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NBA AM: How Kyle Lowry Emerged as a Star

It took nine years and three teams, but Kyle Lowry is finally an All-Star and leading a contender.

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How Kyle Lowry Emerged as a Star in Toronto

Kyle Lowry has never lacked confidence. For the first eight seasons of his NBA career, he wasn’t named to the All-Star team and often flew under the radar. This frustrated the point guard, as he felt he was on the same level as the players who were being selected to the midseason classic each year.

“Of course I thought I was as good as those guys,” Lowry said with a grin.

Instead of getting upset about the lack of recognition he was receiving, Lowry used the slight as extra motivation and pushed himself so that one day he’d be recognized as an All-Star-caliber player (by someone other than himself).

“Every year I tried to get better and I tried to continue to grow as a player,” Lowry said. “[I] wanted to get better and continue to grow to be as good as those [All-Star] players.”

In his ninth year and on his third team, Lowry finally did it. Not only did he make his first All-Star appearance this season, he was a starter for the Eastern Conference team. That’s a testament to how far he has come as a player and how popular he is among NBA fans. Lowry received 805,290 votes to start in the East’s backcourt, beating out big-name guards like Miami’s Dwyane Wade (789,839) and Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving (535,873).

“It’s my first time being here and it’s as a starter,” Lowry said in disbelief. “I don’t think you can draw this script up much better.”

While that script has a happy ending, the early pages would detail how Lowry’s journey to stardom wasn’t exactly easy. Remember, it wasn’t long ago that Lowry was known as a stubborn point guard who had a reputation for butting heads with coaches. He had gotten into it with Kevin McHale when the two were together on the Houston Rockets and he even had issues with Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey in their first season together. Lowry was talented, but there’s a reason he bounced around the league and was sometimes benched for other point guards.

He was traded twice before landing in Toronto, and they weren’t blockbuster deals. The Memphis Grizzlies named Mike Conley their starting point guard one year after drafting Lowry, making the latter expendable. He was traded in a three-team deal with the Grizzlies and Orlando Magic, in which Houston sent out only Rafer Alston and received Lowry and Brian Cook while Memphis landed Adonal Foyle, Mike Wilks and a future first-round pick. When Houston traded him to Toronto, the Rockets received just Gary Forbes and a future first-round pick.

Lowry was almost traded for a third time just last year, when the Raptors considered moving him prior to the deadline. Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri had just dealt veteran Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings and thought about parting ways with Lowry too in order to start rebuilding around the team’s young players. Lowry’s name kept surfacing in trade rumors and, according to reports, he was nearly sent to the New York Knicks in exchange for Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace and either Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. or a 2018 first-round pick. However, Knicks owner James Dolan reportedly vetoed the deal.

Toronto is lucky that the trade with the Knicks didn’t go through, as Lowry soon emerged as one of the best two-way point guards in the league and led the Raptors into the playoffs with a 48-34 record despite their ugly 6-12 start to the season. The veteran floor general and his teammates were outstanding in the second half of last year’s campaign, climbing the standings and ultimately earning the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Ujiri and Lowry went on to develop a strong bond and now it’s clear the point guard is the face of the franchise as well as the heart and soul of the Raptors.

More importantly, the baggage that Lowry carried around for much of his career has suddenly vanished and he seems like a completely different person these days.

Lowry’s transformation began prior to the start of last season, when he got married and had a son, which clearly helped him mature and changed his priorities. He also became very serious about taking his game to another level, even cutting his honeymoon short so that he could start his offseason training earlier at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas. Lowry started taking better care of his body, hiring a private chef and adjusting his diet. The veteran point guard knew that these were the kind of changes that players make when they want to go from being good to being great, and he was looking for any little edge he could get so that he could make the leap to stardom.

Perhaps the biggest change for Lowry was his attitude. Rather than being closed off, he was happier and much more approachable. Rather than focusing on himself and his individual goals, he put the team first and wanted to be the Raptors’ leader. He started taking some young players under his wing and has even opened his home to them.

When Lowry was a rookie in Memphis, the team’s veterans really took care of him. Mike Miller gave him the pass code to his house and told him he was free to come over anytime. Damon Stoudamire gave him suits and clothes to wear since he was ballin’ on a budget. Now that Lowry is the veteran leader in Toronto, he wants to give back and do the same things for his young teammates. It’s clear that Lowry at 28 years old is very different from the young man who entered the league back in 2006.

“It was just me growing up and understanding that at some point I would have to take on more responsibility and [start] looking in the mirror,” Lowry said. “It was [me] becoming more mature. I was just working and not settling for anything – never being satisfied and just going out there and doing my job.”

