It's been a long road to Toronto for DeMarre Carroll. After three years on the fringe of NBA rosters, Carroll made an impression as a defensive-minded member of the Utah Jazz, then developed his offense to become a two-way force with the Atlanta Hawks.
Now, he's got the money to speak to his rise; the recipient of a 4-year, $60 million contract, Carroll is the leading player in a dramatic off-season overhaul for the Toronto Raptors. The opportunity to lead this defense-first charge is humbling for him, as he repeated throughout a candid conversation we had earlier this month.
We also discussed his charitable efforts, Toronto as a free agent destination, his thoughts on Canada, and how he'll impact the Raptors basketball culture on both ends of the floor.
You’ve been all over the place this summer – just from your Instagram, you’ve done NBA Cares events in Shanghai, running youth camps in Atlanta, have you had a chance to relax since your signing?
Not really, I’ve been going a hundred miles per hour, just trying to take advantage of the opportunity I got being a role model in the community, doing NBA Cares events in China, doing my NBA camps. At the same time, I’m trying to get better and get prepared for next season.
Being over in China, is that your first time?
Yeah, that was my first time over in China. I think it was a great experience, if you’re an NBA player and you’ve never been to China, it’s a great experience. The fans over there are amazing. Basketball’s the number one sport over there, it’s very popular.
Yeah, I know the basketball culture’s growing over there.
It’s amazing. I didn’t know that many NBA fans were over there, it was crazy, everywhere I went people knew who I was. It just shows you how popular the NBA is.
Not in China, but I know some of the camps you’ve run this summer are a part of your foundation (the Carroll Family Foundation) which provides resources for families dealing with pediatric liver disease, something you’ve lived with yourself. Is the foundation coming with you to Toronto?
Yeah, it’s coming to Toronto and I think this will be the first year where I really get out and do more events. I think Toronto will be the perfect place to experience all the events that I’m going to try to get out and do… try to get more fans, more people in the community involved.
What kinds of programs should we expect?
I’ll do an event, like a charity event, maybe bring a couple guys from the team, I’m going to do a lot of outdoor events. I’ll do a bowling event… it’s going to be fun but it’ll be an opportunity for a lot of people to come out and donate, see what types of things we’re trying to do to raise awareness. This liver disease is something a lot of people in the world don’t understand or know about.
On the foundation and liver disease, you made a lot of fans here in Toronto with your press conference’s emotional opening statement, mentioning the disease and all the other obstacles you’ve overcome. What is it about this opportunity that brings the emotions out?
I just think it’s the first time in my life, after all I’ve done and all the obstacles I’ve been through in my life, I can finally see the reward. I can finally have the opportunity of a lifetime to go out and play in front of a packed house every night. Playing for fans who cheer and love the things that I bring to the team - you know, a lot of blue collar guys go unnoticed and I feel like Toronto fans really adapt to that because they had a junkyard dog in Jerome Williams.
I think it’s just a great opportunity to get out there and show what I can do and I think a lot of people appreciate me not only as an individual on the court, but as an individual off the court as well.
I know those emotions, that drive and mental toughness, is a huge reason why Coach Casey and Masai wanted you in free agency. What was it specifically they said in the July 1 meeting to sway you?
Basically, the first thing was that it was about family. They included my family in a lot of things, especially my wife and my kid, it just showed how family-oriented they are.
You know, basketball is just a small portion of life. Family is always there and you have to understand the meaning of life. They welcomed my family with open arms and all that, so it kind of made me feel like this is a great opportunity, that these people really care about me – not just me on the court, but my family off the court and what I do off the court.
I know you’ve got a young daughter and Kyle’s got a young son, DeMar’s got a young daughter as well. Is that important, having something to bond over with the other important players on this team?
Oh yeah, most definitely, we all have that something in common. We all try and reach the same goal, and that’s to bring a championship to Toronto. Having kids and family members we can relate and understand, talk to each other about the pain and the positives on and off the court, it’s always important. I think it’s great that they have young kids like I have young kids too.
Masai and Coach Casey, I know they talked about expanding your offensive role. In Coach Bud’s system in Atlanta, your offense was very defined – a lot of three-pointers and drives to the rim. Where, if anywhere, are you looking to expand your repertoire in Toronto?
