How an early experience with fame helped shape DeMar DeRozan’s grinding work ethic

DeMar DeRozan was exposed to the lush life well before he ever became a Toronto Raptor or made his first million. As a teenager on an AAU team sponsored by hip-hop mogul Percy "Master P" Miller, DeRozan fostered a still-close relationship with Miller's son, rapper/actor Romeo, and would spend weekends at the Miller home, surrounded by a level of opulence that belied his modest existence back home in Compton, Calif.

Visits to shopping malls with Romeo usually ended with a swarm of fans trailing them every step of the way. DeRozan got to sit in on video and movie shoots. He learned about the work required to earn and maintain celebrity – and decided that the chase for fame would never outpace the drive to succeed.

DeMar DeRozan's game has seemingly grown each season. (AP)
DeMar DeRozan's game has seemingly grown each season. (AP)

“I got to see both worlds. You see that lifestyle early on and you realize, ‘This is what it is?’ ” DeRozan told Yahoo Sports. “I already had my mindset when I had nothing. It’s cool to have all that, but it’s all about the work and the grind to get to that.”

DeRozan describes his lifestyle off the court as "stagnant" because he craves quiet more than attention. Time not spent playing basketball or working on his game likely involves watching basketball or cartoons with his daughter Diar. “It’s not what some people expect. They look at you, like, ‘You’re in the league. You’ve got all this. You’re supposed to do this. You’re supposed to do that,' ” DeRozan told Yahoo. “Keep it simple, nothing special. I’m just content with doing that. You know, the little things matter.”

Toronto is the NBA's fourth-largest market but playing in Canada has always meant dealing with a certain amount of obscurity that suits DeRozan just fine. The Raptors have been his only team in seven seasons, and DeRozan would like that to remain the case after he opts out of the final year of his four-year, $40 million contract and becomes a free agent this summer. Based on his All-Star caliber play through the first few months of this season, DeRozan will have no shortage of suitors, but Toronto can pay more than any other team – and DeRozan has taken to the place.

“Toronto is all I’ve known, honestly. I came in, 19, everything was completely new for me. I appreciated the support, the love,” DeRozan, 26, told Yahoo. “I treated it like home since then.”

Either from mismanagement or sustained misery, the Raptors have historically watched their best players bolt at the first opportunity. Damon Stoudamire and Tracy McGrady fled to play close to their respective home towns as free agents; Vince Carter, after years of injury and frustration over criticism for being hurt, forced his way onto the New Jersey Nets; and Chris Bosh went to Miami to form a super team.

DeRozan was a rookie during Bosh's final season in Toronto in 2009-10 and observed closely how he departed, disappointed by a tenure that never yielded any postseason success. The other defections are part of Raptors lore that is inescapable for their longest-tenured player.

Percy 'Master P' Miller in 2015. (AP)
Percy 'Master P' Miller in 2015. (AP)

“One thing I never did was look at anybody else, what they did or what they followed, honestly,” DeRozan told Yahoo. “I always stuck to what I believe in and what I’m comfortable with. If I see a hundred people walking left, that don’t necessarily mean I’m going to walk left. I may see this clear path and want to stay right.”

DeRozan has an advantage over his ship-jumping predecessors because the Raptors have never appeared more stable. They have one of the league's most well-regarded general managers in Masai Ujiri and a coach in Dwane Casey who has led the team to a franchise-record number of wins in each of the past two seasons. And DeRozan also has an all-star backcourt mate in Kyle Lowry, a good friend with whom he has formed an uncanny connection on the floor.

“My whole goal was to get us out of that light and become a winning team, a winning organization. From going to winning 20-someting games, to winning our division, franchise-record wins, that’s something you can definitely be happy for,” DeRozan told Yahoo. “It’s amazing to see how far it came. I remember [Toronto] being just a hockey town.”

Having already outperformed the extension he received after his rookie deal expired, DeRozan cracked a smile when reminded of the criticism he received at the time. DeRozan made the All-Star team in the first year that his deal kicked in, quickly going from risky signing to underpaid bargain. “I just remember all the negativity and whatever came with it, then all a sudden, it’s like, ‘Aw, you should’ve waited,’ ” DeRozan told Yahoo. “Honestly, I could’ve signed for $500 million at that point, I still would’ve have had that hunger to want to get better and try to improve, and I feel I have to prove so much.”

After missing a career-high 22 games last season with a groin injury and later allowing the Raptors to again go out meekly in the first round of the playoffs, DeRozan has rebounded with more inspired and efficient play. Averaging career highs in scoring and assists, DeRozan is the rare player who has removed most of the flash from his game while still providing some Vine-worthy fireworks – his driving dunk over Utah's Rudy Gobert remains arguably the best posterization of the season.

Kyle Lowry (L) and DeMar DeRozan could be All-Stars this season. (AP)
Kyle Lowry (L) and DeMar DeRozan could be All-Stars this season. (AP)

Though he has focused more on driving to the basket, drawing fouls and sharpening his midrange game, DeRozan doesn't consider his style of play as a rebellion against the current 3-point shooting revolution. DeRozan, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis are the only players ranked in the top 20 in scoring with fewer than two 3-point attempts per game. The aggressive, slashing approach, DeRozan said, is a necessary weapon to assist in creating space for his teammates to get open looks from long distance.

“It’s easy to settle for four, five, six threes a game. I always keep in my mind that’s four, five or six times I could’ve got free throws, I could’ve got fouled or I could’ve got an easier shot,” DeRozan told Yahoo. “I’m not discrediting the 3-pointer at all. I know I can shoot it, I just don’t.”

With the All-Star game in Toronto for the first time, DeRozan hopes that he and Lowry represent the Raptors. Should he join Carter and Bosh as the franchise's only players to make multiple All-Star appearances, DeRozan still plans to stay low-key and heed the advice Master P gave him before basketball changed his fortunes.

“Never get caught up in the lifestyle, because you can have it all one day and lose it the next. He really taught me that early on. So I think it, it helped me now, because no matter what I get, or how much I have now, I still remember what it feels like to have nothing,” DeRozan told Yahoo. “I try to get better every single year, to where people do realize, every single year, I got better. You can never deny that. I’m going to stick to that, until I’ll be one of those old guys out there and the young guys are running past me. Until that day comes, I’m going to have that mindset.”

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