DeMar DeRozan had his first conversation with Kobe Bryant when he attended his basketball camp as a high schooler. DeRozan idolized Bryant growing up, and wanted to learn about how to be a great basketball player. Bryant obliged, telling him about the importance of preparation, to train your body and mind to be ready for every challenge on the floor. "At the time," DeRozan told B/R, "I had no understanding of any of that."
He does now.
In his ninth season with the Toronto Raptors, the 28-year-old guard has evolved into one of the most complete offensive players in the league, a driving force for a team that hit the All-Star break atop the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history. Long known for his antiquated offensive game, with an overreliance on mid-range jumpers, DeRozan has become a multilevel threat. So far this season, DeRozan is averaging a career high in assists and already has made more threes than he has in any single year before.
"DeMar is a smart player," head coach Dwane Casey said. "He understands the analytics of the game. You don't have to be a mathematician. He understands the game probably more than people give him credit for."
That wasn't always the case.
When he arrived in Toronto after being drafted ninth overall in 2009 as a 19-year-old, DeRozan was looking for direction. "My rookie year I was here alone," DeRozan said. "I was young and lost. I wanted to continue to get better, get stronger and be a better me. I didn't have anybody. All I had was the gym."
So he spent countless hours there with former Raptors assistant coach Eric Hughes working on his craft. On off days. Before shootaround. After shootaround. After practice. Whenever he had time, DeRozan focused on improving his game.
But in his first season, DeRozan played on a team that centered its offense around Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu. He wasn't physical enough to overpower the opposition. He wasn't able to think about the game quickly enough to figure out defensive adjustments. Everything was difficult. And when he wasn't invited to the rookie-sophomore game during All-Star Weekend, he decided to put Bryant's advice to use. If he just worked harder than everybody, it would give him a chance to become the player he wanted to be.
After all, DeRozan said, "putting in the work is the easiest thing."
Like many young players, however, he soon reached a point where he needed to be pushed. And so in the summer before his third season, when DeRozan found himself at the Los Angeles Clippers practice facility working out with Hughes and player development guru Tim Grgurich, he followed their leads. If he was sleepwalking through a workout, they would let him know. If he was frustrated that he couldn't make a shot to finish a drill, they would repeat the drill until it was finished.
"They pushed me further than I could imagine," DeRozan said. "You remember moments like that. I was in the third year of my career and just starting to figure out different ways to take [my game] to a different level." DeRozan became stronger, smarter and more efficient on the floor. He mastered the mid-range game. His footwork allowed him to evade defenders, get to spots on the floor he wanted to and draw fouls and get to the free-throw line at an elite level.
The Raptors also started winning.
After missing the playoffs his first four seasons, Toronto returned to the postseason in 2014, the same year DeRozan was named to his first All-Star team. DeRozan, who was one of five Raptors players to attend Hughes' wedding, gave his assistant coach a Rolex watch as a thank-you gift to commemorate the accomplishment.
His work ethic eventually rubbed off on teammates, like Norman Powell, who grew up watching DeRozan and got a chance to work out with him for the first time in 2015 before entering his rookie season. "What stood out was just his mentality," Powell said, "Just how focused he was and just how much he cares. It was hard to keep up with his pace."
Powell often would be stuck in one-on-one matchups with DeRozan when they worked out. DeRozan would take him in the post, on the wing, at the elbow, at the top of the key, figuring out every single spot on the floor to prepare himself for the season.
That ability to blend game situations with practice is what separates DeRozan from how some other players spend their time in the gym. "These kids work out, they've got their cones, their tennis balls and they do all the drills," Hughes said. "The difference between them and DeMar is that he plays. He plays every day, whether it's the Drew League, or runs at UCLA, or runs at USC. Whenever he can play, he wants to play. There's a huge difference between doing drills and playing. That's the one thing about him. He loves to play."
Even after averaging 27.3 points and being named to the All-NBA Third Team in 2016-17, DeRozan didn't stop trying to add things to his game. Last summer, he woke up at 4:15 in the morning for his offseason workouts. Powell would join him in El Segundo, where they would start the morning with weights, conditioning exercises and jogs on the beach. "You see him putting in the work," Powell said. "You see the approach and the focus and you just try to follow in his footsteps."
Even as a veteran, though, DeRozan is looking for something to keep pushing him. When Powell was a rookie, he asked DeRozan what still motivated him. DeRozan replied that he still looked at every critical comment people made about him. It is why he has vehemently disagreed with his Sports Illustrated player ranking the past two seasons, and perhaps part of the reason why he took in all the criticism about his game and came back a different player this season.
The Raptors are different, too, steaming into the break with the best point differential in the East this season. They are one of only two teams in the league (along with Golden State) ranked in the top five on both offense and defense (according to NBA.com), and DeRozan has led the way, averaging 25.3 points and 5.9 assists in January, for which he was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month.
But after four years of playoff disappointments that have included a heartbreaking seven-game loss to the Brooklyn Nets, two sweeps at the hands of Washington and Cleveland and a six-game loss to the Cavs in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals—in which the Raptors lost by an average margin of 28.5 points—Toronto knows its reputation as a contender is met with some skepticism, despite its impressive regular-season resume.
"It doesn't change the fact we're one of the best teams in the league," DeRozan said.
The fully evolved version of DeRozan was on full display in the first game of 2018, an overtime victory at home over the Milwaukee Bucks. DeRozan scored a franchise-record 52 points, hit five three-pointers, attempted and made all 13 of his free throws and handed out eight assists. Hughes, then an assistant with the Bucks, had an up-close look at the performance. Afterwards, he texted DeRozan and told him it was time for an upgrade on the Rolex he received four years earlier.
Now nearing a decade with the Raptors, DeRozan is quite cognizant of the 20 seasons Bryant spent with one franchise. "It's definitely an honor," DeRozan said. "I always looked up to guys like Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant who did that. It's rare now to see guys who are with an organization for over a decade."
But his legacy is not something he is giving much thought to right now. For a guy who spent more time than most working on his craft, it makes sense that he would want people to just appreciate his body of work. "I just go out there and play and leave everything I got on the line," DeRozan said. "When it's all said and done, I just want to let everything that I did for my team and for the city speak for itself."
With time and recognition has come a greater sense of contentment. DeRozan isn't motivated as much by the critics, but by the one achievement left to complete his basketball resume.
"I want to be a champion," DeRozan said. "That's my motivation. I want to compete for the thing that everyone at the highest level competes for."
Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer from Toronto whose work has appeared in GQ, SLAM Magazine, The New Yorker, VICE Sports, among other publications. He can be followed on Twitter @steven_lebron.