got them there.
"We have a chance to do something special here, not just make this one time-time thing," DeRozan said. "I told them don't forget to have that chip on our shoulders every time we go out."