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All-Star starting nod just the beginning for Raptors' Lowry

Guard took path he wanted to become both All-Star, team leader

POSTED: Feb 7, 2015 9:46 AM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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Kyle Lowry leads the Toronto Raptors in points (18.8), assists (7.4) and steals (1.6) this season.

The weekend will be stretched out before him like one long red carpet leading up to his league's version of the Academy Awards. He will be treated as if he's become a different person somehow. Crowds of new fans wishing to be in his presence will be everywhere. The selfies will be neverending, the questioning will be deferential, and the practices will be light because, on this stage, players like him know what they are doing.

The pregame introductions will linger on him, alone, for a moment that will feel to his family and friends like it has been building forever.

He will be a starter in the 2015 All-Star Game, on the stage of Madison Square Garden, in the capital of the world, and everywhere he looks he will find extraordinary talent reflecting back upon him. At last he will belong, officially. He will be mixing with the world's greatest players naturally.

2015 All-Star Top 10: Kyle Lowry

Check out the very best plays from Eastern Conference All-Star Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors.

The reason Kyle Lowry has made it this far -- and no doubt he will realize this next Sunday -- is because, for him, breaking through as a first-time All-Star (and voted in by the fans, no less) is not enough. You can imagine the real outcome: That the long weekend of fanfare will leave him aching for something more substantial, that the exhibition will make him hungrier than ever to beat his fellow All-Stars for real.

Road to NBA maturity a winding one for Lowry

Lowry, who turns 29 next month, has reached his peaking years. His numbers are All-Star worthy -- a career-best 18.8 ppg and 7.4 apg -- but it's his attacking style of play that defines him. At 6-feet he is often the smallest player on the floor even as he bullies his opponents, attacking ceaselessly, seeking collisions in order to create space, applying force with leverage to his advantage as if he is a mechanic who has earned an engineering degree in basketball over these long years of trial and error.

The frustrations of his early career did not go to waste. Instead they provided Lowry with an education that has come to define the Toronto Raptors. "He knows what wins games," says a rival GM, which is an ultimate compliment.

That it has taken Lowry nine NBA seasons with three teams to become an All-Star is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary: The humiliations and mistakes of his early years have strengthened his spine like a petrifying scar tissue. He has overcome the pessimism and doubts that were reinforced by his own scorched-earth approach to basketball.

His way was the hard way. And yet, if his career had developed along the easier route -- if he had been a high lottery pick handed control of his own team in his early 20s -- then he is not sure things would have turned out so well.

Timeout with Kyle Lowry

Take a timeout with Raptors guard Kyle Lowry.

"It probably would have been a little bit more difficult," Lowry says. "I like the way I got my team, and I like the way I went about my career. I probably would change a few things, maybe. But at the end of the day you've still got to grow up and mature, and it's taken me a little while. But it has happened."

The difficulties of his education in leadership have wound up making him a better leader.

"I think so," Lowry says. "I got a chance to see different leaders. I got a chance to see what happens when you aren't a leader and what happens when you are a leader. The experience that you get -- you really appreciate it and you accept it. If you are a young guy and you're given a team, you don't know the trials and tribulations of getting a team. And you don't know how blessed you are."

He doesn't take for granted that it has happened. He values what he has the way a self-made man values his small fortune as a launching pad to the bigger and better days to come. None of this could be forecast when Lowry, a volatile teenager from Philadelphia, suffered a torn ACL before his abbreviated freshman season at Villanova. One year later he was part of a four-guard lineup that reached the 2006 NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight.

I like the way I got my team, and I like the way I went about my career. I probably would change a few things, maybe. But at the end of the day you've still got to grow up and mature, and it's taken me a little while. But it has happened.

– Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry

Lowry entered the Draft months later amid questions about his ability to stay healthy, a kidney condition that had been discovered, and, of course, his ever-demanding attitude. His Villanova teammate, Randy Foye, went No. 7 overall as expected. Lowry fell to No. 24 to Memphis (Rajon Rondo having been chosen three picks earlier) in what had been viewed as a weak Draft for point guards.

His rookie season lasted 10 games before Lowry, who had suffered a season-ending broken wrist, watched the Grizzlies invest in another point guard, Mike Conley, with the No. 4 pick overall in the following Draft. Lowry was traded in 2009 to the Rockets; by 2010-11 he had emerged as their starter, five years into his career. Offsetting his impressive numbers was the reputation he was earning as a high-strung player who was difficult to coach. The Rockets moved him onto Toronto, where Lowry was competing for minutes with the more accommodating Jose Calderon. Lowry was counting down the days until he could leave.

"It was rocky," says Lowry of his relationship with Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "I didn't know what kind of coach he was, he didn't know what kind of player he really was getting. But the relationship really grew. Those are things that happened in the past. I don't think nothing really happened -- we just didn't communicate the right way."

Kyle Lowry - Floor General

Kyle Lowry is leading the Eastern Conference's best record in Toronto this season.

Before last season, Masai Ujiri, the newly hired GM of the Raptors, held a meeting in which he and the leadership of the franchise -- including the team owner, president and Casey -- confronted Lowry. Are you going to keep running away from challenges? Or are you going to make a stand? He appealed to Lowry's competitiveness. The reason that meeting happened was because Ujiri saw in Lowry the makings of a franchise leader, and those players are more rare than All-Stars.

The right kind of giddyup

"All winners are edgy," says Casey. "Guys that are pushing themselves are edgy. It's the old saying we have in Kentucky: I'd rather have a guy I have to say whoa to, than giddyup."

The whoa guys are not playing basketball to make friends. To the extent that they invest in friendships, it is with the goal of building a team that can win. The issue for those players who demand excellence -- who are injured by failure -- is whether their ambition can be channeled into a constructive form of leadership. This has been the challenge for everyone from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James.

