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Lewenberg: Raptors' DeRozan embraces All-Star opportunity

Josh Lewenberg

2/14/2014 8:13:40 PM

NEW ORLEANS - When DeMar DeRozan found out he had made his first NBA All-Star Game two weeks ago, receiving the news on the team plane upon landing in Denver, he wasn't surprised but instead described the feeling as a surreal one.

Now - 48 hours before the main event - the Raptors' leading scorer is soaking it all in, still a little starry-eyed, mindful of how far he has come and what it's taken to get him to this point.

"It's starting to become real now," he told TSN.ca Friday afternoon, as the All-Star participants gathered in the cavernous ballroom of a New Orleans hotel for their annual media day circus. 

"I think when I really go out there, put the jersey on and head to the arena Sunday evening [it will really hit me]."

The 24-year-old DeRozan does not have to look very far to find mementos of his NBA journey, the closest one will be sitting adjacent to him on the Eastern Conference team's bench when the game tips off on Sunday.

Heat forward and fellow All-Star reserve Chris Bosh was one of the first to pull DeRozan aside upon arrival in New Orleans this weekend. Bosh - the Raptors' last representative in the All-Star Game, four years ago - left for Miami following DeRozan's rookie season. He, as much as anyone, can attest to DeRozan's growth as a player and the message he had for his former teammate was just that.

"I'm proud of you," he told the Raptors' guard.

"It means a lot," DeRozan said of Bosh's kind words. "We were just laughing because I remember being the only rookie, 19-years-old on the Raptors, him being a star and seeing all the things he was going through when he was [in Toronto] and how he had to carry the team on his back."

"After he left I had to step up and learn. It's just crazy, we were laughing at how fast time flies. It seems like yesterday I was that rookie who wouldn't shoot the ball and passed it to Chris every time."

There was pressure on DeRozan to contribute right out of the gate, starting 65 games - most of them alongside Bosh - as a rookie in Toronto. He was, to his own admission, a deer in the NBA headlights. He attempted fewer than seven shots per game - which more than doubled in his second year, without Bosh in the lineup - yet averaged less than an assist in over 21 minutes a night.

At the time, becoming an All-Star was not even on his radar, his focus was self-preservation and proving his worth as an NBA player.

"You're always stuck in the moment," he remembered. "You stay on course with your everyday tasks and you work towards something like this, you just work every single day. I knew if I just stay consistent, stay focused and didn't get down on myself too much I knew I had a chance."

Five seasons later - one year removed from signing a long-term contract extension - his work ethic has not wavered, if anything it's gotten stronger, more relentless.

"I'm proud of DeMar," said Terrence Ross, who has become a protégé of DeRozan's. "He's put in so much work. To see him here is like, man, I wish we could give him more for all he's done. I'm just happy he's here getting a chance to prove to the world what he can do."

Now that he's here, now that he's come this far he knows not to take it for granted. DeRozan - who is tied for fourth in the league in minutes played, also nursing an ankle injury - could have used the time off but you'll never get him to admit it. He's honoured to be representing the third-place, division-leading Raptors on the world stage.

He was caught off guard when his agent called to deliver the league's invitation to participate in Saturday's Skills Challenge, an event usually reserved for point guards, one that's out of his comfort zone. Originally he declined but it didn't take much prodding to convince him to change his mind.

"Everybody doesn't get a chance to be a part of All-Star Weekend," he said when he was announced as a participant last week. "The big thing for me is to go out there and have fun. I think it will be cool to go out there and represent my team as much as I can and you never know, I might mess around and win it."

DeRozan's attitude is a refreshing change of pace from many of today's star players who decline invitations to participate in All-Star Saturday Night each year to preserve their energy, prevent injury or simply because they feel like they've graduated from it.

Sure, LeBron still won't dunk but perhaps times are changing after all. For the first time since 1988 three All-Stars will compete in the Slam Dunk contest, one of them, Damian Lillard will participate in all five major events this weekend. His rationale is on par with DeRozan's.

"I'm happy I'm really a part of the weekend," said Lillard, another first-time All-Star. "I've gotten great reception from the fans. Fans are excited about having someone who is participating in the All-Star Game being in all the events."

DeRozan is considered a long shot to defeat Lillard, the reigning champion, in Saturday's Skills Challenge but he's not putting too much pressure on himself. For him, the weekend is all about embracing a new opportunity, his first real All-Star opportunity.