This may not be the year DeMar DeRozan wins the MVP award, but he’s in the discussion.
On Saturday, the Toronto Raptors matched up with the basketball colossus that is the Golden State Warriors, getting trounced in the first half and giving up 81 points to the defending world champions. Through it all, DeRozan maintained a level of poise and aggressiveness that has become commonplace this season, scoring 25 points and dishing his teammates the ball when open looks were available.
Then, the second half.
Toronto came out of the locker room rejuvenated and confident, delivering a response that saw them force their way back into the game via multiple runs which, despite the Warriors’ answers, simply continued to come. This was the Raptors team fans were used to seeing, resilient and gritty, digging their heels into the hardwood, each player wearing a look that said, “Okay, you wanna play like that? Let’s play like that.”
In a back-and-forth thriller that ultimately ended in heartbreak for Toronto, DeRozan was magnificent. He scored six points in the final three minutes, and barely missed a go-ahead bucket over the Stretch Armstrong-length of Kevin Durant. He finished with 42 points, showing the world yet again how much he’s improved and effectively stirring up more buzz about his MVP candidacy, which until recently has been all but laughed off by most NBA pundits.
DeRozan’s season-long surge has resulted in the rise of another conversation, however—one that is probably only of interest to Raptors fans, and yet one that’s been as divisive as the MVP race itself: Where does DeRozan rank within the hierarchy of Raptors greats?
When trying to determine DeRozan’s place in all this, there are an abundance of qualities and accomplishments—both on the floor and off—that, when investigated thoroughly, begin to carve out a pretty clear spot upon the Raptors’ Mount Rushmore.
Perhaps his work ethic, easily DeRozan’s most lauded trait, is a good place to start.
Ever since DeRozan was young, he’s been a worker. On a podcast with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, DeRozan recalled his 19 years in Compton and how, because of them, he can now get through anything, saying: “You gotta go through it to get to it.”
A perfect mantra for how DeRozan’s reached the heights he’s reached. And now, that same mantra flawlessly encapsulates his basketball work ethic as well.
“DeMar’s ability to polish his footwork, to get to the spots he wants to get to, his touch and ability to extend it out to the three-point line … they’re all manifestations of his talent,” the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur told Raptors Republic. “His real talent is the ability to develop those things with a high work rate, and a persistence that doesn’t quit.”
“This is a man who woke up at 4:15 am in the offseason to work on his game, which explains why he improves every year,” said William Lou of The Score. “He’s already come so far, with All-Stars, All-NBA, a maximum contract, and an Olympic Gold Medal on his resume, but he still keeps working like he’s on a 10-day contract. That’s greatness, and it sets the tone for the whole franchise.”
As a result of DeRozan’s rhythmic, non-stop work ethic, he enters each new season with an improved skill, adding to his arsenal like clockwork every year and continuing to grow his game to unprecedented heights. This season it has all meshed together in a brilliant display of cohesion, allowing DeRozan to play the game under control, with the mere threat of his abilities forcing opponents to constantly stay on their toes.
“He [DeRozan] knew there was work to be done in order to get the most out of his athletic gifts and he has never shied away from putting in the time to get better,” commented Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun. “You’d think it would be obvious, but the list of NBA players who come back with something else in their arsenal every single year is a short one. DeRozan is always amongst that group.”
Both of these things, DeRozan’s work ethic and his eviternally-evolving game, are evidence of his desire to be great. His mentality isn’t just to be recognized as a great Raptor, but to be recognized as a great player amongst his peers. Succeeding in such a task would mean that the label of “great Raptor” would come with the territory.
As Chris Walder of The Score succinctly put it: “What makes DeRozan great is that he wants to be better than great, and is willing to put in the work to have his name mentioned among the best the league has to offer.”
But this doesn’t mean DeRozan doesn’t understand the responsibility he has to the Raptors, nor does it mean that he doesn’t want that responsibility. And this is where the main difference lies between him and another Raptors great—Vince Carter.
There are a bunch of things that separate Carter and DeRozan as players, but both have provided the Raptors with success (albeit DeRozan more so). Carter was an instant star with generational talent, and put Toronto on the basketball radar, but wound up becoming unhappy with the team and forcing his way out in a messy breakup that left the Raps in shambles for years to come. Part of the reason he may have left is that he never seemed interested in assuming the responsibilities that come with being the best player on the team.
In Toronto Star journalist Doug Smith’s recent piece about DeRozan’s case for being the greatest Raptor, he wrote that “Carter could be standoffish when he was making the Raptors globally relevant. Oh, he talked to the media every day — shootaround, pre-game, post-game, after practice without fail — but there was a sense he didn’t really like it.”
Whereas DeRozan admits to at one point thinking he would maybe ask for a trade, he never actually wanted to leave. He felt cornered and stuck—asking for a trade doesn’t necessarily correspond to no longer having a love for the city or a desire to win there. Carter, on the other hand, simply wanted out. When comparing the two, it’s often the tipping point in the conversation.
“If you measure the entire package,” said Wolstat, “you need to factor in DeRozan’s dedication the team, city and country. Other than when things looked bleak and Lowry was nearly dealt, he has always been laser focussed on taking the team to great heights. He didn’t even think about leaving when he was a free agent. That all counts.”
That last remark was DeRozan’s exclamation point, something fans never saw from Carter. Back in 2016, when DeRozan was a free agent, he chose not to meet with any other teams before signing a fresh, four-year contract with the Raptors. It was a testament to his dedication to the team, written in ink.
All of this thus far has primarily been about DeRozan’s off-court qualities that affect his on-court performance—qualities that, hopefully by now, any fan can respect enough to put him at or near the top of the Raptors pantheon. But when you delve into the on-court stuff, DeRozan fares pretty well there, too.
He is beginning to pile up Raptors records left and right, becoming a name synonymous with statistical dominance in Toronto lore. No Raptor in history has played more games or minutes, or scored more points—both in a single game and overall—than DeRozan. He’s also made the most field goals—as well as attempted the most—and done the same thing with free throws. And as for winning, well, there’s no topping him there. Toronto has won three playoff series with him as the focal point, including reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016. The last two seasons, the club has won 50+ games, something never before done in franchise history. This is the most successful era of Raptors basketball ever, and it’s largely thanks to the Compton native.
“Respect to Vince Carter for being a legend and for establishing the franchise in its infancy, but DeRozan has carried the team to greater heights and given it a legitimacy that Vince never did,” said Lou. “DeRozan made the Raptors respectable, Vince made the Raptors watchable.”
Toronto is sitting at 29–12 after their tough loss at the hands of Golden State. They’re on track to potentially have their most successful season ever, despite playing a bunch of young bucks who no one saw being this good. DeRozan, along with Lowry, has led the way, continuing to pave his legacy in a career that’s not even remotely close to a conclusion.
This may not be the year DeRozan wins the MVP award, but he’s in the discussion.
And when you’re talking about the greatest Raptor of all-time? He’s not just in the discussion.
He is the discussion.