DeMar DeRozan-Kawhi Leonard trade: Spurs give former Raptors star chance to become undeniably elite

When DeMar DeRozan dropped by Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas to watch the Toronto Raptors' summer league team last week, it was not unusual. Long before he was a perennial All-Star, DeRozan made this a habit, always showing his support for the franchise -- the one that drafted him, the one he wanted to finish his career with, the one that just traded him on Wednesday -- and its younger players. Over the years, DeRozan invited teammates like Terrence Ross and Norman Powell to early-morning offseason workouts. He might never have been the most vocal leader, but he always tried to set an example. 

For nine years with the Raptors, DeRozan set the standard for work ethic and dedication. He came into the league as a 19-year-old project, known more for his athleticism than an array of Kobe Bryant-like moves in his repertoire. He worked on those moves every summer, mastering his footwork and making subtle improvements until they added up to stardom. Still, questions about his all-around game persisted: Could he ever be the type of player that elevates his teammates, thrives on defense and stretches the floor? 

DeRozan has made strides in those areas, particularly the first one, but he is not a finished product. When new Raptors coach Nick Nurse met with him after getting the job, DeRozan barely let him get the words out of his mouth about needing to improve on defense. Asked if DeRozan was ready to be challenged on that end like never before, Nurse said he wouldn't necessarily put it that way, but he saw determination. 

"Here's what I do sense: DeMar wants to get better," Nurse told CBS Sports. "And he knows there's some room to get better. In a number of areas. That's what I sense a lot from him. Just everything, and I'm not saying it's me, I'm just saying he seems re-energized, re-invigorated and re-something. And ready to do something. I just see a different body language, a different tone in his voice and a different twinkle in his eye."

Suddenly, much more is going to be different for DeRozan. With this trade to the San Antonio Spurs, he will be pushed outside his comfort zone, into a tougher conference with all sorts of pressure. And, like at many other stages of his career, there will be plenty of skeptics to quiet. 

DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan's days in Toronto are suddenly over. USATSI

The immediate reaction to this deal, from the Spurs' perspective, has been mostly negative. CBS Sports' Jack Maloney gave San Antonio a 'C' and Sports Illustrated's Rohan Nadkarni gave it a 'D.' The general consensus is that, while DeRozan made second team All-NBA and is in his prime (he turns 29 in three weeks), the Spurs would have been better off with a package centered around younger players and/or multiple first-round picks.

There is an argument to be made for that, but the front office never seemed on the verge of a full-fledged rebuild. In re-signing Rudy Gay and signing Marco Belinelli this summer, San Antonio hinted that it would be trying to remain competitive, with LaMarcus Aldridge under contract until 2021 and coach Gregg Popovich reportedly not expected to coach the team after the 2020 Olympic Games.

DeRozan's contract runs through 2020 with a player option for the 2020-21 season, so this gives the Spurs a two-or-three-year window in which to build around DeRozan and Aldridge while developing Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker. If your first thought is wow, that's a lot of midrange shots, that is understandable. But what if San Antonio helps DeRozan have yet another career season? What if working with Popovich ends up being the best possible thing for his career? 

San Antonio, more frequently than any team in the league, has integrated players with poor defensive reputations into a top-tier system. On offense, it is not always an easy place to adjust to -- just ask Aldridge -- but Popovich tends to figure out how to maximize his best players' strengths. While new Spurs famously have to "get over themselves" to buy into the culture, DeRozan should not have to worry much about his touches being taken away. What will be interesting is whether or not he can take his game to another level in San Antonio, turning that twinkle in his eye against Toronto and trying to prove that it made a mistake. 

DeRozan showed with the Raptors that he can lead an elite offense. During the 2017-18 regular season in which they won 59 games, he let go of everything in his way of having a healthy relationship with the 3-point line and let it fly. He tweaked his game to fit into a new, more modern offense, dialing back his long 2s and becoming a better passer. He even improved as a defender, even though he is far from a stopper. To the degree that he still holds a reputation as an empty-stats guy, it is outdated. If the Spurs were going to acquire high-upside talent in a Kawhi Leonard trade, there would be real risk that this talent would never come close to being on DeRozan's level. 

Still, it is tricky to evaluate DeRozan in the context of other stars and franchise players. His career postseason performance in Toronto has been inconsistent -- while he has had some spectacular performances, his poor ones have gone beyond just bad for a star. The Raptors sat him on the bench in the fourth quarter of a second-round game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in May, as he was being exploited on defense and hurting the flow and speed of their attack. To his detractors, these moments stand out far more than the postseason games in which they have had little rhythm and he has carried them with his aggressiveness.

In San Antonio, it is possible that everybody's ideal version of DeRozan -- essentially, the 2017-18 version with more accurate 3-point shooting, more intense defense and more precise decision-making -- will come to play. If you believe in his approach and the power of Popovich, it is easy to be optimistic about this partnership. The Spurs will look different with DeRozan, but I'll bet that they will still play at a slow pace, allow him to operate in the midrange and surround him with shooting. If he develops chemistry with Aldridge, they could be one of the better teams in the West, even if they are not quite contenders.

DeRozan did not plan for this being the next chapter of his career. This is an opportunity, though, to build on everything he did in Toronto and establish himself as undeniably elite. Despite all his individual success, he remains a divisive All-Star. That adjective can disappear if he rounds out his game as the face of the league's most respected franchise. 

CBS Sports Writer

James Herbert is somewhat fond of basketball, feature writing and understatements. A former season-ticket holder for the expansion Toronto Raptors, Herbert does not think the NBA was better back in the... Full Bio

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