by Abe Schwadron / @abe_squad

Altitude XIIIs, Toro Bravo Vs, Black Cat IVs. DeMar DeRozan’s list of on-court sneaker choices this season reads like a rare Air Jordan catalog. Either the Raptors shooting guard is eager to spend some of his disposable income from a freshly inked contract extension, or he’s winking at us.

“You gain a little knowledge of how to do certain things, some kind of way to catch people’s attention,” DeRozan says. “It’s my own little way to stick out.”

Only this season, he hasn’t had to. Even on the only NBA team in Canada, you would have noticed the Southern California native without him digging deep into his closet for classic kicks. Like the November night when—with a pair of “Fire Red” Jordan Vs on his feet—he scored a career-high 37 points over an absurd 60 minutes of playing time in a grueling triple-overtime loss to Utah. Or the very next game, when he laced up the Playoff XIs and scored a team-high 15 in 40 minutes to beat the Pacers.

Clearly, footwear isn’t the only thing DeRozan was determined to get serious about this season, his fourth in the League. Through 37 games, DeRozan was averaging career-highs in points (17.9 ppg), rebounds (4.6 rpg) and minutes (37 mpg). And while the Raps have been relatively slow out the gate, he’s made major strides toward proving why Toronto signed him to a four-year, $38 million deal on Halloween night.

“When you’re a rookie, you really don’t think too much about your contract or how it works or what it really means. When you get the second one, you really understand the hard work that you put in, the sweat and tears that you’ve put in this game,” says DeRozan. “I’m one of the leaders on this team. One of the players that’s been here through thick and thin. I know what this city expects, what our fans expect.”

And now, expectations—at least on DD—are as high as ever. Because to whom much is given, much is expected. So much, in fact, that the blogosphere exploded with criticism of the Raptors’ decision to make a hefty, long-term commitment to a player some still consider to be “risky” and “raw.” All the more reason DeRozan wants to make ’12-13 a statement year.

“That definitely motivated me. You hear it, no matter how much you try to avoid it. You’re going to hear the critics and everybody doubting you, doubting your team. You just use that as motivation and try to shut everybody up,” the 6-7, 216-pound DeRozan says. “You just go out and do your job. At the end of the day, you realize you did everything you were supposed to do. Who cares what they have to say?”

Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo has steadfastly defended the team’s decision, calling DeMar a “dynamic wing player” and building block of the franchise. “Not only do we want him, but he wants to be here. That’s important to me. That’s important to the organization,” Colangelo told the Toronto Sun.

Imagine that—a kid from Compton wanting to stay in Canada long-term? It seems illogical. Impossible, even. But it’s true.

Growing up on the SoCal playgrounds, or destroying comp as a McDonald’s All-American in high school, DeRozan never considered the possibility of winding up in Toronto. Because, well, who would? “Crazy” is the only word he can come up with to describe his Canadian residence now, though he claims to have followed the Raps’ early 2000s Playoff teams growing up (“I watched the Raptors—Alvin Williams was one of my favorite guys to watch.”)

In his first couple of years in Toronto, DeRozan admits he was a bit lost. He didn’t know anyone, didn’t know what to do on off-days, didn’t even know where to get a decent bite to eat. Transitioning to life in a new city—let alone one in another country—is a tough task for any 19-year-old. Even tougher for one charged with reviving a dormant Eastern Conference squad while still learning the game.

But with his future in Canada’s Queen City secure, he’s settled in. And appreciative of the escape it provides from home, where he retreats each summer. “It’s different. I think it’s something I definitely needed. Just to see something more diverse. I’ve been in L.A., you know, that’s where I grew up,” explains DeRozan. “Being out here has definitely given me an open mind and also given me a lot of space at the same time. And it shows me something different every day.”

His days off are relaxing now. When he’s not watching hoops, catching up on his favorite NFL team (the Atlanta Falcons) or watching his favorite show, Family Guy, DeMar is eating dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant, Buca. Or he’s hitting the mall with friend and teammate Ed Davis, whom he met on the high school summer camp circuit when the two were going in to 10th grade.

