On a Raptors team full of scapegoats last year, Terrence Ross and his game may have brayed the loudest.
The eighth-overall pick in 2012 entered his third NBA season regarded as a breakout candidate. Ross' 2012-13 regular season, during which he drained four of every ten threes he hoisted and dropped 51 one January night, provided legitimate reason for optimism. Players who can drain a triple on one possession then unleash a poster dunk the next time down the floor are hard to find - and Ross looked like that kind of player. You couldn't have blamed a beleaguered Raptors fan for asking the question: could this hyper-athletic, largely unheralded college player be an unexpected franchise-altering star?
Of course we know now that career arc is one Ross is unlikely to follow. His 2014-15 season represented a significant step backwards, more closely resembling his disastrous seven-game showing against the Nets than his 81 appearances before the 2014 playoffs tipped off.
His shooting numbers dipped. Defensively, he was disengaged and lost more often than not. And his already poor free throw rate plummeted by 50 percent to an embarrassing low, leaving Ross' future with the Raptors foggy at best.
We're unlikely to see his rookie contract extended before the Halloween deadline. He has too much to prove now. As the Washington product enters his age-24 season, the pressure to perform and earn a full-value pay day next summer is on.
Fortunately, Ross might just find himself in a position to truly succeed.
Masai Ujiri's full-scale roster makeover, which included the signing of DeMarre Carroll, will push Ross to full-time bench duty for the first time since Rudy Gay donned a Raptors uniform. While a move to the reserve unit might look like a demotion on the surface, it's a change that could earn Ross a healthy new contract a year from now if everything breaks accordingly. In a secondary role, with a new cast of teammates around him, Terrence Ross could finally be ready for the breakout the Raptors have long been aching for.
Of course, predicting Ross to bounce back in a decreased role next year is anything but a sure bet. The holes in his game are many, and could certainly prevent him from winning back the hearts of Raptors and securing his position within the franchise moving forward.
First off, his defense is maddeningly underwhelming. With his level of smooth athleticism, Ross should be a better on-ball stopper. But for a few reasons, he's never quite been able to keep opposing wings in front of him with any sort of consistency.
He's slight, and as Dwane Casey and others within the Raptors' ranks have noted this summer, is probably too much so to handle the league's most physical threes. With DeMar DeRozan entrenched as the starting two guard though, Ross was miscast by default during his time as a starter. Regardless, his defensive shot charts have been ugly. He allowed his opponents to shoot at above average rates from every section of the floor last season per NBA.com/Stats.
Perhaps more troubling though, is his blatant misunderstanding of where to be on the floor - as friend of the site William Lou pointed out in a GIF from Zach Lowe's Tuesday column at Grantland.
Some truly egregious defense from Terrence Ross on this play. http://t.co/78pCcPKAER— William Lou (@william_lou) September 1, 2015
That kind of general lack of awareness just simply won't fly in any defense, let alone Dwane Casey's system which requires precise, reactive rotations to help balance Toronto's aggressiveness guarding of the pick-and-roll.
On offense, Ross is no fine-tuned machine either. As mentioned, his refusal to attack the basket and inability to get to the free throw line severely inhibits his ability to be a high-efficiency scorer. Last season, Ross managed a comically bad 0.074 free throws per field goal attempt. Compared with DeRozan's 0.438, that's a frighteningly low total. When you consider that the former Slam Dunk champion only attempted 22.8 percent of his shots from inside 10 feet while 34.5 percent of DeRozan's shots came from that area, your blood may begin to boil.
Ross is a good enough athlete and a strong enough three point shooter (37.3 percent, career) that he should be able to toy with defenders who over-commit to stop him from launching bomb, and blow past them on his way to a lay-up, dunk or free-throws. But he doesn't.
Ross' weaknesses are plentiful and frustrating. If fans want to abandon all hope right now, it would be tough to blame them. But his change of roll from fifth-best starter to bench scorer could help mask his deficiencies and facilitate the leap we've been waiting too long to witness.
Confidence is a vital part of any shooter's ability to succeed. In Ross' case, that's particularly true. Watching him play, it's clear that his play elevates when he is regularly able to hoist up shots. Last season, Ross attempted 12 or more field goals 20 different times; he shot 128-for-279 in those games, good for a field goal percentage of 45.8. In another 20 games, Ross attempted six or fewer shots from the field - he hit at a hideous 31.1 percent clip in those games (all figures per Basketball Reference).
When Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez left this summer, so did over 20 shots per game from the Raptors' second unit. Given the defense-first nature of new arrivals like Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo, it's no stretch to suggest Ross could see his per-game field goal attempts bump up from the 9.2 he tried last year, to somewhere in the 13-14 range as the Raptors' primary offensive threat off the bench. With more shots, will come more confidence for Ross.
Ross has plenty of soft spots in his game. But if there’s one thing he can do, it’s shoot the ball. And on this second unit, with a pass-first point guard in Cory Joseph and an heady, unselfish power forward in Luis Scola, there should be enough ball movement present to create open looks for Ross behind the arc – which would represent a drastic deviation from his 705 minutes played last year with the ball-dominant Kyle Lowry-DeRozan combo.
Joseph might also be able to break down opposing reserve units with his driving ability. According to NBA.com, Joseph shot better than 50 percent on drives last season, right in the same ballpark of studs like Damian Lillard and Joe Johnson. Given an increased opportunity in Toronto, he could be the kind of player who can draw in help defenders when he attacks the basket – particularly against inferior bench squads. If that happens, Ross will be there to for Joseph to kick it out to; Ross excelled in catch-and-shoot scenarios in 2014-15, hitting on 38.5 percent of his opportunities.
Another bonus of playing big chunks of minutes with Joseph, Scola, James Johnson and Bismack Biyombo this season, will be that Ross’ defensive ineptitude won’t be so glaring. Cory Joseph is a doggedly determined on-ball nuisance and Johnson can handle opposing wings. Inside, Scola, while not a freak athlete, is intelligent and sound while Biyombo will be lurking to mop up perimeter mistakes with blocks and defensive boards.
Ross just wasn't suited to guard opponents' best perimeter players last year, but it was often the assignment he drew. He was doomed to be a liability when defending next to a banged up Lowry and Amir Johnson, DeRozan - an average defender - and Jonas Valanciunas, who was at time's just as lost positionally as Ross.
The ingredients are here for Ross to succeed as the Raptors' primary offensive threat in what should be a defense-first bench corps.
It's a real possibility that Ross won't take advantage of any of the factors swinging in his favor this year. He hasn't exactly earned any benefit of the doubt in his first three years and it wouldn't be a shocker at all if Ross remains the same drifting, inconsistent player capable of occasional flashes of magnificence that he's always been.
And you know what? That's okay. If you're measured in the way you evaluate Ross, his inconsistency is a lot easier to digest. He was an 8th overall pick. Sometimes those guys hit, sometimes they don't. The eighth slot in the draft doesn't exactly have a sterling history of producing game-changing players:
|2015||DET - Stanley Johnson|
|2014||SAC - Nik Stauskas|
|2013||DET - Kentavious Caldwell-Pope|
|2012||TOR - Terrence Ross|
|2011||DET - Brandon Knight|
|2010||NO - Al-Farouq Aminu|
|2009||NYK - Jordan Hill|
|2008||MIL - Joe Alexander|
|2007||CHA - Brandan Wright|
|2006||MEM - Rudy Gay|
|2005||NYK - Channing Frye|
|2004||TOR - Rafael Araujo|
|2003||MIL - TJ Ford|
|2002||LAC - Chris Wilcox|
|2001||CLE - DeSagana Diop|
There also aren't any stand-out "what if" scenarios for Raptors fans to agonize over in regards to where Ross was taken in 2012 either. Andre Drummond is the only potential star the Raptors passed on in favor of Ross that year - and Valanciunas was slated to make his way overseas to join the team for the 2012-13 season anyway. After Drummond? Moe Harkless, John Henson, and Evan Fournier aren't going to cause the Toronto faithful to lose sleep, even if Ross plateaus at his current state of development.
If the enigmatic Ross breaks out this year - fantastic. If not, it's far from a world-ending, franchise-destroying turn of events. You could do worse than getting four years of mediocre production from an eighth pick before moving on from that player. Don't forget - Dion Waiters and Thomas Robinson were taken fourth and fifth in that 2012 draft.
Thankfully for the Raptors, it's in Ross' best interests to embrace whatever role he finds himself in this year, and discover a renewed level of dedication to perfecting his game. If he doesn't, and his listlessness continues, it's not just the Raptors he won't be long for - his future place in the NBA might be thrown into limbo.
So, do you guys think Ross has a chance to turn it around this year?