When a sophomore three-point shooter doubles his threes taken from his rookie season (196 to 408), and increases his percentage by 6.3% (.332 to .395), it can only be classified as a successful season. In our hopes of solidifying a position for the long-term, we tend to expect too much too fast of certain players and Terrence Ross is one of them. The shooting struggles in his rookie season were, at the time, worrying because that was sold as his strength coming out of college, so when he consistently airballed and hit backboard on wide-open threes, there was a sense that the Raptors had picked a dud.
At the same time, it’s very rare that excellent college shooting doesn’t translate into the NBA, especially for a 6’7” player. So when Ross was struggling it was a good bet that the problems were more mental than mechanical, for when his shots did go in his form was flawless. In fact, even when he missed his form was flawless. Coming into his sophomore season he was sold as the “3 and D” player which stats-geeks, amatuer bloggers (redundancy here?), or front-office executives now crave as a necessity for a winning team. And so Ross started his sophomore campaign firmly behind Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan as a role player looking to fill the offensive gaps and supply the defense expected of a player of his ilk and athleticism.
Ross’s season didn’t start till Rudy Gay was traded. The starting role changed his approach to the game in two fundamental ways. First, it gave him the confidence that the coach and franchise had put their faith in him. Rather than try to make an impression in limited and unpredictably distributed minutes, he was installed as a starter and guaranteed a base set of playing time in a defined capacity. The introduction of this rhythm into Ross’s season helped him, somewhat understandably, since most shooters are creatures of pattern. Second, having his coach’s confidence, Ross took more chances on the offensive end than he had in his previous pigeonholed role, and he utilized his dribble more in half-court sets, reacted to the defense by moving around rather than standing on the perimeter like a scarecrow.
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The good play stemming from the combination of calculable playing time and increased confidence culminated in a 51-point outing against the Clippers at home, which was followed by a thunderous dunk on Kenneth Faried during a road trip that affirmed Toronto as a legitimate threat rather than a team in a good stretch of form. The Raptors’ success correlated with the introduction of Ross to the starting lineup (and the Rudy Gay trade, of course), and it lent merit to the idea that a future with Ross and DeRozan occupying the SF/SG spots in some combination may be fruitful.
His defense improved as the minutes got more consistent and Dwane Casey often used him in lineups where he was pressuring point-guards effectively. Lacking the strength to guard top-tier swingmen, this move by Casey gave Ross an opportunity to showcase his lateral quickness, recoverability, and ability to pressure in one-on-one situations. He has ways to go before he can defend in the post or fulfill a 48-minute defensive assignment on a wing threat, however, he showed that he tends to follow good defensive principles and can, with increased strength, coaching, and focus, become a defender that can swing the pendulum in a game.
His psyche appears to be a little fragile and his confidence is prone to be shaken, so the progress he made this year was critical in that it validated his status as an NBA player, which will give the him boost he needs to excel.
If you appreciated his three-point shooting (a glaring hole on the team from the season previous), you had to have also noticed that he tends to favor it to the point where he’s noticeably avoiding any venture into the paint. Perhaps it’s the fear of contact or lack of confidence that he can finish against contests. In either case, that has to be the next level of his offensive progression. It should not be a tall order for Ross to become more than a perimeter threat because he possesses the requisite quickness and dribbling skills to get by his defender, and his handle is tight enough that he can change direction quickly in the face of rotations.
Only 21% of Ross’s FGs were near the rim, which pales in comparison to his wing teammates: Vasquez at 31%, Lowry at 32%, and DeRozan at 27%. Improving this area of his game, which essentially boils down to using a head-fake and driving in more, is going to open up Ross’s offense. He’s overcome the first hurdle of establishing himself as an outside threat, the next logical step is to leverage that into more diverse offense. As I had stated in a recent podcast, Ross (along with Valanciunas) are progressing very naturally in their NBA careers and are, more or less, where they should be in their development cycle.
His projection can be anywhere from Tony Allen to Jamal Crawford. His footwork in defensive stances against wings who are drive threats needs to improve, as the playoffs showed when he was guarding Joe Johnson who he continually got on the wrong side of too easily. The matchup also exposed his lack of strength. Taking the Tony Allen example a little further, at 195 lbs, Ross needs to add about 20 lbs to get to Allen’s weight, at which he has a greater chance of making himself a greater obstacle to overcome in any one-on-one situation where strength is called into question. The increased strength may also make him more keen on picking up charges, of which he had only one all season which is very poor (by comparison, Kyle Lowry had 31).
It’s this off-the-ball defense where the Raptors are going to need him going forward, and where he can add significant value. Like many players of his build, he has the tools to become a player that can have a consistent influence on the game through defense, it’s whether he’s willing to commit to such attention to detail and rigour is where my doubts are. If the Raptors are to forge a defensive identity, they need at least two impactful defensive wings and it can be argued that Lowry is one and DeRozan will never be that, presenting Ross with an opportunity.
His offensive projection is wide-ranging, he could turn out to be what GMs hoped J.R Smith would end up as, or he could end up as J.R Smith. He does have DeRozan, who he presumably guards in practice, to look at as an example of a player who has added an offensive dimension in a relatively short amount of time. There is no reason why Ross cannot progress in the same manner as DeRozan and become a good pull-up shooter, utilize screens to free himself using the live dribble, invite contact near the rim to get to the line, and use elevation to create space. Taking a step further, you could contend that he’s more gifted as a shooter, ball-handler, and athlete than DeRozan, thus has a higher chance of success. That is a topic for another day.
To sum this up, Ross’s development is following a good trajectory and he did what is expected of a player in his situation: he found ways to make himself a valuable member of the team without having to be a focus of the offense, he improved defensively by a degree that gives you confidence that more is to come, and he corrected his rookie issues – jitters, effort, and court awareness.
Depending on how highly Ujiri rates Ross’s potential and the likelihood that he’ll realize it, he could return as a Day One starter, or be viewed as an asset that can be packaged in a larger deal. From my view, Ross is likely to be the fourth or fifth best starter next season, and that is probably where he’ll need to be for the Raptors to have a talented and deep enough team to contend for the Eastern Conference.