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Numeric Narratives: Terrence Ross and The Context of Development

Returning almost the exact same roster for next season, the Toronto Raptors are counting on improvement from internal development. How does Terrence Ross fit into that equation?


We're very excited to introduce another occasionally regular column at the site called "Numeric Narratives" in which Ian Levy will drop by and provide some insight about the Raptors. If you're not familiar with Ian's work, he is the editor-in-chief of Nylon Calculus, and a regular contributor to VICE SportsHardwood Paroxysm and Bleacher Report. He's also contributed at FiveThirtyEight.

Through two seasons, the development of Terrence Ross has to be exciting for the Raptors. As the team solidified around him winter, he stepped forward as one of the best floor-spacing wings in the league. Last season, among players who played 50 percent or more of their minutes at the wing positions, Ross ranked in the 83rd percentile in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage. His defense was inconsistent and most all-in-one metrics viewed him as a net negative at that end, but his trajectory seems to be pushing towards becoming one of the better "3-and-D" wings in the league.

In two seasons Ross has become comfortable filling a very specific and crucial skill niche. While making his defensive contributions consistently impactful is a huge goal this season, the developmental path beyond that means expanding beyond that 3-and-D niche. Reaching the ceiling of his talent means becoming a more well-rounded offensive player, capable of creating offense on the ball. However, things instantly become messy when we factor in the needs of his team.

Ross was fairly limited last season when trying to create offense with the ball in his hands. According to mySynergySports about a quarter of his offense possessions last season came as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll or in isolation. He ranked 108th in the league in points per possession on isolations and 166th as the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls. The NBA's SportVU Player Tracking statistics show that Ross drove the ball just 1.7 times per game for the Raptors last season, defined as any touch that started at least 20ft. from the basket and was dribbled to within 10ft. He just wasn't asked to do much shot creation and wasn't that successful in his limited opportunities.

The table below is from Seth Partnow and shows the results of his work on measuring offensive involvement. You can find a full description of all the statistics and methodology here, but the column we're concerned with is the first one — TruUsage.

TruUsage is a modified version of Usage Rate that tries to look at a player's total offensive involvement by including assists and potential assists. You can see that Ross's TruUsage last season was the lowest of any of the Raptor's backcourt players. In addition, the average TruUsage for a wing player was 30.9% last season, meaning Ross's total offensive involvement was well below average.

This is not necessarily a strike against Ross's game in its present state, but it's a reflection of his role in the Raptors offense. He is a spot-up shooter and a transition finisher, an offensive endpoint working off the shot-creation abilities of his teammates.

With the addition of Lou Williams to Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors will enter next season with four back-court players who do most of their damage with the ball in their hands. All are comfortable deferring to a teammate and playing a complementary role, but the offensive strength of each player is primarily on-ball. That leaves Ross, and his theoretical developmental curve, in a difficult position. The next step for Ross to becoming a more complete player is becoming more comfortable and efficient with the ball in his hands. However, with the way the roster is currently constructed, the Raptors don't really need him to be more than he already is.

This presents an interesting dilemma. Ross is an asset who is at his most valuable if he can continue to develop. But the long-term goal of developing him into a more complete offensive player conflicts somewhat with the Raptors' short-term goal of playoff competitiveness. Any extra opportunities that are carved out for Ross to learn by doing as an on-ball creator will be sacrificing opportunities for a more capable creator to be initiating the offense, and keeping Ross away from the places on the floor where he is already among the league's best—spotting-up behind the three-point line. However, if the Raptors don't continue nudging this young talent towards his next evolutionary phase they risk finding themselves in a situation in the future where their roster and needs have changed, with Ross having already hardened into a finished product.

This developmental conundrum in ultimately a good problem to have, a product of a deep roster and realistic aspirations for chasing the top of the Eastern Conference. Pushing Ross to reach his defensive potential is a clear need for this season, but figuring out exactly what they want from him on offense, now and in the future, seems equally crucial.