DeRozan's emergence helps spark Raptors turnaround
"It was very vanilla," Casey said. "He was young, athletic, a kid still learning the game. He was talented, but if my memory serves, there was not a big book on him. It wouldn't have been long, in-depth scouting."
As the Raptors' coach, Casey's first memory of DeRozan is far more vivid. It was June 21, 2011, the day Casey was introduced as Toronto's eighth coach. Sitting on a dais while facing a horde of reporters, Casey noticed a lanky, baby-faced player neatly dressed in a coat and tie leaning against a wall in the back of the room. It was DeRozan, the Raptors' swingman, who crashed the news conference to support his new coach.
"I remember calling my wife afterward and telling her how impressed I was by DeMar DeRozan," Casey said. "[Former Raptors general manager] Bryan Colangelo had told me all about him. I couldn't wait to work with him."
DeRozan smiled as he recalled his first encounter with Casey.
"That year, I thought it was big for my career, for me developing and maturing into a staple of the Raptors' organization," said DeRozan, the ninth pick in the 2009 draft. "We just came off two tough seasons. We had a new coach. I wanted to be one of the first guys to greet him and kind of get a head start."
Three years later, DeRozan has seen results: He ranks ninth in the NBA in scoring (team-high 22.7 points) and seventh in free-throw attempts (7.9), and he's averaging a career-best 3.9 assists. At 24, DeRozan made his first All-Star team this year. Opposing coaches marvel at his development on offense.
"In January, his numbers were really good. Now they are better," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "That's pretty unusual for a guy having his best year. Usually you start to get more targeted and fall off. He has just continued to go up."
When they started working together, DeRozan reminded Casey of another former pupil: Rashard Lewis. Casey coached Lewis for seven years in Seattle. "That first year [in Toronto]," Casey said, "I would accidentally call him Rashard a lot." DeRozan averaged 17.2 points in Toronto's 22-win 2010-2011 season, but Casey wasn't impressed. Like Lewis, though, Casey saw a player with a lot of skills. Casey prodded DeRozan to be more efficient, work on recognizing and passing out of double teams and become lethal in the pick-and-roll.
"That first year, he would almost panic when the double team came," Casey said. "But if you watched him practice, you knew he had all the ability in the world to be great."
DeRozan has never shied away from putting in the work. His methods are somewhat unusual, though. Whereas many players spend their offseasons training with other players, DeRozan prefers to work out alone. In recent years, his training team consisted of Chris Farr, now a Nuggets assistant coach, and Eric Hughes, a former Raptors assistant who is on Jason Kidd's staff in Brooklyn. Splitting time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, DeRozan put in countless hours diversifying his game.
"Those guys, they never eased up on me," DeRozan said. "They saw how good of a player I could be. They didn't want me to be content, ever. They pushed, they stayed on me, they gave me tips. It was tough love. I appreciate it because it definitely pushed me."
There are still holes in DeRozan's game, of course. He is still not a consistent threat for the three-point line, where he is shooting 30.7 percent and has made fewer than one per game. His field-goal percentage has dropped from 44.5 in 2011-12 to 42.9, a dip Casey attributes to DeRozan's facing top defenders since the Raptors traded another wing scorer, Rudy Gay, in December. But DeRozan has the makings of a polished offensive game to complement his off-the-charts athleticism.
"He's a very good mid-range player and he's dynamite on the post," Stevens said.
His defense remains a work in progress, but Casey believes he has the tools to be elite. The coach also is effusive in his praise of DeRozan's leadership qualities. Casey noted that DeRozan's passionate speech to the team before a recent game against Oklahoma City resonated in the locker room.
"He's definitely speaking up more," Casey said. "He's grown into a leader. He's maturing as a man. Those first years, he didn't say very much. Now he's leading vocally and by example."
DeRozan, like his team, has endured his fair share of criticism -- his four-year, $38 million extension, roundly panned when he signed it two years ago, now looks far more reasonable -- which he's used to fuel late-night workouts and help revive the Raptors. After dealing Gay, Toronto was expected to trade Kyle Lowry and extend its playoff drought to six seasons. Instead, the Raptors kept their soon-to-be free-agent point guard and banded together to produce the franchise's best season since 2006-07. Toronto beat Boston 99-90 on Wednesday for its 40th victory, only seven shy of the franchise record of 47 with 11 games to play. More important, Toronto moved back into a tie with Chicago for third place in the Eastern Conference.
"Everyone on this team is resilient," DeRozan said. "We use all the negativity, all the critics. Everyone here wants to win. That's the biggest thing. We remember the years not making the playoffs, of being the laughingstock of the league. Everyone in this group bought in to what we are doing and we have been doing it together.
"I have heard so many critics talking about how people were going to be traded, [how] we are trying to lose on purpose to get a better draft pick. Whatever. But we soak it in and use it as motivation."