DeMar DeRozan put pen to paper on his contract extension in the tunnel leading to the Air Canada Centre court moments before his first game last season. The deal was for four years, and it was worth more than $38 million. Observers derided it immediately.
At that point, DeRozan's reputation as a worker couldn't have been better, but his potential outpaced his production. To be worth that amount of money, he needed a better jumper, better handles and a more varied game. The Toronto Raptors were betting on a 23-year-old who showed signs of improvement, but they were bidding against themselves. If they had let the season play out, the worst-case scenario would be another team setting the price higher than that in the summer.
With every inefficient DeRozan outing on a Raptors team mired in mediocrity, his reputation as an overpaid gunner grew alongside his motivation to prove people wrong. When Toronto moved on from the Bryan Colangelo era in the offseason, that contract was seen as one of the many managerial mistakes on his watch. In order to change the story, DeRozan would have to show he could contribute to winning. That's what this season has been about.
"DeMar looks like an All-Star," teammate Terrence Ross said back in the preseason, and now he is.
Averaging 22.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists was enough to earn him a spot as a reserve in the Eastern Conference, but there's no way he'd have made it if not for the Raptors turning things around. Heading into this season, the team was surrounded by uncertainty. New boss Masai Ujiri did not dismantle the roster, but the feeling was that he could do so at any time. When Toronto lost 12 of its first 18 games, Ujiri traded leading-scorer Rudy Gay for four bench players at the end of December. As trade talks involving point guard Kyle Lowry intensified then evaporated, the team went on a tear, reaching .500 with a win over the league's best team on New Year's Day. Part of the reason the Raptors acquired Gay in the first place was to take some pressure off DeRozan, but since the trade the fifth-year swingman has proven capable of being the No. 1 scoring option on the East's third-best team.
Before this year, DeRozan had shown flashes of this. There were games where he got to the rim and the foul line at will, moments where he looked like an All-Star. This is the first season, though, where it has been consistent. When he starts a game slowly, he's almost always locked in at the end. You could look at his true shooting percentage of 52 percent and say that he's not efficient enough to be deserving of a spot in New Orleans, but coaches likely remembered all the defensive attention they had to give him and his ability to pile up points in a hurry.
More on DeRozan
More on DeRozan
The best illustration of DeRozan's All-Star credentials came two days after the announcement on TNT. Heading into the second half in Portland, Toronto trailed the Blazers by 17 points. DeRozan had struggled through the first half, scoring a meager six points on 2-for-8 shooting. Then he erupted and led his team back. He scored 30 points on 12-for-21 shooting and dished 10 assists the rest of the way, playing the entire second half and accounting for more points than the entire Portland team. The Blazers ended up with a three-point win, but they had no answers for DeRozan playing at that level.
"There wasn't a tendency that we could put him on [to stop him]," Portland's Wesley Matthews said, via Blazer's Edge. "We went under the screen and he made a play, we went over the screen and he made a play, we tried to juke around [and] through the screen and he made a play."
DeRozan is only 11 months older than Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard, and his track record suggests his game will keep developing. His selection was met with some criticism, but those cries weren't nearly as loud as the ones that he heard after he signed his contract extension. Going forward there should be more nights like the one in Portland, and like his 40-points-on-22-shots effort against the Mavericks in late January. DeRozan required some patience, but it turns out he was a good guy to bet on.