The Evolution of Terrence Ross

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“Yeah, it was a little difficult,” says Terrence Ross, the Raptors’ shooting guard and small forward hybrid, when we ask him if it has been tough for him to embrace a role as a defence-first wing-stopper—a unique role on the team. “It’s my third year and I’m picking up on more things as each day goes by,” he says, “But you’ve just got to be willing to learn.”

Being willing to learn is the name of the game in coach Dwane Casey’s system. Casey, known around the league as a defence-first disciplinarian, keeps his young players on a notoriously short leash. More often than not, when Ross or a young big man like Jonas Valanciunas make mistakes, that leash gets yanked pretty hard.

But Terrence Ross is quickly becoming one of the best young, two-way players in the league. It’s a process that has come about through hard work—endless hours in the gym—and one fast-tracked by sheer necessity. Ross hasn’t been given the luxury of casually waiting his turn and taking notes from the sidelines; he’s been thrown into the lion’s den from a young age. And he’s thriving because of it.

“I’ve gotten used to it fairly quick,” Ross says when we ask him what that baptism of fire has been like. “You’ve got to be ready to be on your game.” 

 
Photo: Chris Young/AP 
 

Growing every year
Ross was a raw talent when he first entered the league, but everyone that watched him play could see the sketched outline of a player who could one day become the classic 3-and-D wing player so sought after in today’s NBA. In Ross’ first season, his opportunities were limited—even more so after the Raptors made a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies to bring Rudy Gay (a player they assumed could fill that small forward void) to the team. 

 
However, following Dec. 2013’s disasterous start for the Raptors, the team’s new general manager Masai Ujiri traded Gay to the Sacramento Kings, giving the Raptors valuable bench players as well as a more logically balanced starting lineup. Ross was slotted in at the starting small forward spot and the Raptors were suddenly blessed with a player who was able to take on their opponents’ best offensive players, and spread the floor and contribute without using up copious amounts of the team’s possessions.

Defensively Ross was happy to take on all assignments. Night in and night out Ross was face-to-face with a daunting list of players that included James Harden, Kobe Bryant and even LeBron James—a murderers’ row of talent. “It’s always been in my mindset to play both ends,” Ross tells us. “That’s what they ask me to do on this team so that’s what I do.”

Facing off against some of the best scorers in the games hasn’t been an easy transition for Ross (defending the best players in college isn’t exactly the same thing) but it’s a challenge that he’s met head-on with a degree of maturity and stoicism surprising for a young player. Ross is also refreshingly realistic about what the expectations are in his role as a wing defender: “They’re future Hall-of-Famers,” Ross says. “You can’t expect to make sure they’re not going to score. You’re not going to completely shut them down.”

As Ross states, shutting down elite scorers in the NBA just isn’t realistic. James Harden, for example, is going to get his 20 points every night, but the key for a defender is making him take hard shots, making it hard for him to get open for a pass, even. It’s about lowering said player’s efficiency. “You’ve just got to guard them in different ways and make it tough for them,” says Ross.

Does he still get pre-game jitters when preparing to go up against the game’s best?

“Not anymore. I’m just focused on who I’m guarding that night so it’s more of a business type thing.”

Crucially, Ross’ willingness to step up the plate and his ability to plug a hole defensively has taken the pressure off DeRozan who has been able to concentrate on doing his primary job for the team, which is getting buckets.
 

Photo: Reuters


From Rip City to the T Dot
Terrence Ross spent his formative years in the rainy Pacific Northwest—Portland, Oregon to be exact. He played college ball at the University of Washington, close to his home state, where he starred in the Pac-10 Tournament in his freshman year, averaging over 15 points per game. In his sophomore season he made another jump, averaging 16 points and six rebounds per game and earning first-team All Pac-12 honours. At the 2012 National Invitation Tournament (just one level below the NCAA tournament) he averaged 25 points per game.

That performance was enough to turn the heads of pro scouts and it clearly impressed the top brass in the Raptors organization. Ross was selected eighth overall by the Raptors that summer after declaring for the NBA draft. He was sandwiched in between the Warriors’ Harrison Barnes and Detroit’s Andre Drummond, both promising young players selected seventh and ninth, respectively. 

