Raptors rookie awaits his time

FRANK ZICARELLI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

LOS ANGELES -- The day will arrive when Raptors rookie DeMar DeRozan will be on the floor in crunch time, basketball's make-it or break-it moment when games are won and lost, when reputations are made.

Chances are pretty good that moment won't arrive during the team's four-game trip, which began with last night's late-night tip in Los Angeles against the Clippers.

It probably won't arrive anytime soon, but it awaits, either this season or next.

As DeRozan returned to his native L.A. for the first time as a pro, he couldn't help but reflect on his one and only season in college, a time when DeRozan was the man.

As a freshman at USC, a program that has turned to former Raptors head coach Kevin O'Neill, DeRozan was asked to produce game-winning shots and step up in crunch time.

He was the go-to guy, the player the Trojans turned to win a game.

The Staples Center is somewhat hidden amid the office towers that dot L.A.'s downtown, an area that can turn nasty at night.

DeRozan grew up in nearby Compton, but his unofficial hoops home was the Staples Center.

It was at the Staples Center where DeRozan led USC to last season's Pac-10 tournament title.

He would win tournament MVP honours and opened many eyes in the NBA.

"There are some good memories of this place,'' DeRozan said as he looked around the empty building long before he and his Raptors teammates were to take to the floor against the Clippers.

"It feels like it's been a while since I played here."

When the Raptors arrived in L.A. on Thursday, DeRozan took advantage of the opportunity to visit with his family.

One of the unwritten rules of thumb in the NBA is to avoid playing in one's hometown because of the many off-court issues that surface.

Returning home as an opponent is an entirely different animal, a time many players express excitement and anticipation.

The first trip is often the most nerve-wracking.

As for tickets, all requests went through DeRozan's parents.

"I think they're more excited than me,'' DeRozan said.

DeRozan doesn't say much, or at least anything of any consequence for now, but his game is beginning to speak loudly.

He flirted with a double-double in Wednesday's home win over Chicago and helped spark the Raptors during a third-quarter run that turned the game in Toronto's favour.

DeRozan never got to see the floor in the fourth quarter.

"I felt like I had my momentum going at both ends in that game,'' DeRozan said. "Whether I'm on the floor or on the bench, I still back my team either way."

The distribution of minutes rests with head coach Jay Triano, whose strategy of starting DeRozan but giving the rookie non-starter's minutes is working out well.

"I'm happy this moment (of returning home) is happening now because he deserves it,'' Triano said. "He's proving to people that all the hard work he's put in is paying off."

Which is really all the Raptors can ask of DeRozan.

DeRozan wasn't the only Raptor with roots in L.A.

Amir Johnson grew up in Westchester, an area that surrounds the airport.

He recalls the nerves and the requests when he first returned five years ago.

"It's no big deal now,'' Johnson said. "The first time was crazy.''

FRANK.ZICARELLI@SUNMEDIA.CA


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