There is no point in saying DeMar DeRozan is the next 'this' or the next 'that,' any more than this Toronto Raptors season was meant to be judged at any point other than at its conclusion.
But let's just say this: in a city whose hockey team has turned the phrase "first-round draft pick" into an expletive deleted (or, at least, expletive traded to Boston) the progress of DeRozan, last year's first-round pick, is notable. That he has been able to refine his game - to do a better job of handling the ball in tight quarters, make nice wide runs down the wing and increasingly find his mid-range jumper - while becoming enough of a factor that he has separated himself statistically from the bulk of the sophomore pack, is all to the good.
DeRozan is for the Raptors in many ways what Luke Schenn is to the Maple Leafs: the guy you'd like to think will really be something when the team can make it count.
What does it say that DeRozan's sophomore season compares favourably with numbers put up by other athletic wing players in recent seasons? Just that it appears all the positive character traits that his coach and general manager and teammates say he possesses - Raptors television analyst Jack Armstrong calls him a gym rat - are translating into improvement. It's nice that DeRozan hits the practice court at night to work on his shooting with assistant Eric Hughes; better yet that it's making a difference.
"DeMar should continue to improve almost by default based on his extensive on-court experience," said Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo, referring to DeRozan's average of almost 33 minutes a game. "He is clearly getting more savvy about when and how to score."
Of course DeRozan's defence needs work. And there will still be nights such as Wednesday's: a start in which he writes himself large all over the game - eight points in eight minutes, including a reverse jam and brazenly returning the favour of a Joe Johnson blow-by with one of his own on the ensuing possession - only to get lost after spending the first five minutes of the second quarter on the bench. Not much he could do about the phantom foul he was assessed on Jamal Crawford that sent the Atlanta Hawks player to the line for three: Crawford flops. He sold the play. Crawford is a big-time player and he put the Hawks on his back down the stretch.
DeRozan nodded in the affirmative when it was suggested there will come a time where he will demand the ball in games such as Wednesday's, won 104-101 by Atlanta.
"Leandro [Barbosa]stepped up for us, though, so all I wanted to do was focus on defence," DeRozan said. "Yeah, that time will come. But right now, a game like this one, I'm just trying to play to the flow of the game and do what I can."
When these teams last met in Toronto, the Raptors were booed off the court. That was hardly fair, since even when the Raptors are healthy the Hawks are a nightmare for them - just as they are for many other teams. That was Nov. 28 and the Raptors were just beginning to come to grips with the fact they wouldn't have Reggie Evans's demonic rebounding and were torched with a 3-for-17 third quarter in which the Hawks outscored the Raptors 25-11 on the way to a 96-78 win.
That did not happen Wednesday. With sixth-man Barbosa scoring 26 points - he looks and sometimes walks like an old soul, but my goodness he can bring a crowd to its feet - the Raptors had an Andrea Bargnani three-pointer for the tie. He missed.
DeRozan's line was modest: nine points, five boards and two assists. In time, there is no way his head coach will do what Jay Triano did: no way he'll play 12 good minutes and then sit on the bench for five. There will be nights when it will be on him to deliver, when it will make sense to look at the standings before a game - when DeRozan will come back into a game and assert his will. Of that, we can now be reasonably certain.