The Toronto Raptors had a dream in the early days of this franchise. A dream that two young up and coming star wing players, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, would elevate this expansion franchise into relevance and dominance as a legitimate NBA contender for many years to come. Then the dream became a myth that the team has been looking to recreate ever since and maybe, just maybe they have in DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross.
In 2009, the 19-year-old DeMar DeRozan was drafted by the Raptors and the young high flyer was immediately compared to Carter – even though Carter is and was a rare physical specimen with otherworldly physical gifts who didn’t enter the NBA until after 3 years of college. Looking to replace the franchise player that got away had become an obsession in Toronto and the desire to find what was lost in 2000 when McGrady left meant every young wing player DeRozan was paired with reminded fans of what could have been – including Sonny Weems. Remember him? – a nice young wing that outperformed the rookie DeRozan and is now a successful player in Europe.
DeRozan struggled as a 19-year-old and was often knocked to the canvas without a call in very non-Carter like drives to the basket and just as often, he looked lost at the defensive end of the court. What DeRozan could do like Carter was show stopping slam dunks that he put on full display during the NBA Slam Dunk competition during All-Star Weekend in 2010 and 2011. DeRozan didn’t have a Carter ‘It’s over’ moment, but he certainly wowed everyone watching.
What tends to be forgotten in the myth of Carter and McGrady is McGrady was drafted a year before Carter as an 18-year-old in 1997 and McGrady struggled at least as much as DeRozan early on and didn’t average double-digit scoring until his third NBA season. Carter at 21-years old as a rookie was much better prepared for the NBA and probably should be the stay-in-school poster-boy for new Commissioner Adam Silver’s drive to raise the age limit for future NBA draft hopefuls.
Also forgotten in the Carter McGrady myth is the Raptors were bad, a 23-27 lottery team under then Head Coach Butch Carter in 1988-99. It was in their second season together when McGrady was 20 and Carter was turning 23 that the Raptors won 45 games and looked like a team on the rise.
Now in his fifth NBA season, DeRozan is a first-time All-Star at 24 years old and his maturity and improved skills have become obvious on the court. DeRozan is finally old enough to be a young leader and experienced enough to use his natural gifts. Also, the young wing the Raptors unexpectedly drafted eighth in 2012 is starting to look like the future star who could actually fulfill the role envisioned by the myth created in 2000.
Ross was drafted as a 20-year-old and didn’t exactly blow anyone away as a rookie, but like DeRozan, he was a high-flyer and impressed everyone at the NBA Slam Dunk Contest – he even won it as a rookie. Ross also went back and impressed everyone as a show-time dunker at All-Star Weekend this year, but he did in the context of his own breakout season as a player.
Head Coach Dwane Casey had a major influence in the selection of Ross over other draft prospects at the same position like Jeremy Lamb or Austin Rivers. Casey believed Ross had an NBA ready skill – a silky smooth jump shot – and the potential to be a solid NBA defender, but neither of those skills were very evident as a rookie and seemed to disappear completely in NBA Summer League contests. However, Casey believed in Ross and when the Raptors traded away Rudy Gay this past December, Ross was inserted into the starting lineup and blossomed.
There is no understating the impression Ross left on everyone when he tied Carter’s franchise scoring record of 51 points in a game on January 25, 2014 against the Clippers. Ross has averaged double-digit scoring as a starter and the dunker has been hitting over 40 percent of his three-point attempts. Calling this a breakout season for Ross isn’t overstating things.
The myth of Carter and McGrady was only strengthened when in 2000-2001, Carter averaged 27.6 points per game for the 47 win Raptors and McGrady averaged 26.8 points per game, an 11.4 point per game improvement, for the 43 win Orlando Magic. It isn’t hard to imagine an NBA dynasty emerging north of the USA border if these two players had stayed together.
As Coach Casey is fond of saying, the Raptors haven’t done anything yet. However, they have won 32 games with a game to go in February and this team has never won 33 games before March. Matching the Carter McGrady win total of 45 in 1999-2000 seems perfectly attainable in DeRozan and Ross’ second season together.
The Raptors have one more factor that could help revive the past myth of two young wing players leading this franchise to relevance. Ross will still be under his rookie contract next season and the Raptors have DeRozan locked up for 2 more years plus a player option after this one. There will be no bolt to another team by Ross this summer as happened with McGrady in the summer of 2000.
While DeRozan is an All-Star, he hasn’t reached the status of Carter or McGrady and he doesn’t have to. DeRozan has proven that he can be a player to build around this season. Ross is only averaging 12.6 points per game in 38 starts, however, the upside has become obvious – at both ends of the court – and like the McGrady situation in 2000, Ross looks like he might eventually become the better overall player – or not, it shouldn’t really matter.
There is still a long ways to go for DeRozan and Ross to fulfill the myth that Carter and McGrady created by not playing together after 2000 and just like those old Raptors teams, there are other players on this current roster that are having a huge impact and have made this conversation possible. Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson among others come to mind and some would argue Ross isn’t even the best sophomore on this team with Jonas Valanciunas developing into a genuine NBA starting center. However, this is a team sport and the positive myths created about star players almost never happen without a strong supporting cast around them.
There is a new myth in the making north of the border and while both DeRozan and especially Ross will need to take additional steps to make it happen, the signs are there that it is underdevelopment. The Raptors may finally be starting to become relevant again.
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Toronto Raptors Flirting With Franchise History
As the Toronto Raptors head into Cleveland on Tuesday night, the focus remains one game at a time, but in reality, the team is flirting with the best record in franchise history at the end of February. Toronto has never won 33 games before March and with 31 wins and games against the Cavaliers and Wizards remaining before the end of the month, there is a real possibility they could get there.