When DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis arrived in Toronto they were assured of only one thing: minutes.
The club made valuable investments in both with lottery draft picks (nine and thirteen, respectively) and was determined to accelerate their NBA development by giving them as many minutes as they were going to need to become valuable contributors to the team as they matured.
To date, though, neither one has made a real impact on the NBA landscape. Both have some professional-level skills - especially Ed Davis' rebounding - but neither one has done much to effectively round out their games, especially when one considers how indulgent the team has been with them in terms of on-court opportunities. DeRozan has been a starter since he first arrived in Toronto and you hear the same criticisms of him three years into his career that you heard heading into his first training camp. For a Raptors club that is looking to take a big step forward this season, both players are in danger of being left behind unless they themselves take big steps forward, too.
In a way, both are facing the prospect of a kind of second rookie season. When each hit the NBA they were held to a different standard than their teammates were. They were young, their mistakes were forgiven, they were handed minutes on a platter as a way of testing their mettle, and they were often spoken of as assets for the future rather than as players in the here and now. They didn't have to perform at an exceptionally high level, they just had to hold the promise that someday they could.
This season, however, they get to experience what life is like for normal NBA players. If they don't perform, they will be replaced. Terrence Ross, Landry Fields and Alan Anderson would love to eat into DeRozan's minutes, and with Andrea Bargnani, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy taking up space in the frontcourt, Ed Davis is going to have to fight his way onto the court each and every night. This is new, uncharted territory for both players. The coaching staff is going to lay out specific expectations for them in training camp, and if they can't live up to those expectations then the coaches are going to find someone else who can. That's how it is for 90 per cent of the NBA workforce, and it's how it's going to be for DeRozan and Davis this season.
Looking at it from a different perspective, though, this might be exactly what both players need to take the next step in their careers. Both have been fine, if unexceptional, thus far, and maybe what they need is a serious threat of diminishing playing time to kick-start their development. After all, how much pressure are you going to put on yourself to meaningfully improve when you are going to get minutes no matter how you play? If you're DeRozan, and you see your shooting percentage drop each year you've been in the NBA and yet with each season you get more shots to work with, how concerned are you going to be about that plummeting percentage? Well, if he's got a better shooter breathing down his neck that should concern him plenty, and we'll see if that kind of internal competition is what it takes to get these guys to the next level.
As of today here is what we know about their situations:
- DeRozan will start at shooting guard on opening night, but Ross is going to be breathing down his neck for minutes if he can hit threes and defend - both areas of weakness for DeRozan. As the rotation takes shape and Dwane Casey gets a sense of what he has and what he needs out of his players, DeRozan needs to show far more refinement then he showed last season because if the team is going to be forced to play a wing player based on potential, you gotta figure that Ross will be the beneficiary of that PT. DeRozan needs to show that he can create offense more efficiently and, if he's not going to hit threes, he's got to get to the free throw line at an elite level - up to 8-to-10 times per game. Sounds audacious, but if he can't do those things what exactly would the Raptors be playing him for?
- Ed Davis is going to be battling for frontcourt minutes from Day One against Amir Johnson and Aaron Gray. Bargnani is assured of roughly 35 minutes per game and the club is heavily invested in the future of Valanciunas so you can pencil him in for at least 20. Casey is going to look to surround those two with the most effective complimentary pieces that he has, and if we go by last year's returns, Johnson and Gray are both out in front of Davis right now. Should Casey get comfortable with Linas Kleiza as a small-ball power forward you may as well reserve Davis spot at the end of the bench. For Davis to carve out a niche for himself he's going to have to learn to hold his position in the post and hit that little midrange jumper he's supposedly worked all summer on.
With training camp set to open next week, all eyes will be on these two to see how they fare under an entirely new set of pressures and expectations. The one thing that they've come to rely on in their careers - a steady stream of minutes - is now no longer guaranteed. They are now at the mercy of their own ability to improve and if they are going to secure a prominent place in Toronto's rotation this year they are going to have to bring more to the table than they have in their careers to date. The team is improving fast around them, and they have to either run to catch up or get left behind.