TORONTO - 12 months ago DeMar DeRozan carried the weight of an expiring contract into training camp as he prepped for his fourth NBA season with the Raptors.
In many ways he was a different person with different responsibilities, different motivations. He had a lot to prove but he wasn't fully ready to prove it, not like he is now. He was still a young man.
A year later, DeRozan finds himself in a similar setting - looking to end the Raptors' playoff drought and reach the postseason for the first time in his professional career - but as training camp winds down and the regular season approaches, he appears to be a noticeably changed man. Now, he's a young adult.
Fresh off the most eventful year of his life, the 24-year-old says he feels a lot older than his age suggests. The day after opening night will mark the one-year anniversary since DeRozan signed a $38 million extension keeping him in Toronto through the 2016-17 season. Since inking his new contact he put up career numbers playing in all 82 games last year, he participated in Team USA's minicamp this summer and more personally, he became a father. As he notes, he has grown up off the court just as much as he has on it.
"I see a lot of film and a lot of pictures from my rookie year, my second year, my third year," DeRozan said in an interview with TSN.ca after a weekend practice in the Raptors' gym. "You [can] just see how much I've grown personality-wise [and] as a basketball player, especially now as a father, having a daughter and having [those] responsibilities to take care of. So it's definitely [been] a major growth year."
On May 12, DeRozan and his fiancee, Kiara, became first-time parents to daughter Diar; a day that forever changed his life, a day that's largely responsible for his transformation.
"I can't even tell you in words, to explain it," he said, struggling to articulate how he felt in that moment. "It just put life all together for me and helped me understand the important things in life. It's definitely big, it means the world to me and there's not a word I can find to sum up the feeling."
"It changes you most definitely for the better, it helps you become more of a man."
Entering his fifth season, DeRozan's growth has not gone unnoticed in training camp. As his coach and teammates have pointed out, that sense of responsibility and maturity has transcended his personal life and carried over on the basketball court where he seems poised to take his game to the next level.
"He's growing up," Rudy Gay has noticed of DeRozan. "He's a father now, he has a family he has to provide for. It's the little things, not little things to him, but those little things on the outside make him seem more grown up, and he is. He's spending more time in the gym, other than being with his kid. He's really hungry and everybody around here sees it."
"DeMar has grown," coach Dwane Casey echoed. "He's grown as a person, as a young man, as an NBA player. He's doing things now just instinctively where my first year, two years ago it was more teaching and talking to him about those situations where now they're natural. So that's a sign of growth, that's a sign of maturity and he has really, really grown as a basketball player and most of all as a young man, which is great to see."
Praised repeatedly throughout his time in Toronto for his unrelenting work ethic, DeRozan continued to refine his game this summer. When he wasn't changing diapers you could find him in the gym hoisting three-pointers - he would shoot until he made at least 300 per session - or perfecting an array of post moves he has displayed to perfection in the preseason.
The fruits of his labour, for now, have resulted in a number of dominant moments during the exhibition season. Building off of last year's improvement in the post, DeRozan has impressed with his footwork and creativity around the basket, getting to the rim and to the line with ease. He has handled the ball with confidence, passed out of double teams and shown improvement on defence.
"It's beautiful because he is such a wonderful young man," Casey said of DeRozan's evolution on the court. "He's paid his dues, he's paid the price, he's put [in] his time in the gym. He's done it himself. Every phase of the game he's worked on in the summer."
To take the next step as an NBA player, DeRozan knows he has to put everything he's worked on together, staying consistent and efficient on both ends.
While many professional athletes are motivated by money and the prospect of making more of it - something he already has covered, at least for the next four seasons - DeRozan is fuelled by his appetite to win and the fact that through four NBA seasons, he hasn't tasted much success.
"[Making the playoffs] would completely mean everything," said DeRozan, now the longest tenured Raptors player (he and Amir Johnson are both entering their fifth year with the team). "That's my biggest goal, just get us back there and get us back to winning and just get that joyful feeling again from the fans."
Losing hasn't been easy on DeRozan, a born competitor, and he's done a lot of it since the Raptors selected him out of USC with the ninth pick in the 2009 draft. The team narrowly missed the postseason in DeRozan's rookie season, going 40-42 before Chris Bosh bolted to Miami. Over the next three years Toronto had a combined record of 79-151. It hasn't been easy but it's been a learning experience for DeRozan, an experience that's allowed him to play through mistakes and another contributing factor to the growth process.
"When you go through rough times it helps you grow that much more and understand what you have to do to get better and help your team get better," he reflected. "Going through four tough years really helped me grow in every aspect. [I'm] more of a leader, more of a man, more of an athlete."
Leadership has been the biggest adjustment for DeRozan. A self-proclaimed recluse, he is reserved and mild mannered as a person but, with time, is becoming a more vocal player.
"He's still young," Gay pointed out. "I don't think people realize how young he is. You can't really expect him to know all the things there is. He's played a lot of basketball but it's a different kind of feel when you're playing winning basketball, and [it's] not his fault at all, but now we have a team that can win and I think that everybody that's here that has won he's listening to and he's figuring out how to do it himself."
"Everybody goes through it, I've been through it so I can relate to him a lot," Gay continued, having also missed the playoffs in his first four seasons before reaching the postseason with Memphis in his fifth year. "Yeah, I can see he's hungry, he's talked about it a lot during the summer with me and I think we all are."
DeRozan has experienced more in the last 12 months than most do in a single year. He's come a long way since being drafted as a 19-year-old and playing his first game a couple months after his 20th birthday. He's gone through things, both good and bad, that have forced him to mature faster than most people his age. Sometimes it's easy to forget that he's only and just barely-turned 24.
"That's the thing about the NBA, you want players to dominate right now but when guys are young coming into the league it's virtually [impossible]," Casey said. "I haven't seen it happen yet and I've been in [the league] now 21, 22 years. Any time a player comes in there is a growth process and you want it to happen yesterday but it takes time."
"DeMar is right on schedule. It's time for him to do that, to grow and to be the player he was drafted to be. In some players the light doesn't come on and you'll know that after the four-year period, or five-year period, but with him the light is on and there's someone in the house and he's ready to roll. Now's the time for him."