These days, DeMar DeRozan is putting pen to paper more often, scribbling notes and reminders when he can. The messages are his and his alone. “This is mine. This is mine,” he says. He writes them as a means of claiming ownership over things in his life, no matter how small or trivial. Given how drastically his life has changed in the past few months, the conscious act of writing is understandable.
“There’s so much ownership of stuff we really don’t have to where it’s like, Let me write on this piece of paper,” he says. “Can’t nobody take this away from me.“
His work ethic, he says, is filtered through a similar prism. He meticulously curates the time he puts in each summer when he adds facets to his game. This is my work ethic, he reminds himself. Can’t nobody take this away from me. You can do whatever you want on the outside, but you ain’t gonna change me when it comes to this work ethic. He entered the league as an athletic high-flyer but over time has morphed into a throwback mid-range assassin, as comfortable pulling up as attacking off the dribble with a slick Eurostep.
DeRozan is still getting used to the black-and-silver Spurs jersey he dons during practices and games. He says the first time he put it on, during the team’s media day, was surreal. His friends are still acclimating themselves to the change, too. “He is the Raptors,” says Rudy Gay, who was DeRozan’s teammate in Toronto and is now in San Antonio. He corrects himself. “He was the Raptors.”
The designation as Raptors ambassador was one DeRozan took immense pride in. He helped shift the conversation about the culture of basketball in Toronto, even as he couldn’t get the franchise past the LeBron James roadblock in the Eastern Conference. DeRozan has always been outspoken about his loyalty to Toronto. He famously bypassed meeting with his hometown Lakers or any other team when his free agency arrived two summers ago. “I am Toronto,” he declared after re-signing with the Raptors. He wanted to achieve things in the city that no other player had accomplished. He wanted to see his jersey in the rafters.
Then, in a flash, his life in the North was upended. On July 18, the team followed up its firing of coach Dwane Casey by dealing DeRozan, big man Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick for a discontented Kawhi Leonard along with Danny Green. DeRozan found out about the trade after getting out of a screening of The Equalizer 2, featuring Denzel Washington. Upon leaving the movie theater in Los Angeles late into the night, he checked his phone. “[I] was wondering why I was getting missed calls,” he says.
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He was hungry, so he went to get something to eat at a Jack in the Box. In the parking lot, he got the call telling him he had just been traded to San Antonio. “It just caught me off guard,” he says. “I sat in the Jack in the Box parking lot for, like, two hours just trying to process it all, like just trying to process the whole thing, and it just tripped me out honestly, just trying to figure it out, but that’s how I found out. Midnight, sitting in the Jack in the Box parking lot for about two hours till I went home.”
Players of DeRozan’s caliber—Olympian, four-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA—work for years to pilot their futures. James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade put themselves in a position to join forces in Miami. Leonard willed his departure from San Antonio. Paul George orchestrated the same power move in leaving Indiana for Oklahoma City. Jimmy Butler forced his way out of Minnesota.
But DeRozan, during his tenure with the Raptors, put his energy more into his future as a part of, not distinct from, his team. He poured his time—nine years—and emotions into lifting a franchise toward respectability.
“You work to want to have that privilege, but to me, reality hit, saying you really don’t have control over that privilege,” DeRozan says. “Just because I say I’m going to go walk outside doesn’t mean I can dictate if I’m going to be able to make it up the street or not. That’s how it hit me. … No matter what you do, you really don’t have control of nothing. You gotta be ready and prepared for anything that comes.
“And that’s how I took it. Because every player works to want to have that power. That was part of the reason why I worked so hard. I wanted to not have no excuse or have no complaints [about] … anything when it comes to work. To have that taken away from me, it showed reality: You don’t have control of anything. As much as we all try to believe it, we don’t.”
DeRozan catches himself. He concedes that one of the few things he controls—other than his jotted notes—is his play on the basketball court. Change, whether it’s a conscious pivot or an unwelcome one, is inevitable. One can only control their response. DeRozan is adjusting to his new circumstances, just as he has had to do throughout his career.
