In Defence of Terrence Ross’ Defence

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He is known for his high-flying, tomahawk slams. He tied the Toronto Raptors single-game scoring record in January. His posterization of Kenneth Faried is the leading candidate for dunk of the year. He is the NBA’s last individual Slam Dunk Champion. He is Terrence Ross. After an underwhelming rookie campaign, the 6-foot-6 small forward is having a breakout season. Circumstances have forced him to step up in his sophomore year. Head coach Dwane Casey inserted Ross to the starting lineup after the Raptors traded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings in December. To borrow and adapt a line from Spider-Man, with great minutes come great responsibility—on both ends of the court.
 
 
Photo: Getty 

At 23 years of age, Ross is the third-youngest player on the Raptors. His diverse skill set, athleticism and shooter’s touch set him apart as a player with all the potential in the world. Ross spent countless hours in the gym working with a shooting coach last offseason. His efforts have paid off. The sophomore out of the University of Washington has earned an extra 10 minutes of floor time per game as a starter. This increased role appears to be doing wonders for his confidence.

In his own words, Ross’ improved defence has opened up the floor and helped increase his freedom on offence. Ross has become a very reliable, not to mention silky smooth, spot-up shooter. Of the five Raptors averaging career-highs in minutes and points, Ross has made the largest statistical leap. He is 13th in the league in points scored off catch-and-shoot baskets, per SportVU. Ross has also become better at moving off the ball, as well as using off-ball screens to shake his defender and create open looks for himself. He is shooting better across the board, especially from three-point territory: 33.5 per cent off the bench and 40.8 per cent as a starter. His scoring total has nearly doubled from 6.5 points per game to 12.5. Perhaps more impressive than Ross’ improvement on offence is his progress on the defensive side of the ball.

In the past, the Portland, Ore., native had a tendency to run into screens and get lost in the whirlwind of defensive coverages. Thanks to a year of NBA experience under his belt and veteran guidance, Ross has developed a better feel for the style and pace of the game and has learned how to cover players more effectively. But while they’re better than last year, Ross’ defensive numbers aren’t stellar: 3.2 rebounds and less than a block and a steal per game, while allowing opponents to shoot 53.2 per cent against him.
 

Back in college I was always a defensive-minded player, but I think we’re just seeing it now.


 

In Ross’ defence, he is tasked with guarding each opposing team’s best perimeter scorer. His list of defensive assignments include stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Of the bunch, Ross says James has been the hardest to defend because of his size, speed and strength. The Miami Heat forward posted an average of 31 points on 61.3 per cent shooting in four games against Toronto this season. Believe it or not, he’s done more damage against other teams. Rather than stopping players of that calibre, defenders can only try to contain them.

Ross is a long and active on-ball defender. He harnesses his agility, 8-foot-5 reach and 6-foot-7 wingspan to harass his opponent. He sticks to his man to ensure clean looks at the basket are hard to come by. Though he occasionally struggles to fight through screens, Ross recovers by vaulting over to close out on the shooter or by zipping inside to cut off the driving lane. In addition to guarding his position, Ross has the lateral quickness to keep up with backcourt players. He provides solid help defence, tallying weak-side blocks and deflections in the passing lane. Although most people haven’t noticed it until recently, the dynamic wing player maintains his defensive mentality is not new. “Back in college I was always a defensive-minded player, but I think we’re just seeing it now,” Ross said.

Ross acknowledges the importance of playing hard-nosed defence. “It leads to easy points in transition,” he said. On the fast break, Ross is like Cerberus, the mythical three-headed dog. He can pull up for three (at a 44.8 per cent clip, per Synergy), use his quickness and length to carve inside the paint and lay it in, or take flight for a highlight reel slam regardless if he’s challenged by a defender.
 
 
Photo: NBA/YouTube 

Ross is a key member of the Atlantic Division-winning Raptors this season. He is the closest thing they’ve got to a 3-and-D player and deserves credit for Toronto’s emergence as a top 10 defensive team. However, the NBA playoffs, which tip off this Saturday, are a different kind of beast. The intensity ramps up. Every possession matters in the quest for the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy.

It will be Ross’ first go at the postseason. “I’m excited, just anxious to start,” he said. “I don’t really know what to expect. I’ll just go out there, play hard and have fun with it.” He intends to contribute his defence and scoring ability (in that order) to help the Raptors win. When his defence is on, his offence has a way of following suit.

In light of recent injuries and controversy surrounding the team (like an incident at Wasaga Beach), Ross said the team’s chemistry remains strong. “It is not going to break. We’re just going out there, playing ball and leaving everything out there on the court.”

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