Terrence Ross Embracing the Opportunity to Become Raptors’ Stopper

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The term “3-and-D” gets thrown around fairly often in NBA discussions. If you’re unaware, the term generally refers to a wing player who is capable of playing above-average defense and hitting threes. Obvious, right?

There’s a lot of value in guys like this. Shane Battier has made a career of modeling that definition, guys like Trevor Ariza, Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo are regularly in demand because of their ability to do both and, before he reached stardom, it looked like the role Paul George may one day excel in. A player need not be elite at either or both, but the ability to be a plus on the defensive end and space the floor is paramount for success on the wing.

It’s also a term that has been thrown around with respect to Terrence Ross’ NBA potential.

That evaluation certainly makes sense; Ross has already shown he can (and will) shoot the three, ranking 24th in the league with 71 triples and hitting them at a well-above-average 38.8 percent clip. And in fact, entering the 2012 draft, his shooting and defensive potential were the key highlights in his profile.

From ESPN: Toronto wanted a shooter to pair with DeMar DeRozan, and Ross is a good shooter and a terrific athlete and Where Ross’ potential really excites me is on defense. The Washington coaching staff described him to me as a playmaking defender who had a knack for blocks, steals and stops at key points in games. His physical attributes combined with a good defensive IQ give him some advantages over others at his position. He could guard the best NBA perimeter scorers in time, and that should endear him to his future team.

And from Draft Express: His combination of physical tools, defense, perimeter shooting, and ability to attack the rim off the ball give him good potential as a very high-end role player, and he still has room to grow. Continuing to improve his ball-handling and continuing to add strength to his frame would help his stock, which is something he could show in pre-draft workout matchups, where his makeup as a player and commitment to defense could allow him to shine.

As a rookie, Ross didn’t impress all that much defensively (or with his outside shot). There were extenuating circumstances, namely an ever-changing role on the team thanks to the instability of the roster and the regular rookie learning curve. While Ross was effective in the pick and roll and guarding off screens (basically, any situation in which he was chasing an opposing player), he struggled when isolated. The team was also appreciably better defensively (104 points per 100 possessions or PPC) with him on the bench than on the floor (106.1), a number skewed a bit by the starting unit’s overall impressive defense. This isn’t surprising, though, as he was going from trying to lock down Pac-12 players to NBA players, an easy jump for nobody.

It didn’t sour the franchise on his potential, however. In the preseason, head coach Dwane Casey compared Ross to Rashard Lewis, another player who succeeded in (and for a while, surpassed) the 3-and-D role. But his message was also clear – Ross didn’t bring it every night and every possession and relied too much on his athleticism to make up the difference.

Look at these two mega-grainy and cherry-picked examples from last season. The first shows Ross sagging way too far off the ball-handler and relying on his vertical to close the gap when the shooter pulls up. The second shows Ross completely fall asleep, helping weakly on the dive man and leaving his man wide open at the break.

This season, however, has been different. While I hesitate to say that Ross’ attitude has changed because I don’t want to suggest he gave less effort or focused less on defense as a rookie, he’s looked worlds better on the defensive end.

He no longer looks like his upside is just a wing who can shoot and guard capably, he appears to have genuine lock-down defender potential. That term has no more universal a definition than 3-and-D, though it’s a tier above, to be sure.

Consider what generally goes into defense: athleticism, defensive IQ and effort. Ross has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the first. The second is something he flashed at Washington but likely takes on-the-job experience to nurture at the NBA level. He’s getting that opportunity now and looking better by the week. And the third, focus, might be the driving force behind the improvement.

“He’s grown. His focus now is better,” Casey said last Wednesday. “Understanding what’s going to happen to him now is better. Translating what happens in practice to games is better.

“He’s so much more improved than he was earlier in the year.”

Part of that, as mentioned, is opportunity. With Rudy Gay traded, Ross lost a player to work on his defense against in practice but became the team’s starting small forward and the only wing on the team, short of perhaps John Salmons in spot duty, with the profile to stop the opposing team’s best player. It seems risky in the short-term to have a sophomore check All-Stars, but what option does Casey have, both in the present and with the goal of developing a stopper looking forward?

The experiment is encouraging so far. With Ross on the floor since the trade, the Raptors allow just 101.8 PPC – that’s worse than the team’s mark with him on the bench but would still be a top-10 defense in the league (that Ross plays 56 percent of his minutes with the struggling-defensively Jonas Valanciunas probably doesn’t help). Opposing small forwards have just an 11.4 player efficiency rating (PER) against Ross, per 82games.com, and of the 33 lineups the Raptors have employed for at least 12 minutes, three of the top four defensive units include Ross.