From the moment he arrived in the NBA, DeRozan had to adapt to things he could do nothing about. The Raptors drafted him out of USC with the ninth overall pick in 2009, and immediately people had high expectations for him in Canada, despite it not having a particularly rich basketball history. During a post-draft conference call with reporters, he was asked if he could be the next Vince Carter.
“I think it’s very valid,” DeRozan said. “Especially with my athleticism. I’m going to come in and try to do a lot of other stuff that he didn’t get a chance to do.”
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DeRozan tried hard to satisfy the city’s hunger for a winning franchise, but there was a stigma associated with a club that had never won 50 games in a season and was coming off a 33-49 campaign. Opposing teams would often expect they’d have a good night and get a win. “That was the perception,” DeRozan recalls. “… I took so much offense to that was the narrative coming to Toronto. I just wanted to be the person to change that whole dialogue and that stigma, and I worked my ass off.”
In his rookie season, DeRozan played a limited role behind Chris Bosh, who was the Raptors’ pillar and only star. The two were neighbors in the locker room. DeRozan envisioned them as teammates for the next decade, together lifting the franchise to playoff wins. But before that dream was realized, Bosh left when he became a free agent in 2010. DeRozan was left to try his hand at shaping a franchise that had previously won just one playoff series.
“I just wanted to prove to everybody that this place is not what you think it is,” he says, speaking of his mentality while in Toronto. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I just took so much pride into giving everything that I had to try to do that, and in that, you kind of catch deeper feelings than you could have ever imagined.”
Over time, he was successful. Toronto built itself into an Eastern Conference contender. It hosted an All-Star Weekend and made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015-16. “I was part of so many things there,” DeRozan says.
He attributes some of that success to a source of inspiration he began employing a few years back: #ProveEm. The hashtag and mentality serve him in everything, from an easy win to the way he responds when a website ranks another player over him or when he is the target of vitriol from social media trolls.
“To me, it’s just kind of a universal term in a sense of proving somebody wrong, proving them right, prove ’em you could do it, prove ’em why working so hard works,” DeRozan says.
San Antonio proved something to DeRozan before he had even played a game for the Spurs. It came in the form of a mural of him in a Spurs jersey. The art, created by San Antonio graffiti artist Nik Soupe, was so surprising DeRozan thought it had been doctored.
“I start seeing it go up everywhere, and it just tripped me out because I hadn’t been to San Antonio yet and they put me on a wall that got David Robinson, Tim [Duncan], the Iceman [George Gervin],” DeRozan says. “You got all these greats up here, and it’s like that’s where the term comes in. Prove ’em. You want to go out there and just prove to the fans my appreciation, because something like that, for it to be stood up there like that is definitely cool.”
Leaving Toronto, though, meant being separated from his longtime running mate, and good friend, Kyle Lowry. As Raptors, the pair had grown close over time, opposites attracting. While Lowry was tenacious, gritty, DeRozan usually bottled his emotions and played smoothly. Their relationship extends beyond the game. Recently, Lowry matched a school fundraising goal for DeRozan’s five-year-old daughter. (“He woke me up out my sleep this morning to tell me that, and something like that is just super cool, man,” DeRozan says.) Since DeRozan’s departure, Lowry has solitarily continued their pregame handshake ritual. (“It’s not surprising, because I know that’s my man,” DeRozan says.)
“I push him even more because he is not on my team,” Lowry told The Undefeated. “I can push him to be a better player every single night because I can watch from afar. I can tell him what he is doing, what I see and help him even more because I’m not on the floor with him. I can see with the naked eye, ‘You can do this.’
“When I play against him, I am going to try to take his head off. That is the relationship that the game brings.”
That bond is emblematic of the kind of loyalty DeRozan treasures, and values he learned as the only child of Frank and Diane DeRozan while growing up in Compton, California.
“You grew up always wanting to find acceptance from loved ones,” he says. “So, whenever you get it, you treat it like it was everything. You did whatever you wanted for that person or that group of people. And that stuck with me to where, if we go through the good together, I’m going to treat it just like when we go through the bad together. Can’t nothing break us, because we’re supposed to go through this.”
Getting through adversity is easier when you have people around you who know you well. When he arrived in San Antonio, that familiar face was Gay, who spent stints of two seasons with DeRozan in Toronto before he was dealt to Sacramento in 2013. Gay was excited by the prospect of a reunion. He immediately tried to make his old friend feel at home.
