DeMar DeRozan and his late-career renaissance with the Chicago Bulls

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

THE STADIUM CREW has already begun to disassemble the United Center floor, turning the arena from a basketball court to a hockey rink following the Chicago Bulls' victory over the Orlando Magic. It's Jan. 3, and as they stack the courtside seats, remove the scorer's table and line the outside of the stands with hockey boards, DeMar DeRozan stands alone at the free throw line 30 minutes after the buzzer.

He's stewing. "S---," he yells, his voice echoing off the walls of the arena. Another miss.

DeRozan, who is shooting better than 85% from the line on the season, had an uncharacteristically poor night, finishing 7-for-13 and missing 4 of his 9 free throws in the second half, including three in the final 30 seconds. A few minutes earlier, DeRozan had grabbed Taurean Green, a Bulls player development coach, to head back to the court. On their way out, DeRozan was reminded the crew is flipping the court ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks' home game the next night.

"Well, I'm going to shoot if I have to until all the floor is gone," DeRozan said.

Nevermind that the Bulls had just collected what was their eighth consecutive victory, or that in the two games prior, DeRozan had become the first player in NBA history to hit game-winning buzzer-beaters on consecutive nights.

As he stands at the line, the clangs of equipment being hauled off around him, he hears his father's voice booming in his head.

"My dad used to cuss me out when I missed free throws," DeRozan says after a Bulls practice a few days later. "He used to yell from the bleachers. He used to say it was a dollar every time I missed a free throw.

"The other night, the only thing on my mind is my f---king dad would kill me if he saw me miss this many free throws. That's why I take it so seriously."

And so back on the rapidly disintegrating floor, DeRozan, still in his home whites, shoots. And shoots. And shoots.

He challenges himself to make 10 consecutive free throws before he can count them toward his total. If he misses one before he hits 10 in a row, he starts over. He estimates, later that night, that he made about 250 free throws after the game, hitting 10 in a row, 25 times.

"When he does something wrong he has to correct it perfectly," DeRozan's longtime trainer Chris Farr says. "You can say we're going to shoot 100 free throws, but if it doesn't feel right, he just keeps going. He keeps going until he gets it right."

LISTEN: DeMar DeRozan's rise as an MVP candidate

Now in his 13th season in the NBA, DeRozan is experiencing the rarest of sports commodities: a late-career renaissance. After emerging as a scorer with the Toronto Raptors and honing his skills as a playmaker with the San Antonio Spurs, DeRozan is averaging 26.2 points per game in leading the Bulls to the best record (27-11) in the Eastern Conference, and a prime-time Wednesday matchup with the Brooklyn Nets (10 p.m. ET, ESPN).

At age 32, DeMar DeRozan is better than ever.

"DeMar's from Compton, but when you roll his thumbprint, he's really from Louisiana," Farr says. "In Louisiana, they make that dish called gumbo. And I think what has happened is, it's a culmination of everything: Toronto, San Antonio, high school, everything is coming together at the right time. He's putting everything together and leaving it all out there. You can see the results."

EARLY BEFORE SHOOTAROUND one morning in 2018, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich addressed the team with some breaking news, DeRozan recalls.

"DeMar's going to be the point guard," Popovich said.

DeRozan was incredulous. Point guard? Me? Nah.

DeRozan was a scorer. He had been a scorer as a first-round draft pick out of USC in 2009 through his first nine seasons in the NBA. He'd averaged at least 20 points per game in every season since 2013-14. Sure, DeRozan had averaged 5.2 assists in his last season with the Raptors, but Kyle Lowry was the point guard. And it wasn't like Popovich had prepped him on this plan, either, before addressing the team.

"Now [as a point guard] you've got to understand everybody on the team," DeRozan says. "Their capabilities, their strengths, their weaknesses and how I can help them. How I could bring the best out of these players. It started with Pop bringing the best out of me that I didn't think I had.

"Before then, I was a scorer. ... If I'm 5-for-30, I don't care. If I'm 15-for-30. Like that was my whole mindset. [Popovich] challenged me to the point of understanding the game in the complete whole. How to be a point guard. How to be a playmaker. How to dictate the game. How to move without the play. How to play without the ball. How not to turn over the ball."

Popovich challenged DeRozan repeatedly, putting him in situations out of his comfort zone.

DeRozan flourished -- averaging 6.2 assists in his first season in San Antonio, 5.6 in his second and a career-high 6.9 assists in 2020-21.