I think, most importantly, is just play pick and roll. I think I understand that and it’s what my next step is. I’ll continue to keep shooting the three ball, continue to keep slashing, and continue to make my main focus playing defense. That’s what they really brought me over here for. But I think playing pick and roll is the next step on my ladder and, once I learn how to play pick and roll and [how to make] proper reads off pick and roll, then I can start looking toward other things, like maybe playing one on one and posting up. But I think it’s just taking it one step at a time.
Each year I’m in Toronto, I’m trying to grow, and you don’t want to try to take too many leaps and bounds at once, because you have to try to perfect one thing and keep getting better at one thing and I think that’s what I try to do. That’s why I had so many successful years in Atlanta.
There’s a remarkable stat about you that really stands out to me – your shot chart last year had only five or six "cool areas", spots on the floor where you don’t shoot a good percentage, but you only took 25 shots total from those areas over the entire season. That’s an incredible amount of discipline and a credit to Coach Bud’s system. Are you looking to be a leader in bringing that discipline to your new team?
Yeah, most definitely. The biggest thing I’m going to try to bring to Toronto is having a team that doesn’t care who gets the glory. You have so many guys on a team who want the glory and, I think, if we win games and we all have the same common goal and don’t have no egos, you’re going to have your glory.
That’s what I learned with the Hawks. We didn’t care who scored the most points, we didn’t care who had the most rebounds, we just cared about winning the game. Some nights it might not be your night but you have to look at the person in the mirror and just say to yourself it’s not your night. I think, just taking ownership with yourself - that’s what I’m going to try to bring, bring that bond that we don’t have to put it all on one person’s shoulders.
There are times where Kyle might try to put it all on his shoulders and DeMar might try to put it all on his shoulders and I think we’re just going to try to do it as a team and when you can do it as a team, I think the sky’s the limit for us.
So that’s the mindset you’re trying to bring in, you want that team culture that you experienced in Atlanta.
Most definitely. In Atlanta, we always had this one saying that I used to say, it was "always pass up a good shot to get a great shot". What I mean is, sometimes you might have a good shot and it might look really good but you might have somebody in the corner that you can kick it to and that’s an even better shot. So I feel like if we can just play like that, pass up a good shot to get a great shot, I think the sky’s the limit for us.
You came on with Atlanta the last couple years - what was it about your time with the Hawks that really helped you improve as a player?
I just think it was me having the opportunity, man. Having that opportunity of a lifetime and not letting it pass me by. Coach Bud came to me and said that he really wanted me, so he was really the one who brought me there. One thing I learned in this league, if the coach really wants you, then the sky’s the limit for you. It’s an opportunity to go out there and really perform at a high level. That’s how Coach Casey did it, he reminded me of Coach Bud when he came into the meeting and told me he had a ‘man crush’ on me and told me that he really wanted me there. I feel like if I can just go out and compete and do what I need to do, I think everything else will take care of itself.
Let’s talk about what you do on defense then. At that three spot, you’ve got the task of guarding the best backcourt players on a nightly basis. I know it’s nothing new for you, but what’s the mindset when you’re guarding those great players?
I think it’s just a challenge. You know, most people see the challenge like playing one-on-one. Most guys are thinking about offense like ‘oh I’m gonna go out here and I’m playing against Kobe Bryant, I need to try to score on him’. But my mindset is I’m going to go out here and try to play the best defense. If I’m playing LeBron James or Kevin Durant, it’s just time to really show my worth and show who I am, for me to get out here and compete.
It’s kind of like 90% of people in the league think of offense, I feel like it’s an opportunity for me to go out here, show I’m the best guy and try to become one of the great defensive stoppers like Bruce Bowen and those guys who have done it throughout the league.
Being a defensive player and getting rewarded with a contract on the first day of free agency, that’s got to feel good.
Yeah, it feels great man. It just shows me that guys of my caliber, defensive guys, are really getting a nod and getting the recognition that we deserve. Defense is my calling card and I think that’s what I’m always going to do, but I think most guys just get caught in playing defense until they lose sight that they can improve on offense. That’s the mindset I try to take: defense is my calling card, that’s my first thought, but who says I can’t get better on the offensive end too?
Now, you’re obviously not the only player coming in with that blue collar attitude. Bismack Biyombo, Cory Joseph, even Luis Scola have reputations as solid defenders. Is your expectation for Toronto to be an elite defensive team this season?
Yeah, I think that’s the goal. We have numerous guys who can put the ball in the basket, I just think the defensive end, getting stops, was the biggest thing [last season]. They can score with the best of them, Toronto averaged 100-something points last year, but it’s just defense. Offense will win you a couple games but I think, ultimately, defense will win you the championship.