Many Raptors fans were skeptical at first, as they so often are—understandably so given the team’s patchy history when it comes to drafting. To the doubters, Ross appeared too similar to the team’s starting two-guard DeMar DeRozan and many were worried that their skillsets would overlap to the point of redundancy. But for those who had seen Ross play ball, the selection made a lot of sense. Ross was built like a shooting guard, but he could play at the small forward position. And Ross, unlike DeRozan, came out of college with a beautifully orthodox shooting stroke.

In fact, Ross filled a void that has existed on the Raptors roster for some time. Since Tracy McGrady departed the team under acrimonious circumstances the Raptors have lacked real talent at the small forward position. More generally the league has swung to the point where possessing a player who can shoot and defend both wings positions is immensely valuable—crucial, even—when it comes to challenging for a playoff spot.

The league has become more and more perimeter-oriented over the last two decades, where slashing to the basket and kicking the ball out to shooters on the three-point line is a huge part of a contending team’s offensive arsenal. And having players who can defend those slashing and shooting perimeter players is also of immense importance. Think of Kawhi Leonard on the Spurs, Andre Iguodala on the Warriors and Trevor Ariza on the Rockets—those players are immensely valuable because they can shoot and they can also defend shooters on the other team.  
 
 
Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images 
 

At the business end of the floor
Ross’ offensive numbers have improved dramatically from his rookie to his sophomore season—some of that improvement could be attributed to more minutes and more opportunity, but he clearly worked to improve his shooting and his movement off the ball. “It’s just something I try to add to my game,” Ross tells us when asked about his improvement on offence. “Watching Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar has kind of helped me evolve my game.”

It was clear from his first few games in the league that Ross had textbook mechanics when it came to his long-range shooting, but last season that translated into real success on the court. Ross averaged close to 40 per cent from three—a benchmark that all shooters try to hit—and from the corners, one of the most important areas on the floor, he was absolute money in the bank. During a long stretch of last season, in fact, Ross was hitting the corner three at a higher clip than any player in the league.

Ross’ burgeoning offensive potential didn’t really hit home to the casual fan, however, until one afternoon in late January.

Against the high-flying Los Angeles Clippers, Ross stunned the NBA world by going off for 51 points, tying a franchise record (with the aforementioned Vince Carter) in the process. Ross went 10-of-17 from beyond the arc that day, on his way to the elite 50-point club and became the only NBA player to score 50 points in a single game while averaging less than 10 points per game overall. What it illustrated to Raptors fans was that here was a player who had a real chance of becoming an elite two-way force.

Ross has yet to replicate anything close to that single-game outburst in recent months, but he’s working hard to add elements to his offensive arsenal. It’s something that’s necessary if Ross wants to make another jump in his development. In the Brooklyn Nets series last spring, a series in which the Raptors were narrowly defeated, Ross had trouble making threes. Every three point shooter understands that there will be points during the season when they go through lean spells—during those times it’s important to have a functional off-the-bounce game to negate the effects of your shot being off.

When asked which offensive skill he’d most like to add to his game, Ross doesn’t miss a beat. “Getting to the free-throw line,” he replies Ross emphatically. When it comes to the off-the-bounce game Ross understands that he’s a work in progress—he’s shown flashes of brilliance, but if he continues to work on his handle and is decisive after the catch he could be a real force. He certainly has the speed and athleticism.

This season, due unforeseen circumstances, it has become even more important for Ross to vary his game. The injury to DeMar DeRozan has put pressure on everyone to step up offensively, but especially Ross. In DeRozan’s absence (it’s unclear when he’ll be back) Ross has moved to his more natural position of shooting guard, moving him away from opposing small forwards who are usually taller and heavier than him. Offensively, Ross has stepped up. Before DeRozan’s injury he was averaging 10 points per game, but in the handful of games since, he’s putting up 15 points per game to pick up some of the slack.

In a recent game against the Denver Nuggets, Ross even pulled out a nifty hook shot in the lane, a skill he had yet to exhibit on an NBA court: “It’s something I’ve worked on for the past couple years,” he says. “I think tonight is the first time I really tried it in a game.” Going forward Dwane Casey and the Raptors will be expecting Ross to continue expand his game, to try even more new things.

The Raptors as a team are off to their best start in franchise history and Ross has been, and will continue to be, a big part of that success. The Raptors are a young team—a team who start three players who were drafted by the organization—and they’re a team whose ceiling will depend on the continued growth of those players. In Terrence Ross, the Raptors have a player who’s evolved from a raw, athletic dunker to a player who can defend and contribute offensively.

The future is bright at the wing position. The ceiling is high.   

 
 
 
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