A night after being ejected against the Chicago Bulls during arguably his worst game of the season DeMar DeRozan was expected to respond against a listless Charlotte Hornets team back home. Decked out in Nostalgic Huskies blue, with new teammate Serge Ibaka watching and the Raptors playing their last game before the All-Star Break, expectations were high for DeRozan and Co.
The company part of the equation showed up. Derozan didn’t.
Still feeling the effects from a poor-shooting night against Jimmy Butler DeRozan went away from his game against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the results were disastrous. He finished the night just 5-19 from the field including three misses from deep and ended the night on the bench with a -14 rating. Everyone is going to have poor shooting nights, and they get exaggerated when they fall on the shoulders of an All-Star, but those shoulders have started to slouch. Instead of using his frustration to fuel him DeRozan seems consumed by it. His already creative game has started to mimic Kobe’s farewell tour. His bad pull-ups and attempts at drawing fouls are mixing in with his questionable fade-aways and lacklustre defense. DeRozan’s game is not meant to be played with frustration, and yet here he is: frustrated.
Make no mistake, this is DeRozan’s team. While him and Kyle Lowry may sure the workload, the responsibilities are different. Lowry isn’t sitting on a five year, $139 million deal. The two of them may be driving in the same car, but the damage waiver went under DeRozan’s name. That responsibility can be daunting, and frustrating in itself. Perhaps that’s why he mimicked Lowry’s sentiments about needing change, and whether his comments were influential or not, change came his way in the form of Ibaka. DeRozan may have felt a sense of relief when Ibaka landed in Toronto but his responsibility doesn’t change and the pressure doesn’t shift.
That’s what makes these last two game so troubling, and the All-Star break so important. There are few teams in the league that sit their highest paid player on a brand new contract who is completely healthy for the entire fourth quarter in an important game. There are even fewer teams that get the win. Yet that’s where the Raptors found themselves after the unlikely tandem of Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright injected an energy that had been missing for weeks into this Raptors team and carried them to a victory in a fourth quarter for the ages. The lasting image should be Wright’s goofy smile taking center stage among a cast of excited teammates in the locker room. Instead, it’s DeRozan looking on from the bench as his, yes his team won without him.
He said all the right things in the locker room, praising his team for their effort, the different looks they gave the Hornets and of course, Wright’s play:
“for him to go out and handle the ball for the majority of the fourth quarter, that’s big, I’m happy for him,….especially for me I’ve been knowing him since he was a kid, since he was a baby, so you know it’s cool to actually see it”
And he still found time to joke with Lowry about the upcoming All-Star game after some instigating by the point guard: “I hope you ain’t in the game cuz I ain’t passing you the ball”
His handling of the media has grown as much as his game and he has all the tools to be the true leader of a team in desperate need of one. He is having a career best year, and doing it like no one else. He takes pride in his footwork, long jumpers, and ability to get to the basket. He knows the three is taking over the NBA and yet he’s averaging a career-high 27.3 points while taking less shots from beyond the arc than he did a season ago. His confidence in himself is unwavering, but his confidence in his team needs to be equally high, because at this point they’re one in the same.