NBA All-Star 2017

Toronto Raptors star DeMar DeRozan soars behind his ground-bound game

Emphasis on footwork, mid-range game and old-school scoring has led to a career-best season

DeMar DeRozan could live in the penthouse athletically if he so chose. He can climb and soar and dunk with the world’s most explosive leapers whenever the need arises. But he is not so needy.

“He has all of that athleticism and yet we rarely see it,” says Toronto Raptors assistant coach Rex Kalamian.

Others earn their living above the rim, but DeRozan’s game is played out below the knees. He dances, jabs, positions himself for ultimate leverage. This, says the Raptors All-Star shooting guard, is his hidden strength.

“It’s my footwork,” said DeRozan, who is leading the Raptors with a career-best 27.7 points per game. “It’s having the capability of posting up, maneuvering, having counter moves, being able to get my shot off any direction, any type of way. People don’t understand how much I work on the tough shots that I make. They look tough, but they’re easy to me because I did it over and over so many times.”

Those turnaround jumpers weren’t forced upon 6-foot-7 DeRozan by the lack of other options. At 27, at the high-twitch peak of his career, he has forsaken the higher altitude while preferring to earn his third All-Star appearance in four years by staying close to the floor. Instead of floating above the fray, he is a grinder.

Learning everywhere he can

“I watched everything,” said DeRozan, who grew up in Compton, south of Los Angeles. “I was such a fan of sports in general. You go out there and get a baseball bat and you imitate something Mark McGwire was doing. If I was playing football, I was working on the sideline catches and keeping your feet in bounds. That’s how much detail I paid to everything. Basketball was obviously my passion. Everything I seen, I just worked on it, worked on it, worked on it, over and over.”

In those pre-internet days he was watching VHS tapes. “The three lines on the screen, the bad quality, everything,” he said. “I didn’t have cable, so all I could tape was the Laker game or the Clipper game. I remember my dad used to tape every All-Star weekend, even if he had to do it at somebody else’s house. I’d see the moves that they was doing, how much fun they was having.”

Kobe Bryant learned his moves in the same way, by studying videotapes that were sent overseas while he was growing up in Italy. DeRozan has taken after Bryant in style as well as in discipline. And yet his dreams did not extend much further than the playground or court he happened to be occupying. “I would be lying to you if I said I was doing it because I knew I was going to be a pro,” DeRozan said. “I was doing it because I was just a kid who wanted to be like the guys you see on TV.”

“To me, that was always one of my greatest tools. Just listening, no matter if it was a young coach or an older coach and mentor. I listened and took heed of everything.”

Toronto Raptors All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan

Everything he learned on his own would be reinforced or corrected by the coaches to whom he listened intently.

“Every coach that I had — whether it was elementary school, middle school, high school — played a major part of me being where I am today,” he said. “I was always thinking, if you had ‘coach’ in front of your name, you knew everything about basketball. I had respect for it. It could have been a coach that had no knowledge — but if they had coach in front of their name, I was thinking they know something. I took whatever they told me and ran with it. And then my high school coach really let me be myself, and he enhanced the type of player I wanted to be.”

So many younger players don’t realize how lucky they have it — growing up with high-definition YouTube highlights and AAU gear and coaches who could help if only the players would let them. “Especially now you see these kids, before they get in college, they’re getting recognized at a high level on social media and highlights,” DeRozan said. “They have it all, so sometimes they may think they know it all. And they don’t want to listen to the coach. To me, that was always one of my greatest tools. Just listening, no matter if it was a young coach or an older coach and mentor. I listened and took heed of everything.”

Growing up in Compton, he says, ingrained him with humility. “All I knew was everything being tough, and that you had to do something extra to get recognized,” DeRozan said. “I grew up really fighting for everything.”

A self-motivated superstar

After one season at Southern Cal, DeRozan was transported as far away from home as possible with the No. 9 pick of the 2009 Draft. He has never been heard to complain about living in the foreign cold of Toronto. Maybe it was because he had so much to learn.

When coach Dwane Casey was hired by the Raptors in 2011, he didn’t know where to begin with DeRozan. “He could not pass out of the double-team — the ball would go up into the third row,” Casey said. “So all that summer he worked on backing it out, kicking it out, just playing the pick-and-roll game.”

