Head Coach Dwane Casey never let up on the mantra, the Raptors 2013-2014 season was all about the development of Terrence Ross and to be fair, Casey usually mentioned DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas at the same time. However, a lot of effort was expended on Ross and the hoped for payoff is a breakout season for the 23-year-old wing starting in October.
“It’s about (Ross’) growth,” Casey said in November. “He is growing as a player and that is what this year is all about. It is him growing.”
The effort paid off and Ross started showing noticeable improvement almost as soon as he was inserted into the starting lineup in December.
“It is a lot less stressful,” Ross said at the time. “It is harder, but in some ways you can play a little more freely. Just knowing that I am going to get the chance to keep playing, I am always going to get the opportunity, you don’t have to rush it and try to prove yourself as much, so now you just play your game and they keep me on the court. Now I just have to sharpen it up and make sure I don’t make many mistakes.”
Finding consistency and overcoming mistakes was the goal and during the season the recently acquired John Salmons was often asked to pick Ross up when he got in a bit of trouble. However, as a starter, Ross did find at least one aspect of his game had rounded into the form anticipated when he was drafted. Ross found the range from deep and improved his three-point shooting from 33.2 percent as a rookie to over 40 percent in 62 games as a starter.
“I have played enough that I understand what certain guys will let you get away with, what you can do and what you can’t do,” Ross said. “Once you play (them) a few times, you understand what they do and you don’t fall for some of the things (veterans) do now. I have played enough against these guys now to understand what they do and what I can get away with and what they try to get away with.”
“He can become an elite shooter,” Casey said. “He has that ability.”
Ross also started to show what he could do on the defensive end of the court. Not every night or against every opponent, but Ross was beginning to get comfortable defensively on the wing.
“I have always been a defensive-minded player and I think the more I got to play the more it showed,” Ross said. “Once you get confidence, you play at a different level, so I try to maintain my confidence, go out a play with the opportunity (Casey) is providing me.”
“Terrence – focus, concentration, understanding what he has to do on the defensive end, staying connected to his guys, not getting lost in traffic, he is doing a better job of that,” Casey said. “He is doing a pretty good job of rebounding and that has helped him a lot.”
The improvement witnessed during the regular season ran into a brick wall called Joe Johnson and the Nets once the playoffs started. For the first time in months Ross looked overwhelmed. The best reason Casey could come up with for sticking with Ross in the starting lineup was his sophomore was soaking up minutes and learning on the job.
“I think (Ross) is soaking up some minutes,” Casey said. “Both (sophomores) are soaking up big minutes. Probably, if they weren’t young guys, they probably wouldn’t be. If it wasn’t our future, our direction, (they) probably wouldn’t be in there with some of the mistakes they are making.
“They are our guys. They got to learn, this is their first playoff. I expect a lot of their mistakes, so we are going to ride with them in those situations.
“It’s tough, but at the same time, they are a big part of the reason why we are here. The way they have played as sophomores and the mistakes they are making are freshmen/sophomore mistakes in the playoffs. I am not blind to the fact that they are our future and the only way they are going to learn is to go through it.”
Casey’s mantra never changed. Even the possibility of making it to the second round of the playoffs was not as important as developing the Raptors young players so that this team could be better next season and Ross did learn from his experience.
“It’s hard because this is what they do,” Ross said during the playoffs. “They have been doing this for a long time. It is their experience that helps them out. It’s tough. You can’t really explain it until you have been in it.
“In the playoffs you are playing the same team so many times it’s like they know what you are going to do so you have to counter and (another) move to go to and make sure you have a counter to the counter.”
Finally, in Game Seven against the Nets, the light came on for Ross and he started to figure things out. He took the next step and made a big defensive play against a veteran to give his team one more chance to steal a playoff game.
“Just to focus on more than trying to shoot and score, I just try to do a little bit of everything,” Ross said. “Defense was my main priority, you can’t really control whether the ball goes in or not, but you can always control your defensive effort and that was a big thing for me. I was just trying to do whatever I could to help the team.”
It seemed like Ross finally understood what the words he was saying actually meant and playoff experience can do that for a young player.
Ross was what Casey called a natural shooter coming out of college and now that he has found his stroke, there is no reason to expect his three-point 40 percent shooting form to disappear. Confidence in his shot and a lot of hard work in the summer should let Ross add some things to his offensive arsenal. He already has the athleticism to finish at the rim if he can figure out how and when to take advantage of it. However, it is his defensive potential that still catches Casey’s attention.
“Now he has experience to draw back from in reading situations,” Casey said at the end of the season. “Then his athletic instincts, his hands, his speed and quickness kicks-in after that. I don’t want to anoint him as a defensive stopper, but he is growing into that role, doing a good job with it, learning – learning each time out.”
Ross believes he is a defensive-minded player and those same tools that could add to his offensive arsenal can turn him into a defensive stopper on the wing as well. The playoff experience opened Ross’ eyes as to how far he still has to go to become a good NBA player and the timing of that somewhat brutally rough experience guarding Joe Johnson in games that mattered couldn’t have been better. Not every lottery draft pick benefits from a seven game playoff series against a veteran laden team in just their second season and as much as Ross improved during the regular season, he wouldn’t have realized just how much further he had to go and how much harder he needed to work in the summer without the lessons learned in the postseason.
“I’ve built a relationship with (Coach) Casey,” Ross said. “He’s been a great coach. He has taught me a lot, especially when it comes to defense. I give him a lot of credit for how I play on the court.”
Casey’s focus on player development during the regular season and playoffs should be expected to payoff with a much improved Ross patrolling the wing for the Raptors this time around. A breakout season really shouldn’t surprise anyone.
photo credit Paul Saini, Fylmm.com