“I just know he’s going to have to continue to mentally stay straight and be able to get acclimated to the West because this is something he’s never done, being on a new team, new travels,” Gay says. “Games being in Toronto is totally different. Being here is an adjustment for him, being that he’s been doing things a certain way for a long time. So, just being there whenever he needs somebody to talk to or just hang with, that’s what I’ve been doing.”
DeRozan was also excited to work with coach Gregg Popovich. He thought he’d have a chance to do so after the 2016 Olympics, in which DeRozan helped the United States win a gold medal in Rio de Janeiro. Before the Games, the Spurs legend had been named Mike Krzyzewski’s successor as coach of the men’s national team. Cool, I’ll probably have a chance to be with Pop and compete in the next Olympics with him, he thought.
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“Come to find out now I’m going to the Spurs,” DeRozan says. “It was one of them things that I always been looking forward to, learning from him.”
Like DeRozan, Pop is adjusting to change as well. This is the organization’s first season since 2000-01 without either Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili (who arrived in 2002) in the locker room. While the Spurs transitioned into Leonard’s team over the last handful of years, that plan abruptly ended with Leonard’s trade request.
“It’s challenging and it’s very gratifying, but we’ve had to do that slowly,” Popovich says of winning with a different core. “Tim left, and everybody just kept up. We won 61 games. We went to the conference finals. And then last year, we didn’t have Kawhi’s services, and we still won 47 and went to the playoffs.”
The organization that built its reputation on developing young players—a number of whom came from overseas—is now fronted by DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, American-born players who were both All-Stars before they ever wore a Spurs uniform.
“He and L.A. we know were going to be our top scorers,” Popovich says. “So, he’s not going to have to figure out where he’s going to fit. He’s very real and very coachable. He’s been just unbelievably easy to adjust to what we’re doing. For us with this team, it’s mostly defense, but offensively, he’s a multi-time All-Star. He knows what a pick-and-roll is, and he posts up and he shoots and he’s a great player. We’re not developing him; he’s already developed. He’s just got to figure out what we do, and he’s done that pretty easily.”
DeRozan has already shown signs he’s assimilating to the Spurs. He dropped a career-high 14 assists in an overtime win against the Lakers and scored at least 25 points in five straight games and eight of his first nine. “His assist levels have reached a point where guys who aren’t good passers don’t get the assists that he’s accumulated, but I don’t know that we understood how good a passer he’s been or he is,” says R.C. Buford, San Antonio’s general manager. “That’s been enlightening to us.”
The Spurs’ success has excited Pop.
“It’s just really gratifying to watch those guys develop and fun to see how you’re gonna blend in new guys and how they’re going to play together,” he says.
DeRozan cautions that it’s early, but he already looks like the organization’s leader.
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“There are so many elements that I just try to all put together because I understand my window is getting shorter and shorter to play this game and I want to be able to walk away from this game saying that I was able to do everything,” DeRozan says.
For Pau Gasol, a teammate of Kobe Bryant‘s in Los Angeles and DeRozan’s in San Antonio, improving the play of teammates reflects the trait of a great basketball player. “You can make your teammates better, and it’s not all about scoring and shooting and getting shots,” Gasol says. “That’s a great sign for me, and it’s a sign of maturity.”
In 11 games, DeRozan is averaging 25.2 points on a career-best 50.2 percent shooting as well as 6.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game, also career highs.
“Everything is new,” DeRozan says. “Every day I learn something new, get comfortable with something else, learn more. Every day is a learning experience through the wins, through the losses. And it’s a long way to go. It’s a long season. We haven’t even hit our stride. We haven’t all gotten comfortable with what we’re trying to do yet, so everything is still relatively new for me.”
The season is still early. Yet DeRozan has already been tossed around as a dark horse for MVP.
DeRozan and the Spurs are still evolving. He is trying to control what he can. The notes are his, physical tokens of ownership. So is his response to change.
“As long as I got my legs, as long as I’m physically here, I’m going to work,” he says. “You can’t take that from me.”
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.