"It was like all right cool, I want to take on this challenge because I don't want to be mad about me being here," he says. "You can't just dribble, dribble, dribble, you've got to be efficient with everything you do. ... Slowly but surely, it made me a better basketball player, understanding stuff on the court instead of just scoring. ... To combine those two things and the knowledge that came with it, I think put me in a place to where I'm at now."

While DeRozan's game was rounding into form on the basketball court, his life off of it was in turmoil.

His father, Frank, was dealing with several long-term illnesses in Los Angeles. Once a regular at Raptors games from 2009 to 2018, Frank had spent years in and out of hospitals before he died on Feb. 19, 2021. During his tenure in San Antonio, DeRozan would take a private plane in between games or practices to spend time with his father.

"I just wanted to sit by him," DeRozan says. "There were times, I flew home, he didn't even know I was there. I'd just sit next to his bed for hours."

The Spurs kept it quiet but allowed DeRozan to fly to Los Angeles whenever possible. Popovich urged him to go and come back whenever he could; he didn't even have to play if he didn't want to.

But DeRozan never wanted his absence to become a distraction, even if he often played on only a couple hours of sleep.

"I'd be lying to you if I didn't say I had days, or I had moments where I was like, 'Damn, is this s--- ever going to get back to some type of peace?'" DeRozan says. "There were days where it was hard to figure out how I was going to maneuver through so much emotionally so I could be myself out there on the court."

When DeRozan hit NBA free agency for the first time this past summer, he could still hear his father, whom he talked with on the phone after every game, in his mind, helping with the decision-making process.

When he was 10 years old, DeRozan remembers playing 1-on-1 with Frank. On one particular play, Frank went in too hard and accidentally busted his son's lip. Tasting his own blood instantly threw the younger DeRozan off his game.

Sensing this, and a lesson to impart on his young son, Frank did not relent. Instead, he made it even tougher on DeRozan to score. He blocked his shot. He bullied him in the paint. Frank, a former football player, was a burly man, and no matter how hard DeRozan tried to inch closer to the basket, it was hopeless. Eventually DeRozan had enough.

"I kicked the ball over the fence and said, 'Man, I don't want to play no more,'" DeRozan says. "I got in the car and cried all the way till we got home, so I could tell my momma.

"There's a whole psychological approach that he was trying to show me. Keep your calm, keep your cool, this happens in sports. I always remember that basketball moment so clearly because it makes perfect sense to the game to this day. I think a lot of my calmness comes from moments I shared with him on the court."

Before the season, DeRozan inked a tattoo on his left shoulder of one of his favorite portraits of his father.

"He had to heal himself," Farr says. "A lot of that stuff he holds within. I think now, he's opening up more and that's just part of the healing process. I'm just glad Chicago softened the weight on him and gave him the opportunity.

"He got the hug he needed when he got there."

ZACH LAVINE WAS still in Tokyo playing for Team USA in the Olympics when the Bulls overhauled their roster during free agency last summer -- leaving only LaVine, Coby White and Patrick Williams remaining from the last season's team. When news broke that DeRozan was signing with Chicago, LaVine got DeRozan's number and sent him a text.

"I was like, 'Man, look we need somebody like you on the team,'" LaVine says.

Shortly after LaVine returned stateside, he made the 90-mile drive to go work out with his new teammate. They stayed in the gym together for 2½ hours and then sat for another hour, talking about their vision for the season. There was an instant connection.

The two share a strong mutual respect. For all the talented players DeRozan has played with -- his best friend Lowry, an All-Star big man in LaMarcus Aldridge -- he had never had an outside scorer like LaVine. And while LaVine had ascended to make his first All-Star Game and was playing for Team USA, he lacked the playoff experience and pedigree DeRozan could provide.

"Him coming here and being able to be himself, I think was the best thing for him," LaVine says. "And for me personally, because I needed another guy on the team that each and every game was going to go out there and have my back."

"I've been here the last five years and we have done nothing but lose. I put up incredible stats that get washed under the rug because we lose. But individually, you're not going to have that success until you're a successful team. I have no ego. I don't mind sharing or DeMar DeRozan taking fourth-quarter shots or hitting game-winners. I'm happy because we're winning."

After DeRozan signed, Chicago coach Billy Donovan flew to California to meet with the Bulls' new duo. The whispers of skeptics from outside the organization had crescendoed.

Could these two ball-dominant guards work together? Would this defense be just bad or historically bad? Where's the outside shooting?

An ESPN offseason survey of 10 scouts and executives around the league tabbed DeRozan's signing as the worst move of the offsesason.

"Don't worry about anything, this s--- will work," DeRozan told LaVine. "If we do what we're supposed to do, the caliber of players that we are, everybody will be happy."

