BURNABY, B.C. — Five days into the Toronto Raptors’ training camp and a clear vocal leader has emerged.
DeMar DeRozan, who once preferred to let his game do his talking, has become the most talkative player, and said it’s both by design and a natural evolution.
“Just being a leader. I’m just trying to take more of a leadership role and help this team win,” an upbeat DeRozan said after practice Saturday. “I feel like I’ve been there in a lot of situations now, to where I can speak up and say stuff to get on somebody or get somebody going.”
DeRozan was asked whether he has to force himself to talk.
“Naw, naw, that’s easy now. I tell myself to shut up sometimes. It’s been going good.”
The 26-year-old is coming off a rough season that saw him miss 21 games early on with a serious groin injury. A year removed from his all-star season, he struggled to refind his form.
That’s ancient history, and according to Patrick Patterson, DeRozan has been a vocal “ring leader” this week at practices at the Fortius Sport & Health complex.
“As far as talking to teammates or talking to guys standing on the sideline, making sure guys are paying attention, in tune with what the coaching staff is preaching to us,” Patterson said. “He’s always encouraging everybody. From the jump, DeMar is trying to take the reins of this squad.”
DeRozan was in good spirits Saturday on the eve of Toronto’s first pre-season game. The Raptors play the Los Angeles Clippers in a soldout game at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena on Sunday.
Asked whether training camp ever gets old, DeRozan, who’s in his seventh camp, said: “You always get excited, that feeling of going out there and competing. That never gets old, or at least not yet.”
DeRozan said he finds the influx of new players such as elite defender DeMarre Carroll energizing.
“Everybody is coming out on both ends, definitely bringing the energy. Everybody is learning each other. Everybody is learning something new,” DeRozan said. “We’re all on the same page. Everybody has one goal. That’s brought us together.”
He said none of the new guys — including Carroll, Bismack Biyombo, Cory Joseph and Anthony Bennett— have taken him particularly by surprise.
“Me being a basketball fanatic, a lot of guys came in and I knew their games. I was fans of theirs, especially going against DeMarre. It’s always fun going against him. We laugh about it to this day,” DeRozan said. “It’s definitely a great feeling to get the new faces, learning guys better on and off the court.”
Coach Dwane Casey is pleased with his team’s progress through the five days of camp, and pointed out that they were rebounding better Saturday than they had all week. But with so many new players in camp, there’s been a “sense of urgency” to camp that wasn’t there last season.
“It’s a different approach,” Casey said. “I think right now, we understand there’s so much we have to get done and learn and get up to speed with. Last year, it was a little bit easier because of the familiarity.”
Casey said while he liked last year’s team, he believes his current version will be better equipped both offensively and defensively.
“With the experience of guys like DeMarre, playing him at (three different positions). . . It gives us a lot of flexibility from that standpoint.”
The Raptors face a familiar foe in the Clippers on Sunday.
When asked if he was happy to have a break from answering questions about Paul Pierce over the summer, Casey quipped: “Oh that’s right, he plays for the Clippers.”
Pierce famously said the Raptors didn’t have the “it” factor last season, and proceeded to lead the Washington Wizards to a sweep of Toronto in the first round of the playoffs. Soon after Game 4, he posted a doctored photo of himself on Facebook and Twitter sitting on the “Game of Thrones” iron-sword seat, under the headline “King in the North.”
Sunday’s game is one of four pre-season games in Canada this year, the most ever played north of the border.
Andrew Wiggins and the Minnesota Timberwolves will play the Bulls in Winnipeg on Saturday, then the Raptors in Ottawa on Oct. 14. The Raptors cap the Canada series when they play the Washington Wizards in Montreal on Oct. 23.
All four games are expected to sell out.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press