It took a few moments for the youth basketball team to recognize the deceptively unimposing Trail Blazer standing quietly in the Ted M. Natt Court tunnel.
They had sat patiently through an hour of Blazer Dancer routines and prep standout knockout competitions until, finally, he had arrived.
A flash of recognition and the shouting started, the points and stares, hoop dreamers climbing over each other to get a better look.
Damian Lillard just smiled.
“I was a kid at the YMCA once,” Lillard said. “I know how much I would’ve loved to have had a professional athlete come by and be present. Just be there. It didn’t have to be a donation, it didn’t have to be anything.
“Just their presence would have meant a lot to me.”
Lillard did more than that: The All-Star point guard helping to earn $17,400 for the Longview YMCA at the Dick Hannah Toyota “Threes 4 Threes” event Saturday at the Natt, a donation that will be used, in part, for scholarships, to summer camps and swimming lessons.
“I played at the Y,” Lillard said. “The YMCAs I was involved with, it was less fortunate. We had a gym. It was afternoon programs, where you could get your homework done and stuff like that, but it was never field trips.”
BOSTON — As an assistant coach with the Mavericks, Dwane Casey doesn’t recall devoting too much time to the scouting reports on DeMar DeRozan.
“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.”
DeMar DeRozan is currently in the midst of his best season as a professional basketball player. Quietly, the former Trojan has stepped up to the proverbial plate in his fifth year with the Toronto Raptors, and has developed into the outright go-to guy on a team that has longed for a leader on the court for years.
Despite the career-high numbers and the All-Star selection, DeRozan’s value as one of the legitimate top shooting guards in the league continues to be overlooked. DeRozan isn’t hiding his true talent and abilities. In fact, it is the opposite, as his stock as one of the NBA’s best shooting guards is kept secret by a small-market–in NBA standards–and by a team in the East not named the Heat or the Pacers. The truth is that DeRozan’s improvement and worth simply falls through the cracks in a league driven by large markets and commercialized franchises.
Regardless of how or why DeRozan’s game is underrated, this does not seem to be in the mind of the man himself. DeRozan is a “team-first” type of player, which was ever so present in his recent chat with former three-time NBA champion Rick Fox for the American Express Off Court segment on NBA.com.
DeRozan has been groomed for stardom, picked ninth overall in 2009. He is a high-volume scorer that has slowly taken on more and more responsibility within the team’s offence. This has not been handed to him, though, as his turbulent first four seasons demonstrated. All along, he has engaged in a little light torture, as well.
“That’s why I work so hard. It always bugged me going home early — just sitting there, doing nothing,” DeRozan said. “It used to make me so hungry, just watching. I’ve got a lot of friends that play in the playoffs. And I always had to hear them all summer talking about their experiences in the playoffs. It always pushed me even further. I just want to get there.”
In past years, he has forced himself to watch those friends play in May and June.
“I had to, just to understand and see how it was if you’re playing the same team a possible seven times in a row,” DeRozan said. “Just to understand that and see the different schemes out there. I was trying to really get knowledge of how it is played, every single day.”
Members of the DeMar DeRozan Slam Dunk Book Club met their group’s namesake courtside after a 104-98 Raptors win.
The enamored students gave the 6-foot-7 small forward a round of applause — he scored 32 points in his team’s victory — and asked questions about his path to stardom.
The grassroots program, started by former Toronto District School Board trustee Patrick Rutledge, encourages boys to read, while earning a chance to play basketball.