The Toronto Raptors entered the season with two potential leads for finding a franchise cornerstone.
One was incumbent scorer Rudy Gay, the headline acquisition brought in prior to the 2013 trade deadline. The other was one of the tantalizing prospects atop the stacked 2014 draft board, with Kansas freshman (and Toronto native) Andrew Wiggins filling all the boxes on the best-case-scenario checklist.
The Raptors just hit the halfway point of the 2013-14 campaign, but both of those possibilities have already evaporated. Gay was sent packing in early December for what looked like flotsam. Toronto (21-20) has a better chance of snagging the No. 1 seed than the No. 1 draft pick.
That search for a superstar leader hasn't ended. It's simply evolved, like everything else around this franchise.
The latest name to grab the headlines isn't a new one, although this might be DeMar DeRozan's first exposure to lights as bright as these.
DeRozan, who's spent each of his four-plus NBA seasons with the Raptors, had seemingly spent most of that time trying to prove his worth as a complementary piece. He pumped in more than 17 points a night as a sophomore, but never showed the kind of efficiency (career 13.8 player efficiency rating heading into this season) needed out of a No. 1 option.
The Raptors didn't pay him face-of-the-franchise money, securing him on a four-year, $40 million contract prior to the start of his fourth season. Even then, some analysts thought they'd overpaid—badly.
Grantland.com's Zach Lowe wrote at the time the contract was "absurd" and said DeRozan had a "slim" chance to live up to the deal. After having one full season to review the signing, the National Post's Eric Koreen still dubbed DeRozan "overpaid" last summer.
What a difference a few months can make. No one's talking about DeRozan's pay grade now. They're too busy weighing his All-Star credentials:
My brother @DeMar_DeRozan better be a All-Star this year!! He is out here hoopin!!!!!!!— James Harden (@JHarden13) January 12, 2014
So, what does "hoopin'" look like?
Well, it starts with producing at career rates nearly across the stat sheet.
Name the category, he's filling the box score better than he has before: points (21.8 per game), rebounds (4.6), assists (3.7), steals (1.2). His PER has never been higher (17.7). Ditto for his three-point percentage (29.6), assist percentage (18.3) and win shares per 48 minutes (.127).
Hoopin' usually features a defining moment, too. Luckily, DeRozan supplied the basketball world with a brilliant one, torching the powerless Dallas Mavericks for a career-best 40 points in Toronto's 93-85 win on Wednesday.
He's never had a hard time lighting the lamp.
But this barrage was different. This was elite-level efficient:
DeRozan was hyper-aggressive, forcing the issue at any and every opportunity. In less than 38 minutes of work, he made a superstar-esque 14 trips to the free-throw line.
Even if analysts are slow to place the All-Star tag on him now, he seems to be getting that type of respect from the officials (6.8 free-throw attempts per game, tied for ninth).
Expanding His Arsenal
Something else happened during his Mavericks massacre that stayed well outside of the headlines. Something that can actually help keep him in the news cycle going forward.
While he was mercilessly shredding the Dallas defense, he wasn't just hurting the Mavs with his scoring. He snagged three rebounds, dished out three assists, picked up a steal and blocked a shot.
"I was just telling myself just try and do as much as I can to win, try to pull this one off and keep my team in it," he said, per Ian Harrison of the Associated Press (via NBA.com).
He was doing what team leaders do—making winning plays. The Raptors might not have pictured him filling that role, but they didn't have to. He placed that burden on himself after Gay's departure.
DeRozan's first 18 appearances came alongside Gay. He made scoring his first, second and third priorities when he was playing off Gay. Like always, the points were there (21.3). But his rebounding (3.7) and distributing (2.7 assists) numbers highlighted just how hell-bent he was on scoring.
He hasn't been able to ease up at the offensive end in his 23 games since the trade (22.1 points). But he's expanded his impact to other areas of the game. He's hitting the glass harder (5.3), placing a higher premium on creating for teammates (4.5 assists).
He's learning how to survive and thrive as a No. 1 option. Just 24 years old, he's still learning about the game in general.
"I think he's really learning how to play under control now," Mavericks guard and former Raptors' icon Vince Carter said, via Harrison. "When you have athleticism like that sometimes you just go, you just play and let your athleticism take over. He's now slowing down and everything else is developing and it's just making him a tough player."
So, too, is the energy at the defensive end, an area of the floor he hasn't always shown an interest in playing.
The effort is paying off. Opponents have posted just a 13.6 PER (league average is 15.0) against him while he's played his natural 2-guard spot, via 82games.com. On the season, he's limited his matchup to just 0.74 points per possession (32nd overall) and 34 percent shooting from the field, via Synergy Sports (subscription required). For reference, he gave up 0.88 (226th) and 40.8 percent shooting last season.
DeRozan's becoming an unlikely guide for a team that wasn't even sure it wanted to be led. He's earning every bit of that contract and even making it look like it may have been a bargain.
Stardom in his Future?
It's getting harder to answer that question in the negative. Heck, he might have stardom in his present.
Think about everything he's added to the equation in 2013-14: a better floor game, more control, an increase in assists, streak-free glass cleaning and a more potent passing attack
Those are things that franchise faces do. They step outside their comfort zone without losing what made them special in the first place and force themselves to find comfort in these unfamiliar areas.
Can the Raptors build a contender around DeRozan?
DeRozan's in the early stages of that transition. Remember, Gay still claimed alpha-dog status north of the border less than two months ago.
There's still plenty of work to be done. DeRozan won't carry a franchise with a 42.8 field-goal percentage. His playmaking ability is a work in progress. With his hops, he could be an even greater rebounding presence.
All of that may come with time. In order to effectively lead the Raptors, he'll need to keep crossing items off his developmental checklist.
But the good news for Raptors fans is that he's on the right path to becoming a bona fide building block. While everyone was busy figuring out where Toronto could find its next centerpiece, no one bothered to look inside the locker room for that player.
DeRozan's always had the talent needed for a job of this magnitude. He's just figuring out how to put it to use to make sure all his critics stay silenced from here on out.