And obviously you and Joseph will help with the defense at the point of attack, that was a huge issue last year for the Raptors and you guys know you can come in and help that.
Oh yeah, most definitely. I know Cory Joseph, he’s a very aggressive guard, a defensive-minded guard, so I’m just looking forward to getting out there with him.
I think Kyle Lowry too, before he really started surging on offense, he was one of those hard-nosed defensive guards. He kind of tailed away from that a little bit, but I think that was only because he had so much weight on his shoulders. So me coming in, helping him on the defensive end, Cory Joseph and so on – we can kind of help them get back to being one of those hard, gritty type of guarding guys that he was in Houston and so on.
Coach Casey’s system is one based in opportunistic defense, getting steals and getting out in the open floor – is that a type of system you’ll feel comfortable in?
Yeah, I think that’s the type of defense I like to play, to get up in you up and down the floor. Hopefully, if that’s the defense, that’ll feed into my hands because that’s when I’m at my best.
Let’s talk about Toronto a little more. Are you moved in? Have you had any interaction with fans?
I just came in and did my press conference, my wife has been back and forth trying to get the house. I've been around with my foundation and going overseas and that type of stuff. I really haven’t been there to get acclimated to the city so as soon as I get there, I’ll hit the ground running.
It’s a great opportunity, man, it’s going to be a great experience playing in front of a packed house like that every night and I’m really excited about it.
As an outsider, what do you know about Raptors fans?
I did know that they were some of the best fans in the NBA. Every time we used to play there I used to always think that. I remember watching them when they used to play in the playoff games, every NBA player having seen all the fans outside of the Air Canada Centre cheering their team on. I think it’s just some of the best fans and I'm really looking forward to seeing a lot of them.
A lot of it is playing for a Canadian team too, Kyle Lowry has said repeatedly that it’s not just playing for Toronto, it’s all of Canada.
I know there’s 35 million people in Canada so when you’re playing for Toronto, you’re playing for 35 million people. Every person in Canada is basically watching the Toronto Raptors and, you know, hoping that one day we can ultimately bring a championship here. It don’t happen overnight, but I think it’s the opportunity of a lifetime for us and I think, as a team, that’s how we've got to play – like we've got a chip on our shoulder to bring the city a championship.
Have you spoken with Lowry and DeRozan?
Yeah, I talked to them, they hit me up when I signed and then we went for dinner. I basically told DeMar, he can go back to being who he is, you know, being one of our go-to guys on the offensive end. I know he had to guard a lot of LeBron James and so on last year because they didn't have a big three, so I think it’s an opportunity for him to really go out and show who he is, what he can bring to this team, and I think he can be a franchise player.
What excites you about playing in the backcourt with those two?
Just the opportunity, man. Kyle Lowry, he’s a blue collar guard and he’s playing hard and coming out with a chip on his shoulder. You know, back in the day he went through some of the same things I went through with the Grizzlies – not to the extent I did, but he’s been through a lot. Mike Conley playing over him and all that, I think he still has that chip on his shoulder and so does DeMar. I think it’s going to great having guys with chips on their shoulders looking to prove themselves all over again.
So, in the context of this team’s history, you’re one of the biggest free agent grabs – typically in the off-season we see guys leaving, not coming in. This also came during a summer where the Raptors got a meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge before he signed with the Spurs.
Just in your experience in NBA circles, do you see that shift happening and is Toronto being seen as a bigger free agent destination?
Yeah, because I feel like Toronto has everything to offer. A lot of people look at Toronto as Canada, and it’s cold, but I think it’s got a lot to offer from the city, from the fans, and the basketball too. They made it to the first round the last two years, they just haven’t got over that hump. But I think there’s a lot to offer and Toronto’s coming around the corner to being a destination that a lot of guys want to come to.
Lastly, I know training camp is the next thing on the NBA schedule. What are you excited to get out of camp?
The biggest thing is to gel with the guys, get out there and compete. Training camp is always a tough task but, at the same time, it bonds you together because when you’re competing, going through that stuff, it’s difficult and it helps you bond together as a brotherhood.
That ties into the schedule too, as you guys play 11 of the first 14 on the road, is that a bonding opportunity as well?
Most definitely, it’s early in the season. The earlier you can get on the road and bond, the better. At the end, you should never be the same team at the end of the season that you are at the beginning, so if you can overcome the road early on, toward the end your bond, your brotherhood should be even better. Toward the end of the season, you should be playing your best basketball.