From the moment the Toronto Raptors drafted DeMar DeRozan, coaches and teammates raved about his work ethic. Through four frustrating years of team struggles and scrutiny, DeRozan attacked every offseason, kept working and believed it would pay off.
After inking a four-year, $38 million contract extension in 2012 he heard the critics. People questioned the team’s decision to reward a young player who, up to that point, hadn’t been able to elevate his team to the postseason. Opting to keep his focus on the things he could control, the contract brought DeRozan more attention but didn’t change his approach.
Things clicked for DeRozan last season. A veteran on a Toronto team that had been through what he called “damn near 60 players” over his tenure, his teammates trusted him to be their guy. With point guard Kyle Lowry in his ear encouraging him, the 25-year-old swingman put together the strongest effort of his career. Most important, the Raptors had a winning season.
Being named an All-Star for the first time was a huge honour for DeRozan, but the highlight for him was helping to get the Raptors to the playoffs after a five-year drought.
“I think his focus level [is different],” Houston Rockets star James Harden said during USA Basketball training camp. “He’s not getting sidetracked by the small things anymore. He has one goal and that’s to be the best player he can be and he’s done a great job of it. He’s matured and he’s definitely a great player, an All-Star.”
Both Los Angeles natives, Harden and DeRozan have known each other for years. Getting to spend time together on the sidelines of Las Vegas Summer League or suiting up at the Drew League in L.A., the two have remained close since being drafted in 2009.
“That’s like one of my best friends,” Harden said. “We’ve grown together. He’s doing so well in Toronto now. I’m definitely proud of him. He’s out here now at USA Basketball with me and we’re just two guys form the same city trying to make it.”
Damian Lillard started an Instagram competition called 4 Bar Friday a year ago, just before the start of the 2013-14 season. What started as 15-second rap videos has now turned into a community of people who love hip-hop. This month, one of the frequent participants, L. E. X, entered a contest to get a deal with Sony Music. To show that 4 Bar Friday is more than a competition, the Portland point guard showed his support to the Milwaukee-based rapper with a post on Instagram and Twitter.
L. E. X had over 600 votes in the contest and was the only rapper to be in the top 10 in fan voting. He will have to wait until mid-August to hear if he is selected by the judges to win the overall competition, but to him, Lillard’s support goes beyond the record deal.
“After seeing his posts for me on Instagram and on Twitter,” he says, “it was like, ‘Wow, even if I don’t win this competition, I get support from this dude.’”
L. E. X found out about 4 Bar Friday in December and has participated every week since. For him, it just started as something fun, but as he was getting positive feedback, it encouraged him to keep posting. He has been chosen as a winner of 4 Bar Friday at least 10 times.
He met Lillard in person when the Trail Blazer hosted the #4BarFriday party at All-Star weekend in New Orleans. It was a rap battle co-hosted by deejay and producer Mannie Fresh. L. E. X and seven other 4 Bar Friday contestants were flown in to participate in the battle and enjoy the events of All Star weekend. L. E. X finished second place in the battle.
Lillard grew up in Oakland and was surrounded by hip-hop culture. His early favorite artists included Nas and Juvenile and now he vibes to J. Cole and Drake. He started rapping in high school and kept it up as his hobby with his basketball career. He told CSNNW.com that he could make it platinum in a rap career.
LAS VEGAS – After getting the jitters out of the way on Day 1 of Team USA training camp on Monday, today we saw a much more aggressive and comfortable Damian Lillard.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ all-star point guard picked his spots on offense, capitalizing off of open looks while also setting up teammates. He had a far better shooting performance compared to yesterday’s session.
But the spike in his play wasn’t so much on the offensive end. It was his full-court defense that stood out. All afternoon he was picking up opposing point guards from one end of the court to the other. Poor Utah’s Trey Burke didn’t stand a chance with Lillard hounding him like that. It was a sight to see.
That style of play is reminiscent of another well-respected no-nonsense player being longtime defensive specialist Matt Barnes of the Los Angeles Clippers. Lillard’s defensive approach had to have come from somewhere.
