San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich usually shuts down reporters with a shot of disdain when they make the mistake of casting assumptions.
But on this night in a dark hallway outside the visitors locker room at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Popovich nods when the word “introspective” is used to describe guard DeMar DeRozan.
“He is,” Popovich said. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Understanding that provides at least a small glimpse into DeRozan’s mindset as he returns to Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) for the first time since the Raptors sent him, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick to San Antonio in a July trade for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
Forget about revenge; DeRozan already achieved that by overshadowing Leonard’s return to San Antonio in January with his first career triple-double in a 125-107 Spurs win. For DeRozan, the matchup against the Raptors — who drafted him with the ninth pick in 2009 — represents only one of 23 remaining games — or opportunities — to run down what eludes him. The most perplexing part: DeRozan doesn’t even know yet what he’s chasing. All DeRozan knows is that whatever he finds will trump the dogged pursuit of it.
“Nah, I think I’ll be able to give you a better description of whatever that is after the end of the season for sure, to be able to assess everything, where it ends up, and how everything ends to kind of give a clear look,” DeRozan told ESPN. “I don’t want to say one thing, and it be something else.
“For me, it’s been new things I’ve been figuring out with myself, and in the process, getting back to my old self as well. I go back to just taking adversity and everything that comes with it, and not letting it knock you down, but build you up in a certain way you probably never expected. My whole life, every aspect of my life has kind of been learning through taking the most difficult routes, and coming out at the end of it realizing what made you better, and you understand your weaknesses that you had before. So you’ve kind of got to embrace that side of it. In some ways, the best way to learn is to go through your adversity and struggles because you know once you come out on top of it, it’s going to be worth it.”
To be clear, DeRozan’s search within isn’t about the July trade that sent him away from the place he never wanted to leave.
No, DeRozan spent the summer brooding over that.
Then, when the time was right, DeRozan bottled up the emotions, shook them up and splashed them in the face of the Raptors during a demolition of his former squad on a Jan. 3 night on which Leonard was booed off the court. DeRozan poured in 21 points, in addition to 11 assists and 14 rebounds, on the way to notching his first career triple-double, fittingly, against the team that made him feel like, “Damn, I wasn’t nothing?”
But the rest of January was rough for DeRozan. His effective field goal percentage slid to 40.9 while his turnover ratio ballooned to 13.2 percent, by far his worst marks in any month this season. The Spurs went 10-5, but their net rating was three points better with DeRozan on the bench.
So, describing DeRozan’s first 54 Spurs games as a mixed bag isn’t inaccurate. DeRozan also missed five games, including four in January, due to ankle and knee injuries.
“I don’t know, you’ve just got to keep going, man,” DeRozan said. “It’s the first time I really dealt with nicks, and being hurt, and learning. Just so many things and dealing with so many guys injured on your team.
“So it’s been a whole new dynamic for me of understanding like you can’t be lucky your whole career and just be healthy and feel like you’re young every single game. For me, it’s just a new obstacle for me that I just look at it like, take it on the chin and keep pushing.”
DeRozan did just that, and rebounded somewhat in February with better numbers. Still, it’s interesting to note that DeRozan’s worst month of the season came after such a strong showing against his former team.
“It’s different for everyone,” Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge told ESPN. “I think he’s getting it. It just takes time. Him and Pop are working together to make him feel more comfortable, and we tweaked the offense to make sure he’s getting the shots that he likes and the shots he’s the best at.”
DeRozan leads the league with 9.9 midrange jumpers per 100 possessions this season, according to Second Spectrum data. It’s a part of the floor San Antonio’s two best players love: DeRozan and Aldridge rank Nos. 1 and 2 league-wide in midrange attempts. And the Spurs now fire shots from that area more frequently than any other team (26.5 per 100 possessions, up from 23.7 last season).
DeMar DeRozan says “time does heal everything” and he’s moved on before discussing Kyle Lowry’s impact on him ahead of the Spurs’ game in Toronto.
“He’s unselfish, and he wants to get better at it, and I think he’s done that,” Aldridge said. “He’s been playing big-time for us, making plays, scoring, doing a little bit of everything for us. He’s already gotten it.”
Some nights, DeRozan carries the Spurs, destroying opponents with a dizzying array of spins, drives and dishes from the midrange. On other nights, the shots don’t fall, the defense isn’t there and he looks flat-out tired, in need of a break.
“With all the emotions that were going in the beginning, I think he’s played well,” said Rudy Gay, who played with DeRozan in Toronto before they reunited this season in San Antonio. “I think a lot of people don’t really understand how it is to uproot from somewhere you’ve been for nine years. He’s been a killer for us.
“But the thing about him, like with the basketball, the ball might not go in as much as he wants it to. But he’s still the same person. He’s always going to be the same person. That’s the reason that he’s going to be good, and he’s going to be here for a long time is because he really is a character guy. There aren’t a lot of those around.”
What’s also in short supply are people, let alone players, who are so in tune to what’s going on inside them mentally and emotionally.
Told of DeRozan’s search within to find qualities he didn’t know existed, Spurs guard Patty Mills stopped in his tracks.
