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There was certainly a smile underneath DeMar DeRozan’s mask as he walked down the corridor of Scotiabank Arena toward a group of Toronto Raptors reporters, his friends, as he called them, waiting to chat. It’s been nearly two years since DeRozan was last in Toronto, the city he’d spent the first nine years of his career in, and a ton has changed.

“It’s definitely weird without my old buddy,” said DeRozan, referring to his old running mate Kyle Lowry who left for Miami in the summer. “But it’s always exciting to come back.”

This time, though, DeRozan is at a different point in his career. At 32 years old, he feels like the long-lost father of this Raptors team, a man who was around for the formative years of this group, having taken Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam under his wing all those years ago, before being traded in the summer of 2018.

“When they came in, they were our little babies,” DeRozan said. “They seen us have success, they seen us struggle. They seen everything at a young age before they even understood what their career was going to pan out to be.”

DeRozan remembers being in those same shoes so many years ago when he arrived in Toronto as the ninth overall pick in 2009. Back then, the Raptors were a totally different organization. They’d gone years without any sustained success and DeRozan learned in a totally different environment than his successors were afforded. To him, Jarrett Jack and Reggie Evans were the veteran leaders, two successful NBA players who had long professional careers, but nowhere close to the all-star careers DeRozan and Lowry have had.

“They used to drag me out to dinner, do a lot of things that I wasn’t used to doing and it made sense over the years as I got older," DeRozan recalled. "Those guys were instrumental in helping mold myself as an individual."

With VanVleet and Siakam, things were vastly different. They came up in the golden age of Raptors basketball, learning from DeRozan and Lowry, who gave them the “ultimate cheat code” in leadership, as DeRozan put it.

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“You can see it. Me just watching [VanVleet] play, the poise that he plays with, the leadership that he carries himself with, it’s contagious,” DeRozan said. “I would hate to not say that I took credit and that, but that was all Fred. Fred is just a hell of an individual, one of those guys that sits back, watches, learns and listens. He made it easy for me to be a leader to him.”

These days, those lessons are being passed down by VanVleet. It’s not about being the rah-rah guy, yelling at younger players, or getting on them when they make mistakes. Leading this team is about leading by example, getting in the gym early, working hard, and not being an a-hole, to paraphrase VanVleet.

“There’s no room for that,” VanVleet said “If Kyle was here when I got here, if he was three hours before practice, I better be beating him here, and that allowed me to develop my own routine. Scottie is seeing me and Pascal in the gym three or four hours before training camp, now he’s trying to race to beat us here every day, that’s just how it works

Ultimately, whatever success this organization has with this group is thanks to the roots DeRozan and Lowry planted long before Toronto was ever considered a first-class organization. They were the ones who turned the fortunes of the franchise around, grooming a generation to become winners.

“If you just go back down that tree you can see how many good and great players were here at one point in time, you can see how they found a way to continue to be successful and have long great careers,” VanVleet said. “Kyle sacrificed a lot over the last couple of years, but we all sacrificed a lot as well from the standpoint that we had to make it work, we all had to make it work together. We always just put winning first. We won a bunch of games. We won a championship. When you do that, everyone can eat.”

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