To Ross’ credit, it’s a role he’s really embraced and takes pride in. He shoots a lot of threes and throws down highlight reel dunks, but it’s talking about defense that gets Ross speaking faster and more excitedly.

“It’s something I embrace, something I like to take on,” Ross told Raptors Republic last Tuesday. “Coach is always telling me that they usually try to put me on, if we have to guard a wing like James Harden or Paul George or somebody like that, then I’m usually the guy that has to guard him.

“I look at it as an opportunity. I like playing defense. It’s fun to me, especially playing a guy that’s known for being a scorer. If you can slow him down in any type of way, it’s a good feeling for me.”

If a coach went into pre-draft interviews looking for a future defensive ace, that’s pretty much verbatim what the coach would hope to hear.

And Ross isn’t exaggerating in the assignments he’s been given. In this clip from November, Ross capably stays in front of Harden and doesn’t fall for his stutter-carry, a move he usually uses to confuse a defender before taking his aggressive first step into the paint.

And here, from New Year’s Day, watch Ross guarding George. Not only does Ross deny George positioning at the elbow and delay that step in the action until just 11 seconds remain on the clock, but he stays aggressive after George has the ball. The play appears to be designed for David West, anyway, but look at how George disengages after Ross takes a swipe at the ball.

In both cases, Ross clearly has a plan against a top player. Ross credits advanced study for some of his success against the bigger names, citing video work and a player’s tendencies (left or right, where they like the ball, etc) as pre-game points of emphasis for him. (He also noted he studies what the referees tend to allow players, which I found interesting considering Ross had a clear mission of keeping Harden from entering the paint in the clip above.)

“It’s reactive,” said Ross. “But at the same time you want to force him to do something he’s not comfortable with so he doesn’t get his groove going. If you get the player to stay out of his groove, it works.”

Clear one-on-one isolations like the examples above aren’t quite the norm yet. Per Synergy Sports, Ross has only been isolated 39 times this season. The number is small because Ross has only recently been given the assignments regularly (he was isolated 12 times in 18 games before the trade and has been 27 times in the 23 games since) , but it also shrinks because Ross and DeMar DeRozan don’t have set assignments on defense for every play.

With Ross listed at 6-foot-6 and 195lbs and DeRozan at 6-foot-7 and 216lbs, it’s difficult to tell who the shooting guard is and who the small forward is. In reality, Ross guards the higher-usage wing and the two-guard if that delineation isn’t clear, but their similarity in size allows the team’s defense to be far more flexible. They can switch without much cause for concern and, as Ross put it, “in transition, whoever you’re close to, take him.”

It’s important, then, that Ross’ defense is also making strides in non-isolation situations. Along with ranking 29th in the NBA in isolation defense (opponents have shot just 10-of-37 with two trips to the line against Ross), he also ranks 12th defending hand-offs and 41st defending players off screens (in both situations, opponents shoot under 40 percent). He’s above-average guarding a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll as well, largely by way of forcing turnovers more than 25 percent of the time.

In the example below, Ross does a good job following Mo Williams but gets lost off a cheap Thomas Robinson screen. He switches, however, and then manages to block Robinson’s shot on the drive.

Going back to the Pacers game, Ross is a step behind George after chasing him through three screens but keeps fighting and successfully closes out on the corner three.

Spot-up shooters are actually the one area Ross is still struggling on defense. Part of it could be him losing his man as he learns to deal with the intricacies of NBA offensive sets but part could also be due to struggles fighting through screens from bigger players. Ross is still quite thin and can be bumped off his path with a strong screen from a big, especially along the baseline.

There’s a tough trade-off in asking him to bulk up too much considering so much of his talent is derived from his quickness, though. And while he highlights weight gain as a goal moving forward, citing its necessity in the post for guarding players like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James (Ross hasn’t really been posted often enough to get a good feel for his talent in this regard, though the early returns are encouraging), he sees two keys to continued success on that end of the floor.

“I just gotta stay in shape,” Ross said when asked how one works to improve defensively outside of games, since you can’t exactly go to the gym and get a thousand reps in like you can with a jump-shot. “Defense is all about your motivation to stay in front of the person, the will. As long as you have that and the stamina to do it, you’ll be fine.”

And the motivation factor – focus, to hear Casey tell it – is the most encouraging part about Ross’ defensive development.

“I think, for me, if you’re slowing down an offensive player and you look at the scoreboard and he has only nine, 10 points and it’s the end of the third, then you know that you’re doing a good job and you got into his head and now you know you can go out there and shut him down,” Ross said.

That’s becoming a far more regular occurrence.

Dap to Eric Koreen/Ryan Wolstat for the second Casey quote. Thanks, fellas.

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