The Gifted One
A Q + A with DeMar DeRozan.
Compton. Homicide rate eight times higher than the national average. A couple bright spots on the surface—Douglas Dollarhide and Doris A. Davis. Too many ached craters of bad. The affluent fled. The tax base deteriorated. The crack boom made it worse. Corruption. Murder. Crime. Poverty. Fences, not the wrought iron kind—the chain link with the barbs at the top.
What does that have to do with DeMar DeRozan? To understand the man you have to understand the surroundings. Compton, for all its adversity and social decay, produces basketball players in droves. Dennis Johnson, Tayshaun Prince, Tyson Chandler, Brandon Jennings… DeMar DeRozan.
DeMar is an example of Compton exposure in life. His physical stature is of a grown ass man. His calves enlist fast twitch muscles and tangled strands of sinew to explode him into the air. The right arm doesn’t lean back—it yanks aft violently, you watch with lungs empty, throat gulping and eyes peeled for the finish. A blink of an eye, his upper right appendage slams forward like the hammer of a Smith & Wesson. The ball gores the rim, friction singes the net. Two points, one blink, endless jaws dropped in the stand and little energy expended.
A timeline for your patience. Game 1. Opponent: UC Irvine. 14 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals. He gets by on pure athleticism, looks a bit nervous in the offense. Game 3. Seton Hall. Three points, 3 rebounds, 2 turnovers. He looks lost, his confidence seems shaken. Voices on radio waves and the boob tube spout off “bust,” and declare his basketball IQ limited. Draft stock plummets. November wasn’t kind to him. Here comes December. All games in double figures in points. Team gets wins, he looks smoother in the offensive sets, but there’s still that one-point loss to Oklahoma. He gets 10 points, but only on 5-13 shooting. The criticism continues. His head is tilted down in a criticism-laden stupor.
Fast forward, January on deck. DeMar just spent 35 minutes dismantling Arizona State’s defense. He goes 8-13 for 22 points and 8 boards. Arizona State’s lottery lock James Harden is limited to 4 points on 0-8 shooting. Statement win for the team. DeMar gets some muffled compliments, a few highlights on the sports recap shows. He hits stride, and for the remainder of the season, plays like a seasoned vet, curling off picks, fighting for boards. He is told he played a good season, but not up to expectations. For a split second at a postgame press conference, one senses a hint of resentment. Coach defends him; teammates mention he purposely tried to be a team player. He was deemed too unselfish during the regular season.
Pac-10 tournament. Shit is real son, DeMar calls for the ball, owns the glass, makes the jumpers. 17 and 11, 21 and 13, 25 and 3. All against NCAA Tournament teams (Cal, UCLA, Arizona State, respectively). He is given the Pac-10 tournament Most Outstanding Player. The bandwagon is loaded now, fans are on their feet and the media begins their recant of previous criticism, renewed with “one and done” gushing.
“The Big Dance.” In a win over Boston College he plays like a top-5 pick with 18 points 9 boards 3 assists. In a CLOSE loss over NCAA Runner-Up Michigan State he plays like a top-5 pick once more with 18 points 5 boards 2 assists. The consensus is emphatic as “Down Goes Frazier” when it was boomed through the tubes—Young buck was going pro, and not even his early season slump could stop a Lottery selection. GMs place him anywhere from a top 5 at best to a top 13 at the extreme worst.
DeMar had a lot of thinking to do. Coach Floyd at a team banquet begged his players, including DeMar to come back and play for a national championship. The next day, Floyd hits a flight to Arizona to discuss the ‘Zona gig. April Fools? Yes and no. Whether or not that situation became a part of his decision, DeMar put his name into the Draft. In a year he’s gone from pariah to King Geedorah.
Anyway, after “The Blessed 1″ declared for the lottery, SLAM took a seat with DeMar to discuss the events and the future. Here it is.
SLAM: You just finished your freshman year at USC, how do you feel you fared this season?
DeMar DeRozan: Uh, you know. You could tell with my growth over my freshman year how much I learned and how much I really used that to my advantage and everything. I mean, I started off slow, but I really hit stride in the middle of the season and never looked back.
SLAM: Some analysts had stated that the reason you started off slow was because the USC system doesn’t fit your skill set as well as a run-n-gun offense. Do you feel that’s correct, and if so do you feel that being in the USC offense has further prepared you for the NBA?
DD: I think so very much. I do think it prepared me better for the NBA. Tim Floyd was an NBA coach before, so he knows how the League is played… And I had to really learn how to play in the half court game, and I think that’s something that really prepared me for the next level. In high school I was able to just play transition game at Compton and in AAU, I think that USC really made me a more versatile player.