Turns out, Barnes had something to do with it, calling Lillard last night and issuing some words of advice on ways to stand out from the rest of the 20-or-so prospects challenging for a spot. He spoke; Lillard listened and put it into action.
“He just called and told me that everybody knows that I can shoot the ball and make plays, but he said he knows that I can defend too,” Lillard recalled with CSNNW.com of their conversation. “He said just go out there and be a dog and pick up full-court.
“And he was right. I need to come out here and show that I can lock up full-court, which I can do with my responsibilities being less than what it would be with the Trail Blazers. That’s my mindset.”
Any doubt about the intensity of USA Basketball practices was erased when a Klay Thompson elbow clipped DeMar DeRozan in the face. With assistant coach Tom Thibodeau screaming at DeRozan — and the rest of his team — to step up their efforts on defence during Monday afternoon’s scrimmage, DeRozan draped himself over Thompson and was rewarded with a direct (unintentional) hit. Knocked to the ground almost immediately, droplets of blood splayed across the court as his teammates picked him up and he went to the bench to have a trainer pack his nose with tissue to stop the bleeding.
“It’s cool,” DeRozan said as he sent a trainer to get more ice for him after the practice finished. “Ain’t nothing to it.”
Being named a first-time All-Star before leading the Toronto Raptors to the postseason for the first time in five seasons, this is a big summer for the 24-year-old swingman. With general manager Masai Ujiri re-signing the core to this year’s team in the first weeks of the offseason, DeRozan is eager to press fast forward and get to training camp.
“Honestly, it’s been eating away at me since Game 7,” DeRozan said. “Just to get back out there, to play and work, get back competing at a high level. We’re still dwelling on that Game 7 loss. We just want to get back out there. We still feel like we have a lot to prove, for myself and I feel I can speak for my teammates as well.”
DeRozan’s gym rat tendencies have been well documented over the years. After reaching the postseason for the first time in his career, his offseason approach hasn’t changed. Spending time in both Los Angeles and Las Vegas to train, he also spent a week in Houston working on post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon.
Mostly, he wants fans who are also hung up on that season-ending loss to know that he’s putting in work preparing for next season.
“Just that,” DeRozan said. “Nothing else. Nothing else. I try not to change routines at all. Stick to my schedule: Working, working, working. Working hard. Try to lead by example, continue to get better. You only get to do this for so long so every summer I try to get that much better and keep elevating myself and my teammates at the same time. Other than that, nothing else too special. Just work.”
ISSAQUAH – It’s crazy to think Nate Robinson is 30 now. The memories of his athletic exploits remain so fresh, so personal.
Most every Seattle sports fan has a favorite Nate moment, and they remember it in such vivid detail that you feel like you were there. In some tales, he sounds like he’s from another planet, a 5-foot-9 athlete who can jump cloud high, run cheetah fast and compete with mountain-man toughness.
He’s catching a lob from Curtis Allen against Arizona to re-energize Washington basketball. He’s intercepting a pass over 6-foot-6 Washington State wide receiver Mike Bush and later explaining, “Maybe he didn’t know I could jump.” He’s at Rainier Beach High School breaking the state record in the 110-meter hurdles, or returning a kickoff for a touchdown during an upset of O’Dea, or leaping over a center for a tip-dunk.
Some of Robinson’s highlights date back 13 years, but they seem timeless, just as Robinson seems like he’s from another time, a specimen from the future.
But he’s 30 now, considered by many the true age of adulthood. He’s a proud father of three children: Nahmier (9), Ny’ale (7) and Navyi (4). He’s a nine-year NBA veteran who has earned $22.4 million.
Robinson, one of the best all-around athletes in Washington state history, celebrated his 30th birthday on May 31 by flying family and friends to Los Angeles, renting a house and hosting a party with guests such as rappers Drake, The Game and Fabolous and R&B stars Ne-Yo and Brandy.
“I really don’t do the party thing, but you’ve got to throw a party for your Dirty 30,” Robinson said, smiling.