“That’s a great way to look at it. I believe it, too,” Mills told ESPN. “From day one when he came in for open gym, I’ll never forget the way he asserted himself was he just flung the ball around. And that was a way for him to express that he’s here for a good reason, and he wants to be a part of it. And I think everyone was aware that it wasn’t going to be an overnight thing, a couple weeks, or months thing for us all to get used to each other.
“The way he’s going about it, he’s learning new things and learning new ways. But I think he’s got a great point in understanding he can learn other ways of his game that he didn’t know. That’s scary when you think of all the stuff you can add to what he already has.”
“For me, it’s been new things I’ve been figuring out with myself, and in the process, getting back to my old self as well.”
Popovich certainly sees the effort DeRozan is putting toward the endeavor.
“He’s been very communicative with us, with the coaches,” Popovich said. “[He’s] forthright, he’s smart, he learns. I think probably getting used to his teammates is more of a challenge than the system. When you don’t know your teammates, that takes a long time to figure out how to interact with them while you’re playing in the middle of a situation where people are trying to make you not be successful. He’s done a fine job for this short a time. [He’s the] same guy. He doesn’t get too excited in wins. He doesn’t get down in losses. He’s a pro. And he understands that keeping a pretty level head is important no matter what.”
As the locker room started to clear out in Memphis after San Antonio’s 108-107 win on Feb. 12, discussions of destinations for All-Star break filled the space. One assistant said he was headed to Montreal. Another, Cancun. Gay planned to spend a couple of days in Hawaii. Sitting in one corner of the locker room opposite Aldridge, DeRozan slid on an all-crimson jogging suit with matching boots and a matching Louis Vuitton backpack.
DeRozan’s hometown of Los Angeles was his destination, and decompression was the mission, with San Antonio set to resume its annual rodeo road trip in Toronto coming out of the All-Star break.
Wearing a set of custom headphones decorated with animated images of his daughters, Diar and Mari, on each ear cup, DeRozan stared at two iPhones and smiled at the thought that he’d “get to be a daddy” again for a week in Los Angeles with his girls before heading back to Toronto to face his former team.
DeRozan sees his current undertaking as an evolution advancing in tiny increments in the aftermath of a trade that changed his life. He’s over the shock and anger of the actual trade from Toronto, but now works to navigate the residual effects.
So when DeRozan returns to Toronto, sure, he plans to trash-talk best friend Kyle Lowry, and wants “to turn him into an enemy.”
Other than that, “it’s another road game,” DeRozan said, “no extracurricular type of stuff.”
There will be some extra stuff from the Raptors, who plan to have a video tribute to DeRozan.
“I don’t know how I’m going to react tomorrow to whatever the fans give me because I’m more than appreciative of every single thing,” DeRozan said Thursday. “I watch certain shows and certain introductions for certain people, and when they get that long standing ovation, I always thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I’ve never received one.
“So if it’s one of those long standing ovations, it would definitely be overwhelming. I’ve been trying not to think about it because I’m pretty sure it’s going to be something more than I can expect. I thought I have seen everything being in the league, but I think tomorrow will be something definitely new for me.”
Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who was an assistant during DeRozan’s last five seasons in Toronto, said he expects this return to be more joyous than Leonard’s return to San Antonio.
“He was easy to coach, easy to talk to, and he was a great performer,” Nurse said Thursday. “I can remember telling many people over the last five years that he’s the best dude ever.”
Nurse said he didn’t understand why DeRozan was so upset about going to an organization as successful as San Antonio. But the answer is never as simple as using an organization’s past success to forecast the ease with which a player uproots his life and moves to a completely different environment.
As DeRozan pondered Toronto, he laughed at some of the locker-room ribbing resonating in the background. Aldridge and Gay often tell DeRozan that he’s going to be a Spur for years to come. Gay jokes that DeRozan, 29, is the only young person he knows who hates being young, while Aldridge, 33, warns the new Spur to “dunk it young fella” because in two or three years he’ll start to feel aches and pains he never thought possible.
“L.A. acts like he’s 40 years old and I’m 22. L.A. is quick to say, ‘You’re gonna be here a long time, man. I’ve got a couple more years left in this league,'” DeRozan said. “I’m like, ‘No you don’t. We’re damned near the same age.’ When they say stuff like that, I’m like, ‘Damn, when y’all plan on retiring?'”
Just as fast, the lightheartedness gives way to deep introspection once DeRozan hears the simple question with a complicated answer.
Are you happy?
“Happy, like playing [basketball]?” DeRozan asked. “It’s obviously nothing like the summer when everything transpired [with the trade]. But I think for me it’s just simply been a learning process, you know? Everything is new. This is my first experience with the rodeo trip. It’s like everything is so new. It’s my first time seeing bats in the arena. There’s so many new things.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m down or [I’m] how I was in the summertime. For me, it’s just continuing to feel out everything from the ups and the downs. There are different elements that you’ve got to go through to make you feel more accepted, more appreciated, more of something. Because I was one thing for a long period of time [in Toronto]. It definitely takes time, you know. I’m kind of lucky in a sense. I’ve seen guys get traded, and they don’t know what to expect. Everything just completely changes for them. For me, I had a place I came to where the organization, the city, everybody was excited for me, and brought open arms [for] me with everything on and off the court. Something like that makes the transition a lot easier than going into it blind.”
Yet it still doesn’t ease the difficulty of finding what you know is there, but can’t see.