SLAM: You really seemed to have improved your midrange game over the season. Is that something Tim wanted you to focus on or did you always have that but didn’t necessarily have the system at Compton to showcase it?
DD: You know, there’s been a lot of stuff that I’ve been trying to work on to improve my game—just by watching film and watching opponents; how they play in college, you gotta be able to put the ball on the floor, pull up for the jumper, curl and flare off screens and hit the cutter in the offense. So what I try to do is use a lot of the stuff that I see in film and focus on what defenders don’t see a lot of and what they’re not very good at defending and use those specific items to my advantage, like my midrange game.
SLAM: Were you happy that your Trojan team accomplished this year what OJ’s team couldn’t last year: winning a Tournament game?
DD: You know I’m proud about that, but just like when OJ was there, he used it as a building block and each year you could tell the players and the program was rising from each player that came in and they all made a push for a certain goal, and I’m just happy that my goal and what I pushed for was to win the Pac-10 title, which we did and win an NCAA Tournament game, which we did.
SLAM: And how do you feel about becoming the Pac-10 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player?
DD: Oh it feels good, you know for the past couple years I’ve been watching the Tournament and got a chance to see it, and you know just to be a part of something, and play well… Becoming the MVP of the Pac-10 tournament feels great.
SLAM: Some of your best games were against Arizona State and UCLA; both teams have many Los Angeles area players. Did you play well because you know your opponents more, to prove yourself as the best L.A.-based player, or was it something else?
DD: I think when it comes down to that, it’s just everybody playing up to their competition. Arizona State and UCLA were two of the more talented teams in the Pac-10, and I just think I play better against stiffer competition. Everybody just plays hard. When you have a challenge in your way, you just gotta lace ‘em up and go hard. So that, more than anything is what it came down to.
SLAM: In the NCAA Tournament, it’s a much-ballyhooed line that the competition steps up another level, and that you need to turn it up another gear. Did you find that to be true?
DD: Definitely, without question. Because, think about it—you’re playing against teams you’ve never played before, you play against different conferences, difference styles of play, different players entirely. I mean when you play a team on the west coast, they have a certain way of playing, but when you play a team on the east coast it’s going to be entirely different. It’s going to be a different game and you have to step your game up and get your team motivated to do the same.
SLAM: Alright, let’s rewind a bit. Earlier in the year, you started out a little slow. But in the Arizona State game in January, you came into your own. What changes, if any did you make to your preparation?
DD: Actually, it wasn’t like that really. I just found my comfort level to the point where I felt I was starting to get everything, the offense, the defensive rotations, all that. After some games I just got comfortable and started playing my game.
SLAM: Alright. You, Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson are all testing the waters in this year’s draft. I know Daniel signed with an agent, you’ve said you’re 50/50… Do you think it’s a good thing for the program that three players are leaving early for the NBA and that potentially all three could be in the League next season?
DD: I think it’s something that is good for the Trojans because top recruits can see that we churn out NBA talent consistently now. Last year was OJ Mayo, and the year before that with Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt coming out, it just shows you how talented the players are that go to USC and how much preparation they get from Tim Floyd for the League. I think it’s good for the university, the team and anybody that decides to play for the Trojans.
SLAM: Kind of going in with recruiting and Coach Floyd more specifically, I had heard that when he was thinking about Arizona at first, you thought it was an April Fools joke. Can you go into that a little more?
DD: Oh yeah, I thought it was an April Fools joke because we had just had our banquet the night before and he was getting us motivated and asking us to come back to compete for a national championship and the next day we see it on ESPN that he was meeting with Arizona… It happened to be April 1, so our first thought was April Fools, because you know the USC Football coach always does those really elaborate April Fools jokes, so that’s what we thought. We looked at it as a little joke.
SLAM: It’s not a big secret that part of the reason that you declared for the NBA Draft was to take care of your family. Your mother has lupus; that brings expensive medical bills, obviously. How much of a factor was that?
DD: It was a big part, you know I’ve been working all my life just to get to this position. It’s been a lifelong dream to get to this point, and take care of my family. That’s why I think I’m so blessed—most people that have their family in need like this aren’t in the position to be able to affect people around them in a positive way. And when I get drafted and get to the League, I can take care of my family. I want to take care of my mom.
SLAM: Earlier in the year, there was a Yahoo! Sports story that talked about Master P and Chico Brown and your high school coach and the USC coaches putting a strain on the relationship you have with your brother and your family. Just to clear things up, is your relationship with your brother tight again?
DD: Yeah, my family is great. You know, everything is going well… You know, it’s family. Every family has problems that they go through; that’s part of what being in a family is about, helping each other get through situations of adversity. We’re fine. You know we good.