The pair kept in contact and became close friends, even before fate brought them together again in Toronto. And, despite coming from opposite coasts, they’re extremely tight. DeMar helped Ed with his transition to the NBA—and to Canada—while Ed has helped DeMar stay even-keeled through his ups and downs. The only thing they occasionally clash on is music, although DeRozan has recently added East Coast rhymer Fabolous’ latest mixtape to his listening rotation, right alongside fellow Compton native Kendrick Lamar’s debut.

So, whose game does DeRozan’s remind Davis of?

“I would say he’s more like a Vince Carter, because he’s explosive,” says Davis. “And then he has great footwork. You wouldn’t think that for a guy that’s so athletic. I think he can be like how Vince was in his prime in the next couple years.”

Davis isn’t the first to draw that parallel, and while comparisons to the Raptors’ original mega-star might seem unimaginative, it’s hard to separate the two—especially when DeRozan himself is feeding the fire.

Not an hour after the Raptors made him the No. 9 pick on Draft night in ’09, DeRozan promised the T-Dot big things, tweeting, “Toronto here I come. Air Canada’s back.”

Nickname notwithstanding, with a renewed sense of self—and three years of pro ball under his belt—DeRozan now wants not only to reach Vince’s level, but to be mentioned with the Kobes and the DWades.

“That’s where you got to set your goals,” he says. “That’s where you want to be. You want to take your team where those players took their teams.”

“Win,” DeRozan continues. “That’s my biggest thing. Go to the next level in this League. Become an All-Star, become a Playoff-contending team. Little stuff that comes along with being a player in this League for years to make that next step, to be a player that’s well-remembered after my career.”

It’s a career that’s just revving up. Before he can think legacy, DeRozan will have to continue to refine his game, as he did in making the jump from the preps to the pros in less than a calendar year, with a season of collegiate hoops sandwiched in between. The collective angst over his steady but not instantaneous development is premature, considering dude just celebrated his 23rd birthday.

“I had to learn quickly and learn on the go,” he says of entering the L so young. “I went from high school to college to the League at 19. I just had to learn, grow physically. I think as that came along, I began to get better at certain aspects of my game. I’m going to still continue to grow. This would be my rookie year if I was in school for four years, so I’m just trying to put it all together now.”

Sure, it’s rare for NBA talent to stay the full four years in college anymore. And DeRozan, with an eye on setting up his family’s financials (his mother, Diane, suffers from lupus) says he wouldn’t change a thing looking back. But perhaps his ability to finally put the journey into perspective has helped turn the lightbulb on this season.

He is appreciative of his time spent, however short, at USC. “College was a critical moment for me in life,” says DeRozan emphatically. “You go from being the main focal point in high school, being unstoppable, to going to college, where college coaches could care less if you were a top-10 player in high school. They’re going to coach you, they’re going to push you to your limits, they’re going to try to test you. That was a critical point for me, where I had to learn.”

Having soaked it up, DeRozan’s now ready to dish it out. He says he’s put an extra emphasis on the defensive end, on playing the passing lanes and on being a better help defender. In his own words, “Just trying to do a lot of little things that I probably didn’t do before or I overlooked.” Now, the NBAers charged with guarding him night in and night out are learning a valuable lesson of their own: tread lightly. He describes his attitude on the court in one word—“Aggressive. Going out there and being aggressive out the gate. Rebounding, defense, attacking the rim, just attacking my opponent.”

With talented point guard Kyle Lowry getting his bearings in Toronto and a pair of imported bigs in Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas playing up front, if you can look past the Raps’ struggles so far this season, you’ll see they’ve quietly put together a promising young roster—with DeRozan as the centerpiece.

“In the next year or so,” says Davis, “I see him being an All-Star. And he’s only 23 so when they locked him in [in regard to his contract], I think it was great for him and great for the organization. He’s definitely going to live up to that. I think he’ll surpass it, and we’ll see that you could say he was underpaid.”

If Davis is right, DeRozan will make Colangelo and the Raptors look like geniuses and leave the critics with scant ammunition.

So far, Air Canada II is on his way. And he’s bringing his sneaker collection with him.