So far, he has been right. Chicago hasn't experienced this kind of bliss in a decade. The Bulls have missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, but now they are on top of the East for the first time since the 2011-12 season, the height of the Derrick Rose era in Chicago. DeRozan, on his third team in five years, is leading a Bulls team that is on pace to win 58 games this season. (They were projected to win just 40).

DeRozan (26.5) and LaVine (26.4) rank seventh and eighth, respectively, in the NBA in scoring. Guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso have been the team's defensive anchors, guiding the Bulls to a respectable 13th in defensive efficiency to go along with the league's fourth-best offense.

In the fourth quarter, the Bulls turn their offense over to DeRozan, leaning on his combination of scoring and playmaking. He holds the ball for an average length of 6.9 seconds during clutch time possessions, per Second Spectrum tracking data, the fifth longest in the league, trailing some of the most ball-dominant guards such as Memphis's Ja Morant, Phoenix's Chris Paul and Atlanta's Trae Young.

During clutch time -- when the score is within five points in the last five minutes of a game -- DeRozan is averaging 4.0 points on 57% shooting. Over the past 25 seasons, only one player has averaged 4.0 points while shooting at least 55% from the field during clutch time for an entire season -- LeBron James (2008-09 and 2017-18).

DeRozan ranks third in the NBA in total clutch time points (72); LaVine is sixth (66).

DeRozan is second in the NBA in total fourth-quarter points (262), while LaVine is tied for seventh (210). The last pairs of teammates to both rank in the top seven in fourth-quarter points were Dwyane Wade and LeBron James for the Miami Heat and Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry for the Dallas Mavericks in 2010-11, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"Nothing flusters him," LaVine says of DeRozan. "I can watch him and be like, 'Oh wow, he's not worried about the score, the time or the defender.' He's going to get to his spot and he's going to get the shot that he wants."

Even if the shots he needs look like DeRozan's unlikely pair of buzzer-beaters -- a heave off one-leg to beat the Indiana Pacers and a corner 3 over two defenders to beat the Washington Wizards on the next night -- the Bulls trust DeRozan to execute in those moments.

Perhaps good fortune played a role in DeRozan's buzzer-beaters, but he insists luck isn't the only reason. He spends time perfecting those off-balance moves, he says. While working out last summer, he played 1-on-1 with his cousin -- "big dude, athletic dude, he says he got the fastest hands this side of the Mississippi," as DeRozan describes him -- and he'll allow the cousin to hack him without penalty.

So when DeRozan hit that game winner in Indiana, his family group chat erupted, not with shock, but familiarity.

"That's the same shot D be making in the backyard," DeRozan recalled the messages coming in. "They see it and understand where it comes from. Where it's not necessarily surprising or a bad shot. ... I drilled so many things to where sometimes you've got to go in the trick bag and shoot an unusual shot to be able to get it off and make it."

And it's not just off-balance 3-pointers. DeRozan has elevated his patented midrange game, too. He's shooting 48.0% from the area, the highest average of his career.

And he's taking 3-pointers at the highest rate since 2017-18, up to 2.1 attempts per game, and converting at a career-high 35.7% from beyond the arc.

"You play the piano long enough you're going to get better at it. You will understand certain keys a little bit better, certain tones," DeRozan says. "That's how I look at my game and that's how I wanted to approach my game. ... That was one thing I learned from Kobe [Bryant]. As long as you play, if you're not continuously getting better at one thing, you will continue to be the same player. Even if you improve one thing a season, after a span of time, by the time you are done you have got better at X amount of things."

Sitting on a couch inside an office at the Bulls' practice facility, DeRozan looks down. He thinks about all he has been through since that last appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Raptors in 2015-16.

"I've failed in big moments. I've had success in big moments," DeRozan says. "I'm big on going through the tough times because the tough times [are going to] show you something that the good times can't. That's going to show you how to be resilient, how to be tough, how to be calm in tense moments where certain people are not calm."

He offers an inspired rant, rattling off the chapters of adversity he has endured over the past few years: The devastating trade to San Antonio, away from his best friend and the only NBA home he'd ever known ... playing multiple seasons through a global pandemic, in isolation ... the fragility of life, including the deaths of close friends, Bryant and Nipsey Hussle, and his father.

"For so long, I was, like, tensed up trying to figure out what and why so much stuff happened. Trying to maneuver through so much. Now it's like you kind of just let your hair down and let everything you've been through just take over for itself. The good, the bad, the ugly, everything you endured. ... I don't look at it like it's vindication. It's just -- it's peace."