SLAM: Good to clear that up. Now that you’ve officially declared and put your name into the NBA Draft, what are you doing to prepare for that? I know you haven’t decided on hiring an agent yet, but what are you doing these days to prepare?
DD: Right now I have three more weeks of school left so I’m still going to class, trying to get through school for the year. Besides that, I’m doing daily workouts, getting big in the weight room, a lot of NBA shooting drills and NBA workouts twice a day… And again, getting in the weight room to get stronger.
SLAM: Is there anything in particular that you’re going to showcase in the draft workouts, outside of your athleticism?
DD: I want to show my overall game—to show a lot of the stuff I’ve been working on. I mean there’s a lot that I couldn’t show this year at USC because the system didn’t call for me to do that. I’ve been a team player within the offense as a freshman, so I’m going to focus on showing a little of everything that I can. My overall game.
SLAM: When you get to the NBA, there are going to be some questions by some media analysts about which position you will play, shooting guard or small forward. Which one do you think you’re more suited for and what do you think you would need to do to contribute consistently for an NBA team as a rookie?
DD: I’ll play whatever position the coaches want me at to help the team, shooting guard or small forward. I’d prefer to play shooting guard, but I’ll do anything I can to help the team win games. Regardless, one thing I’ll bring to the table that some might not realize is defense. I love playing defense now. In my freshman year, Tim got me to play better defense and now I love defense. So I just want to get down on defense, lock up. And on offense, my offensive skill set is such that I should be able to break down my defender, get past them to put some points on the board.
SLAM: Is that a principle that Tim Floyd stresses at USC—becoming a better defender? I know OJ became a much more assertive defender once Floyd got hold of him.
DD: Definitely. That’s one major aspect of it. You know he really stresses that in the workouts and practices. You learn to take pride in your defensive presence on the court. So that’s one thing I learned from Tim Floyd.
SLAM: Many players who leave the college ranks early for the NBA spend their free time working on their degree so they have something to fall back on after their playing days are over. Are you committed to that?
DD: That’s one thing I know for a fact that I’ll be doing. I’ll take online courses and some summer courses if I have to at USC. It’s something I’m serious about.
SLAM: Right now you’re a top-10 pick in the major lottery mock drafts (ESPN, DraftExpress). Where do you feel you deserve to go right now? I know it’s early on, but where do you feel that you’d fit?
DD: I’d be happy to play for any team. It really doesn’t matter. I’m going to be preparing and watching game film, I want to be able to step in and contribute for any team that wants me. I’m just going to do anything I can to help a team win the game. I just want to play basketball.
SLAM: Many of the NBA players who are alumni to college programs go back during the summer before the season to help the new additions to the team improve, to bring in the next team if you will. Do you plan on doing that for USC?
DD: Oh yeah. I just want to be able to go back and give the kids the same experience I did, and do anything I can to help out with the team. You know, just do little things, and help out like the former players still do.
SLAM: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned in your freshman season? You’ve been through a lot this year.
DD: You’re right. The biggest thing is patience. How hard you have to work, even off the court. You have to put in the work in the film room and the classroom. So I really feel like I had a lot of growth and maturity.
SLAM: A little more specifically on the classroom, I’ve been told you took a drama class?
DD: Yeah, yeah I took a drama class my first semester. It was… interesting [laughs]. It was fun.
SLAM: Were you any good?
DD: I can be. I could be the next Denzel Washington if I put my mind to it! [We crack up.]
SLAM: Many NBA players choose a cause to work on in their career of the court to better the lives of people around them—is there anything in particular that you plan to do?
DD: Yeah, really what I think I need to do is do work around the community and improve it. Because, you know I grew up in Compton and I feel like I should give something back, give something to the kids that they might not get in any other situation, because 99 percent of the kids that grow up in my situation don’t have the opportunities I have to get out and be in the position to improve the area they came from. The people from my area work hard and they’ve been through a lot, and I did too. I just think it’s important to give back.
SLAM: It’s funny that you bring up Compton, because many NBA players are from Compton, they play ball there and they become very successful. Do you feel in part that’s because of the adverse society they grow up in, and they find themselves feeling that they have to make it?
DD: Yeah, there’s a lot of adversity and… Kids just want to do the right thing and get involved in something they are interested in and love doing. And not just basketball. It’s just that we want to do what we can to improve our life, and that’s what these kids do.
SLAM: Last question: Over the summer before your freshman year, you dunked on Kobe at the Kobe Bryant Skills Academy. Do you plan on repeating that in the NBA?
DD: Hopefully. I’ll try [laughs]. I’d try to do it again if we played each other. I think I could get him one more time!