Lowry does not meet the standard of the greatest players physically. He cannot dominate athletically to the high measure of Jordan, Bryant and James. In fact, Lowry's greatest strength has been his will to overcome his size, and to prove that he can lead a contending team. You can look back now and see that, for all of the criticism he endured for being hard on teammates and coaches, he had a brighter future than the bigger and more athletically talented giddyup players who lack the self-starting, high-revving spirit that unites all winners.

"It's much easier to coach a whoa guy, slowing him down, as opposed to somebody you have to always push," says Casey. "A whoa guy has an edge that you have to work with - not deal with, but work with. And have an understanding and trust with each other that we're all in this together. Respect me, and I'm going to respect you. That's where Kyle is now: Everything he does is out of respect for his teammates, for the organization, for the coaches. And I love that."

Lowry hasn't overcome his past so much as he has applied its lessons. Those times of struggling to find his way were not wasted. Without those difficult years he would not be an All-Star, and his Raptors would not be leading the Atlantic by 12 games on their way to a second straight divisional title (itself a high point for a franchise with one division championship in the previous 18 seasons). The more Lowry's stock has risen over these last two years, the more inspired he has become to invest in his new role as a team-builder and a leader.

It's much easier to coach a whoa guy, slowing him down, as opposed to somebody you have to always push. A whoa guy has an edge that you have to work with - not deal with, but work with.

– Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey

"That winning edge has rubbed off," says Casey, who was a longtime assistant for the old Seattle Sonics before assisting the Dallas Mavericks to their 2010-11 championship. "He reminds me so much of Gary Payton -- a guy who is not your prototypical point guard, but every play there's a 50-50 ball on the floor, he's going to come up with it. If there's a charge to be taken he's going to take it. If there's a tough rebound there for a guard to go in and snatch out, he's going to go in and get it. Making winning plays has become a part of his personality and it's contagious.

"That's what has helped us a lot is that edge that Kyle brings. He does enough of those things now that reminds me of what Gary Payton did for us in Seattle or what Jason Kidd did for us in Dallas. It's those winning plays that help you win a championship. He knows the game and he knows the other teams' tendencies, a lot like Jason and Gary did. And that's what I'm trying to mold him and fit our system in that style of basketball which I know will win in the NBA."

Every day, from the beginning of the season, Casey has been talking to his players about what championship teams do. Tired? Championship teams don't feel sorry for themselves. Injured? Championship teams push on. "I'm smart enough to know we're probably a year or two away from getting to that championship level, that elite status," Casey says. "But what we want to do is build those habits now."

Kia Awards: Kyle Lowry

Toronto's Kyle Lowry is December's winner of the Kia Eastern Conference Player of the Month.

When the Raptors' leading scorer DeMar DeRozan suffered a torn tendon in his left groin, the Raptors pushed themselves out to 11 wins in their first 15 games without him. Lowry, who is up at 5:30 a.m. for his daily workouts in summer, whose shoulders and knees and ankles are wrapped in ice bags after games, drove them for as long as he could. He averaged 21.8 ppg and 8.7 apg throughout DeRozan's 21-game absence.

Then, in the days before DeRozan returned, the Raptors lost five of six. Championship-worthy teams fight through those hard times. Lowry and his Raptors have come a long way, but they also have further to go.

'All I care about is winning'

The Raptors have gone 8-5 while working DeRozan back into the rotation, enabling them to maintain the No. 2 spot in the East in their pursuit of the second playoff-series win in team history. Crucial to this run was the re-signing of Lowry, who instead of fleeing Canada (as free agents Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh had done) accepted a four-year, $48 million contract with Toronto.

Fan Night: Kyle Lowry Interview

Kyle Lowry sits down with Rachel Nichols and discusses his ascension in Toronto.

Lowry's relationship with the 25-year-old DeRozan is at the heart of the Raptors' growth. "I was more happy for him last year," says Lowry of DeRozan's election as an All-Star reserve, "than if I would have made it."

Of course this sounds disingenuous, coming from an ambitious cutthroat like Lowry. But Casey does not dismiss it. He believes Lowry would help any teammate who has a chance to become a star. "In fact he would embrace it," says Casey.

The reason Casey believes it is because he has seen his point guard turn the corner. Lowry recognizes that the leader of a contending team doesn't have to be its biggest star. "That's right, he doesn't have to be, especially as far as numbers are concerned," Casey said.

"The leader of a championship-level team -- which is where we're trying to go -- is leading by example, creating the culture that you need night in and night out. Not just once a month or once every other week. But to establish a culture, the work ethic of how hard we play every night and every day. All those things are important as far as setting the tone more so than the numbers. When Kyle plays hard, I think that's as valuable as any stat that you can have on a championship team."

When you have somebody in the backcourt that has that type of drive, and then you have a person like me with the drive that I have, it's nothing but positivity that can carry out to the rest of the team.

– Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan

What was he seeking for all of those years? Lowry was pursuing success on his own terms. Here at last are those terms, spelled out as plain as the name on the back of his All-Star jersey: to lead a winning team.

"I know how dedicated he is," DeRozan said. "When you have somebody in the backcourt that has that type of drive, and then you have a person like me with the drive that I have, it's nothing but positivity that can carry out to the rest of the team."

The All-Star Game is going to be a nice award. But nice is not what he has been pursuing all of these years.

"All I care about is winning," Lowry says. "I don't care about anything else but winning. That's how I've been all my life."

On Feb. 20, when he reunites with his teammates after All-Star Weekend, the Raptors will go to Atlanta to play the conference-leading Hawks. That will be the real challenge. That will be the game Lowry needs to win.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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