The Philadelphia native earned a starting spot in his first NBA All-Star Game while leading his team to the top of the Atlantic Division for a second consecutive season.
Breaking down Kyle Lowry's free agency options from last summer is an exercise in "could haves." The point guard could have rejoined the Houston Rockets to form a terrifying trio, with MVP candidate James Harden and Dwight Howard. He could have settled into a supporting role with the Los Angeles Lakers (and possibly earned a bigger one when Kobe Bryant became injured). But those teams didn't offer the promise of a leadership role. The Toronto Raptors, with whom he'd grown as a player since 2012, did. "I ultimately wanted to be in a place where I could say, It's my team," he says of re-signing with Canada's sole NBA franchise.
And it is. Under Lowry's direction, the long-suffering Raptors have gone from cellar-dwellars to first place in the Atlantic Division, and through March 2 they had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference (38--22). Lowry's doggedness on defense and career-high numbers (18.0 points and 7.0 assists per game this season) have pointed Toronto toward its second straight playoff appearance.
His efforts have resulted in personal success too. Lowry's play prompted the hockey-loving country (and American fans across the border) to cast 805,290 votes during a nationwide All-Star campaign this winter, which propelled him into a starting spot in his first appearance in the game.
The recognition has been a long time coming for the 29-year-old, who bounced from Memphis to Houston before landing in Toronto. But it's his journey that has helped Lowry become a major part of Toronto's rise in the NBA.
THE LONG ROAD
Lowry began developing his basketball prowess in Philadelphia, where his big brother, Lonnie, made him play against older and taller kids. That shaped Lowry into a gritty player, but it took some time. "I was coming off of the bench at 12 and 13 years old," recalls Lowry, who played AAU ball for Team Philly. "The other kids were bigger. I just kept working, trying to improve. I was confident I'd get a shot to show everyone what I could do."
In his final year at Cardinal Dougherty High, in 2004, Lowry led the Cardinals to the Catholic League title game after averaging 19 points, eight rebounds, and six assists per game. His next stop was Villanova, where he tore his ACL before the start of his freshman year. He made his debut that December 31 and helped the Wildcats make the Sweet 16. As a sophomore, he earned Big East second team all-conference honors while driving the Wildcats to a No. 1 seed in the 2006 NCAA tournament alongside All-America guards Randy Foye and Allan Ray. Villanova made it to the Elite Eight for the first time in 20 years before falling to Florida, and Lowry, who had averaged 11.0 points and 3.7 assists per game, made the jump to the NBA after the tournament. He was about to face a series of setbacks that would test his mettle again.
Talk of Lowry bumping heads with coaching staffs had followed him for much of his young playing career, and rumors of his attitude problems still lingered. (Several years later, Villanova coach Jay Wright would describe Lowry as "a handful.") In addition, a non-threatening kidney condition was discovered during his pre-draft physical.
His draft stock plummeted. Lowry watched Foye go seventh in the draft and had to wait until the Memphis Grizzlies took him with the 24th pick. Then, in only his 10th game as a pro, Lowry broke his wrist and was out for the season. The following year, the Grizzlies drafted point guard Mike Conley, turning Lowry into a backup until he was traded to the Rockets in 2009.
In Houston, Lowry feuded with coach Kevin McHale, sometimes publicly. Squabbles like the one they had during a timeout in April 2012 became more newsworthy than the team itself. A month after the sideline argument, Lowry told the Houston Chronicle, "If things aren't addressed coaching-wise, I guess I have to be moved."
Despite that strained relationship, however, Lowry put up double-digit scoring averages (13.5 in 2010--11 and 14.3 in 2011--12) and averaged more than six assists a game in two of his three seasons in Houston. The team failed to make the playoffs while he was there, though, and Houston sent Lowry to the Raptors.
Lowry seemed to fit in better with coach Dwane Casey in Toronto and broke out in 2013--14, his second season there: He scored 20 or more points 35 times in 79 starts and lifted the Raptors to their first postseason appearance in six years. Lowry became a go-to guy, tasked with taking the last shot during Game 7 of Toronto's first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets. Paul Pierce blocked it, and the Nets advanced.
"We were so close, but it's one of those situations where you grow from it. I couldn't let myself dwell on it too much afterward," Lowry says. "I had free agency to think about."
Once the thinking was over, Lowry inked a four-year, $48 million deal with the Raptors, keeping his Toronto tandem with shooting guard DeMar DeRozan intact. Since then, Lowry has continued to produce. When DeRozan — Lowry's close friend and co-leader — was sidelined 21 games with a torn tendon, Lowry stepped up. He averaged 22.3 points and 8.9 assists in December and was named conference player of the month.
Lowry has also emerged as one of the game's best two-way guards. "He's going to keep coming at you. Defensively, he stays aggressive over the course of the game," says Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard. "He doesn't give you break."
Jeff Teague of the Atlanta Hawks admits that covering Lowry is far from an easy assignment. "He's like a pit bull," Teague says. "He goes after every loose ball, every offensive rebound, and he knows how to draw fouls really well."
The relentlessness that opposing players see in Lowry is the same tenacity Lowry used to get past injuries and a bad reputation. That determination puts Lowry in prime position to push the Raptors even further in this year's playoffs.
"I've hit some bumps in the road along the way," Lowry says. "You live and you learn. And you grow."
While it took Lowry nine years of learning and growing to get here, he knows that the journey helped him find his place on a team he can finally call his own.
Photos: Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images, Noah Graham/Getty Images