Which is now a strength. Another summer, DeRozan was dispatched by Raptors president Masai Ujiri to refine his footwork in training sessions with Hakeem Olajuwon, to whom DeRozan paid attention as surely as if he was coaching CYO in seventh grade. “It was one of those things DeMar really needed,” said Casey, “because that’s such a big part of his game. I think he watched so much of Kobe growing up and how Kobe used footwork. And now you see DeMar is one of the best post-up players in the league.”

DeRozan found a peer in 2012 when the Raptors acquired Kyle Lowry, who established a winning stride in Toronto. He and DeRozan quickly realized they could both lean upon and challenge one another. Though both struggled individually throughout the playoffs last spring, they were able to push Toronto to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history before losing in six games to the eventual champion Cavaliers.

“Anything you’ve got to fight for is worth it, because you’re going to learn so much from it,” DeRozan says. “You learn the most from them situations. For me and the team, that’s when we’re at our best.”

Rarely does he make the game look easy and smooth. And yet, for those trying to bring out the best in him, DeRozan is not difficult to coach. “He is so low maintenance,” says Kalamian. “Sometimes we get into a little heated something, and after the game he always says, ‘Thank you. I needed that.’ And it was just a little push.”

Appreciation for what once ruled NBA

In this new age of wispy guards and deep 3-point shooting, DeRozan stands apart as one of the rare perimeter stars who could have excelled two or three decades ago.

“I was the biggest fan of that generation of basketball — Dominique Wilkins, Alex English, you can name so many guys from that era,” DeRozan says. “They didn’t shoot 3s. They just got it done.”

DeRozan’s formula is straight out of 1987. He limits himself to 1.5 3-pointers per night (and ranks third in the NBA in total pull-up jumper attempts) while emphasizing his mid-range game. Analysts say 2-point jumpers rate among the worst shots in the modern NBA, but DeRozan affirms his style by earning 8.6 free throw attempts per game — rating him No. 6 overall in the league in that category (and ahead of fellow All-Stars Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Because of his investment in the old ways, DeRozan believes he’ll be able to extend his success deep into his 30s.

“What I tell young guys now is learn how to play slow,” DeRozan said. “Slow down the game. Understand how to be just as effective playing slower. That was one thing I watched when (Michael) Jordan came back with the Wizards. He wasn’t quick. He wasn’t athletic. He lost all that. But put him at the elbow. He be 40 years old and still get you 30, 35 points, just by taking his time. I always kept that in mind.

“When I got injured a couple years ago, and I came back, I was hesitant. I wanted to play quick. So I played a lot slower. And it was a lot easier for me to see everything that came with it. I told myself, instead of waiting until I’m 30 or 32 years old, I’m going to try to master it now. It can’t do nothing but get better.”

“He is a rarity in general,” said Lowry. “I think he’s come from the ‘90s — from Kobe or even Joe Dumars, those types of guys. He just has a unique ability to work. Even though he has the athleticism at the top of the top, he still works on things as if he doesn’t have the athleticism. He is preparing for life when he’s not athletic.”

“It’s not like he’s depending on his high-flying to get it done. A guy like him who has an old-school floor game can last a long time.”

Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey, on DeMar DeRozan

Every now and then, Lowry and his teammates are energized by the sight of DeRozan taking off. “He uses it when he needs to, maybe once a game,” Lowry said. “But other than that, he’s going to be able to play for a long, long time because of his pace, his tempo, his ability to not go out there and kill himself.”

Though he’s just now entering his peak years, DeRozan keeps encouraging his coaches to dream of his distant future. Between his capacity for work and his ambition to keep learning, the ascendancy of his skills may enable him to stave off the inevitability of old age.

“It’s not like he’s depending on his high-flying to get it done,” Casey said. “A guy like him who has an old-school floor game can last a long time. That’s why I always say his 3-point shooting is going to come. With most older guys, when you watch them they slow down, that’s when that 3-ball comes. They’re not jumping as much, they’re not using the quick-twitch muscles, they’re just slowing down and shooting the 3 — and I have told him that.”

“He is always going to be a great post-up player,” insists Kalamian. “He’s got a ton of stuff down there that I don’t think we’ve even tapped on yet. I think that is the next evolution that we are going to even see more of: Like Kobe did it in his career when he almost exclusively went to the post, we will see that with DeMar.”

Will the future bring him closer to the basket or further away? Such are the opportunities that hard work and an open mind have created for DeRozan. He has become like the players he idolized from decades ago — with a game to match.

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

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