Basketball fans who live outside the Toronto area, or whose rooting interest doesn’t involve copious use of the #WETHENORTH hashtag, probably don’t think about DeMar DeRozan that much. When they do, they think of him as a second-tier All-Star, a midrange scorer (his 1,238 2-point attempts led the NBA last season), a dude with a cool name that contains 100 percent more capital letters than usual, and as one of the numerous NBA free agents to hard-pass on a meeting with his hometown Lakers.
In July, he signed a $139 million deal that will keep him bundled up in Toronto for the next five years — out of sight, out of mind until spring, when the return of sun and leaf and flower reminds us it’s time for the Raptors to lose to the Cavaliers in the playoffs again.
Good news, though: DeMar is also exactly the kind of overshadowed and imperfect player who, in the post–Dream Team era, blossoms on the Olympic stage. I christen thee “Olympic DeRozan.”
DeMar DeRozan is about to get the Olympic Bounce. The first beneficiary of this phenomenon was Charles Barkley, back in 1992. Sir Chuck was traded to the Suns a month before the Olympics, but most people knew him as an extremely ornery Philadelphia 76er, a bowling ball of a player with caked-up stats, whose orneriness only increased with Philly’s steadily declining fortunes. He was a dude who fought teammates, talked shit to his coach, and spit on a little girl that one time.
Barkley was an All-Star and a first-team All-NBA player, sure. But his star glowed weakly in the Dream Team constellation, next to the blinding light of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and iconic ambassadors of the game Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. David Robinson had just become only the third player in NBA history to finish in the top 10 in five statistical categories (points, rebounds, blocks, steals, and field goal percentage). Patrick Ewing played in New York City for a revamped and rugged Knicks team that looked to be the only challenger to long-term Windy City hegemony. Clyde Drexler had just been to the Finals. Karl Malone was lauded as the power forward who put up numbers without rocking the boat.
Then the actual Olympic Games rolled around, and Barkley’s flag-draped girth became the Dream Team’s unofficial logo. Ferocious on the court, he ripped rebounds like the ball was made of the last food on earth, fired an elbow at the sternum of an unwitting Angolan, dunked a lot, and went on to lead Team USA in scoring. Off the court, Barkley roamed Las Ramblas into the dawn hours like Bacchus in search of grapes and a boombox.
These are all things that he’d been doing in the NBA, of course, but the Olympics took Barkley to another level. In the months following the games, Barkley’s iconic Godzilla commercial debuted during the MTV Video Music Awards, his Phoenix Suns won 62 games en route to an NBA Finals run, and he won his first and only MVP award.
The 2008 Olympics gave Carmelo Anthony the Bounce. During those games, we got a glimpse at basketball’s small-ball future, one that seemed totally at odds with Anthony’s NBA trajectory at the time. His Nuggets team had just been brushed aside by the Lakers in the first round, with Lamar Odom and Luke Walton (14 points per game in the series) running wild and Rocky Mountain High all over Melo’s crew. This was a crew that included fellow 2004 bronze medalist Allen Iverson, J.R. Smith approximately eight years before he figured it out, and Lithuanian legend Linas Kleiza. For Melo, playing with Chris Paul and Deron Williams — ACTUALLY PLAYING and not being nailed to the Olympic pine, as he had been in Athens (shout-out to Larry Brown and playing the right way) — must’ve felt amazing.
Surrounded by the best talent in the world (and Tayshaun Prince), Olympic Melo stalked the shortened international 3-point arc and drained open jumpers. When defenders rose to meet him, he used his mobility and bull-ball physicality to get to the rim. He took 37 3-pointers over eight games, more than doubling his 3-point-attempts-per-game average with Denver from the previous season. Melo wouldn’t average more than four 3-point attempts per game in the NBA for another five seasons, until his breakout “Melo at the 4” campaign of 2012–13.
Now it’s DeMar’s turn. Even though he’s coming off the most “contract year” contract year possible — career highs in points per game (23.5) and PER (21.5) — during which he helped the Raptors to their best win total in franchise history and the team’s first appearance in the conference finals, he’s less famous than most of his Team USA mates.
No matter. DeRozan is already taking advantage of the bigger stage. His Instagram video from the Team USA plane — showing Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving leading a sing-along of Vanessa Carlton’s early-2000s piano banger “A Thousand Miles” as Kevin Durant prowled the cabin wrapped in a white blanket like a 7-foot E.T. and Carmelo Anthony looked on in what appeared to be disgust (but was apparently grumpiness due to lack of sleep) — is now, already, a legendary moment in Olympic social media history (non-dick-shot category).
DeRozan’s attempted 360 exhibition game dunk over China, which nearly set U.S.-Sino relations back to pre-Nixon levels and caused Coach K to turn into an even more priggish version of himself, was a statement of intent. Vince Carter, beware.
Speaking of Vince surmounting the airy peaks of Mount Weis, look at Kevin Durant, doing his best Garnett-bellowing post-dunk-du-morte impression after watching DeMar spike on Nigeria. DDR’s Team USA teammates already seem to love him, and the King himself tweeted that DeRozan’s 360 would’ve been a top-five dunk all time.
Surrounded by deep threats, DeMar has found wide-open vistas for his slashing nature in the exhibition games leading up to Rio. He’s taken only three 3-point attempts over five exhibition games, but averaged 61 percent from the field largely off the bench. It’s hard not to miss shots like this, anyway:
Olympic DeRozan is ready to bounce.