TORONTO — Raptors star DeMar DeRozan was a rookie when Toronto’s then-head coach Jay Triano threw him into basketball’s deep end and told him to swim.
The Raptors hosted Triano and his Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, and DeRozan talked fondly about the confidence the coach instilled in him.
“First of all, giving me the opportunity, I was the only rookie on the team that started, that played. I was entrusted,” DeRozan said. “He gave me the confidence to be the scorer that I am today. I remember there was a lot of games, he’d tell me if I don’t shoot the ball, he’s going to take me out. Being 20, 21 years old, to hear your head coach tell you that, it gave me everything.”
Triano was named the Suns’ interim head coach after Earl Watson was fired just three games into this season, and Phoenix has gone 9-13 since.
The 59-year-old from Niagara Falls, Ont., said he sees numerous similarities between his young Suns squad and the Raptors team in DeRozan’s first two NBA seasons.
“Us drafting DeMar DeRozan and playing him and letting him grow as a player, it’s very similar to what we’re doing in Phoenix right now,” Triano said before tip-off. “Having to play guys like James Johnson through rough times and now watching him excel in the NBA, for a coach those are some of the things that are gratifying.
“You helped in their development and I feel the same way about our young players.”
Among the young Suns under his guidance: Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender (20), and Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis (21).
The 28-year-old DeRozan, who’s developed into a three-time NBA all-star in the years since Triano, said his former coach’s personality is “so positive.”
“It makes you want to be at work, makes you want to do all the things that he asks from you. In a sense, kind of a player’s coach as well.”
DeRozan recalled Triano’s trick shots in practice. At one particular practice, Triano stood in the middle of the gym and shot on all six nets.
“He made like five out of the six baskets. It was something,” marvelled the three-time NBA all-star. “Seeing stuff like that, your head coach do something like that, it was like ‘Let me work on my shot, too, so I can try something like that.”’
Triano became the first Canadian-born head coach in NBA history in 2008, after Toronto fired Sam Mitchell. The Raptors went 25-40 to finish that season. They went 40-42 in 2009-10, and narrowly missed the playoffs. The Raptors were a disappointing 22-60 in 2010-11, and the team didn’t pick up the option on Triano’s contract.
Since then, he’s been an assistant under Terry Stotts in Portland, and then under Watson in Phoenix.
Standing in the bowels of the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night, Triano said he had fond memories of his time coaching in Toronto, and laughed when asked about his trick shots in practice.
“That was a fun one,” he said on the six-net shooting game. “It meant staying in the gym for a long time, it meant getting to know players on a different level and still working on a skill. Those are fun times. Those are the times you remember.”
Raptors coach Dwane Case said Triano is likely breathing a bit easier in his second stint as head coach.
“The first time you become a head coach in this league, and I don’t care how many years you played or how long you’ve been an assistant coach, when you move over those 12 inches, it’s different. Everything falls on your plate and I don’t care who you are, that first time around, you’re overwhelmed,” said Casey, who was Minnesota’s head coach for two seasons.
“So many other factors … dealing with different types of personalities as players. It’s different approaching those guys from an assistant coaching standpoint than a head coaching standpoint. So I guarantee he has a better feel for who he is now than he did when he was here, if he’s honest with you.”