VANCOUVER — No matter how much off-court turmoil engulfed the franchise, no matter the losing streak or the star player who would bolt Toronto for whatever reason, the Raptors have always had a player worthy of applause.
Damon Stoudamire’s ability to play big was replaced by Vince Carter’s ability to play above the rim.
Chris Bosh wasn’t producing any highlight reel dunks and neither did he captivate a crowd with any jaw-dropping athleticism, but he was popular.
DeMar DeRozan appears ready to assume the popularity mantle, an athletic player who will be given a chance to emerge as the face of the franchise.
In time, the kid has to learn how to handle the ball better, make better decisions when the ball is in his hands and step out to make jumpers.
But at this moment in the Raptors’ changing of the guard, DeRozan is the team’s most popular player, a guy the club uses on most of its promotional material.
In the team’s first public appearance, under a backdrop of an open scrimmage here at the University of British Columbia, DeRozan received the loudest ovation.
When the flushed home an alley-oop feed into a dunk, the crowd reacted in a fashion that evoked images of Carter.
When the Raptors made DeRozan a lottery selection last spring, comparisons were made to Carter from an athletic perspective.
DeRozan isn’t quite able to put the ball on the floor and flat-out attack a defence and the rim, but he’s getting better.
He can’t step back and drill three-pointers at will like Carter, but the kid is working hard at improving his jumper.
When you watch DeRozan and see the improvement he made from last year’s rookie season, it provides hope on a team many have written off as hopeless.
When you watch how DeRozan and Linas Kleiza play off each other, you see building blocks.
But on Sunday, what one experienced was DeRozan’s popularity and the potential to win over more fans as he evolves into a more complete player.
“He’s coming out of his shell,’’ teammate and close friend Sonny Weems said of DeRozan. “He’s more comfortable. We’re expecting great things from him and he’s up to the challenge.”
No player introduced to the half-empty crowd at War Memorial Gym received a louder reception than DeRozan.
No player created a stir than DeRozan when the ball was in his hands.
“It feels great,’’ DeRozan said when asked to comment about the reception he received. “It’s a humbling experience to see how the fans love me. All it does is make me want to work harder.”
No one knows how many games the Raptors are capable of winning or how relevant they will become, but in DeRozan they have a piece that can only get better through experience.
Of course fans recognize DeRozan given his athletic gifts.
Even the most casual fan is likely to be drawn to DeRozan when he’s producing reverse dunks, elevating and finishing around the rim.
There’s also a shortage of recognizable names on the Raptors, who will not feature a legitimate star for the first time in a very long time.
When the Raptors imploded in front of everyone’s eye during their third season, the team was stripped to the very bone.
From the ashes and the embarrassment came Carter.
“We love the progression he’s making,’’ head coach Jay Triano said of DeRozan. “He’s gotten to the point where he wants the ball and he’s not afraid to make players for other people. I liked what I saw (Sunday).”
What Triano liked this off-season was how DeRozan wanted to get better.
Assistant coach Eric Hughes, who coached DeRozan at the team’s summer league entry in Las Vegas, works with the shooting guard each day on improving his ball handling.
In the absence of a dominant personality, DeRozan is more comfortable in the new surrounding.
“As a rookie, he sat back and watched,’’ Triano said. “This year, he understands more and his comfort level is much greater. He’s relaxed.”
DeRozan is also more outgoing, more apt to smile and have fun on the court.
Weems’ influence is prominent. The two are virtually inseparable and they push each other in practice.
“We’re like brothers,’’ DeRozan said. “We want the other to get better and at the end of the day it shows.”