Lowry’s changes have really paid off and he’s seeing excellent results on and off the court. His leadership has been huge for the Raptors, keeping them in contention despite dealing with injuries to key players, such as DeMar DeRozan. Individually, this has also been the best season of Lowry’s nine-year NBA career, as he’s averaging 18.6 points, 7.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals.

The advanced numbers also show how productive Lowry has been throughout this season. His efficiency rating (20.4) is the highest of his career and ranks 14th in the league, and he’s seventh in offensive plus-minus (4.8), ninth in value over replacement player (3.1) and 13th in offensive win shares (4.6).

While Lowry’s lifestyle changes significantly helped his career, he believes that his increased role with Toronto also played a significant part in his success. On other teams, his role was very different and he wasn’t sure if he’d ever have the freedom and increased responsibilities he has now. He’s grateful that Coach Casey and the Raptors have given him this opportunity and put him in a position to be successful and earn this All-Star honor.

“I think once the opportunity came, I took advantage of it,” Lowry said. “Until then, before the opportunity came, I was just trying to figure out when the opportunity was going to come. Yeah, there were ups and downs that were definitely in the way, but at the same time I just knew if I kept working as hard as I know I can work, I’d get here.

“I think that they just gave me the keys to drive the car and they believed and trusted in me and that’s why I think we have a great working relationship right now. I think we have a great team and a great organization along with a great group of guys and coaching staff. Everything seemed to have just worked out perfectly right now.”

Lowry admits that initially, he didn’t think Toronto was going to be the place where everything came together for him. He had doubts and wasn’t sure if things were going to work out on the Raptors.

“Well no, honestly I didn’t think [this is where everything would work out],” Lowry said of Toronto. “But with all the hard work I put in and the commitment they made to me, everything just kind of came into fruition and it worked out.”

Now, Lowry couldn’t be happier in Toronto, which is why he just signed a four-year, $48 million contract with the Raptors last summer to remain with the franchise for the foreseeable future. The love and support he has received from everyone in and around the organization has meant a lot to him.

“Our fan base in Toronto is crazy; every single night we sell out,” Lowry said. “The fans come out and support us and they do a great job of just coming out, cheering loud, showing their passion and electrifying the building. … The advantage of playing in Toronto is you’re not just playing for one city, you’re playing for a country. We know that and we appreciate it. You’re not just playing for one city in Toronto, we’re playing for Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton. You’re playing for a whole country.”

Even when the Raptors have gone on the road this season, Lowry and his teammates have noticed that there are large sections of Toronto fans throughout their opponent’s arena.

“Honestly, Canadians are all over the world and when they get a chance to support their team and show up, they do it,” Lowry said. “They’ve been doing it and we appreciate it. It’s fun when our fans are in other peoples’ buildings chanting our names.”

Just as Toronto has fallen in love with Lowry, he has fallen in love with the city.

“Right now, it’s home,” Lowry said. “Toronto is the place that supports me and the entire country of Canada is a place I call home right now. It’s the place I live and play majority of the year in so right now it’s my home.”

In the past, there was the belief that the Raptors would have trouble attracting free agents to sign there since they play in Canada and it’s different from what some players are accustomed to in the U.S. However, Lowry doesn’t believe that free agents are opposed to signing with Toronto. He thinks that the team’s winning culture will make them an attractive destination for available players.

“I think winning changes your culture and your image so if you win and you keep on winning, players are going to want to come and play,” Lowry said. “If you’re winning, they’re going to want to come and join that.”

Toronto is certainly winning, and it seems like they have as good a shot as any team to come out of the Eastern Conference this year. Lowry believes they have what it takes.

“I think we have the opportunity and the potential to go really far, but we still have to go out and do it,” Lowry said. “I can say it all I want until my face turns blue, but at the end of the day we have to go out there and tie our shoes and go do it on the hardwood.”

While other teams may be better on paper, Toronto’s chemistry and balanced attack make them very hard to beat. The Raptors currently have the league’s fourth-best offense, averaging 108.9 points per 100 possessions, which is even more impressive when you consider that they don’t have a single player averaging 20 points per game. Lowry is their leading scorer at 18.6 points.

The fact that they don’t rely on one player to lead them every night is actually a strength since their balance is hard to slow down and a new player can step up to defeat their opponent on any given night. Toronto currently has five players averaging in double figures (as well as four more players averaging between 8.0 and 9.9 points). The Raptors are one of the deepest teams in the league, as their bench scores 39.9 points per game (which ranks fifth in the NBA).

“We’ve got a good team,” Lowry said. “We got a full group. One man went down and the next guy kind of stepped up and that’s how we roll on our team. If one guy goes down, we’re not out of it. The next guy steps up and that’s what makes a good team.

“Oh and [our chemistry is very important]. We’re very strong as a unit – one through 15 – so everyone has their own voice and their own say. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why our team is such a good team. No one is above one another. “

Coach Casey deserves a lot of credit for the team’s success, as Toronto has gotten better each year he has been on the sidelines. He played a crucial role as an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks during their 2011 championship run, which allowed him to land the Raptors’ head coaching job. As previously mentioned, he and Lowry didn’t get along at first, but their issues are behind them. Now, Lowry has developed strong relationships with Casey and Ujiri.

“He’s all about defense,” Lowry said of Casey. “He really wants us to always focus on defense and hang our hats on defense because, at the end of the day, that’s how you win games and that’s where he comes from. He’s just a defensive-minded guy.”

Perhaps the scariest thing about this Raptors squad is that their best basketball is likely still ahead of them. After all, center Jonas Valanciunas is just 22 years old, DeRozan is 25, Terrence Ross is 24, Patrick Patterson is 25 and Bruno Caboclo (the team’s 2014 first-round pick) is 19. Toronto still has plenty of room for growth as their young players develop, or they could use these talented young players in a trade if they want to try to land another star to put alongside Lowry.

Even if the team stands pat and doesn’t make any moves (although rumor has it that they’re looking for a big man to bolster their frontcourt), Lowry believes Valanciuas has what it takes to be a special player and perhaps even an All-Star someday.

“He is going to continue to get better,” Lowry said of Valanciunas. “He’s been very instrumental to our team. He’s been a great rim protector and he’s had more double-doubles this year than I believe any other year so far. I think he’s just going to keep developing. He’s only 22 years old, so I think he’s just going to continue to get better, figure out his game and have fun with it. Once he learns to just have fun with it, he’ll be really good… I think he has an opportunity to be an All-Star because he can be a dominant big.”

The biggest question mark on the roster is Caboclo, who is extremely raw and seems to be a few years away from contributing. He was drafted as a project so he’s going to take some time to develop, but he has a ton of potential and Lowry has been impressed with the teenager’s work ethic thus far.

“I think Bruno is going to keep getting better,” Lowry said. “He’s still so young, he’s so raw and you can’t really pinpoint what he’s going to be. That work ethic has been unbelievable though; he’s in the gym every night, two times a day and I think he has the work ethic that he needs to be a good pro.”

Lowry has accomplished his goal of being an All-Star, but he’s not satisfied just yet. Throughout the rest of the season, he wants to continue playing at an All-Star caliber level to prove that he deserved to be in the game and that this was no fluke selection.

“[I want to show] that I belong and that there is a reason that I was voted in as a starter,” Lowry said. “That’s one of the things that’s going to keep me motivated [throughout the year]. I’m always going to be motivated.”

Lowry has nothing left to prove, as he has shown over the last two years that he belongs among the NBA’s elite. Now, he’ll focus on his biggest goal: bringing a championship back to Toronto. He’s determined to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy and pop bottles with his Raptors teammates, and he’s doing whatever it takes to achieve that – even if it means transforming who he is to better himself on and off the court.

Did You Miss the All-Star Events?

We understand that this was a busy weekend for a variety of reasons. You had Valentine’s Day, so you may not have been able to sneak away from your significant other and enjoy the 2015 NBA All-Star Weekend.

We know our readers have a lot going on in their lives, and that not everyone can sit in front of their television and take in all of the All-Star festivities from New York throughout the weekend.

Fortunately, we here at Basketball Insiders have you covered. Our experts Steve Kyler, Jessica Camerato, Moke Hamilton and Tommy Beer were running around New York throughout the weekend and freezing their butts off to compile the best All-Star coverage possible.

To see all of our interviews and articles with this year’s All-Stars, Rising Stars, Dunk Contest participants and Three-Point Contest shooters, be sure to click here.

A number of the players talked about their upcoming free agency, where their team stands at the unofficial halfway point in the season, their growth as a player and much more.

We also posted recaps of every night, so you know can find out what happened in each event.

Did you miss the Rising Stars Challenge that featured young U.S.-born players facing off against young international players? Here’s our Friday night recap.

Did you miss the Skills Challenge, Three-Point Contest and Dunk Contest? Here’s our Saturday night recap.

And if you missed the main event, the 2015 NBA All-Star game, here’s our Sunday night recap so you know who played well and what happened during the event.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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