Last season was a disappointing failure on the part of the Toronto Raptors wing Terrence Ross to build upon a strong sophomore year and it is only going to get tougher for the 24-year-old in 2015-16. The starting small forward spot was Ross’ to lose and he’s lost it to veteran DeMarre Carroll. Head coach Dwane Casey still wants Ross to succeed and he’ll be given every chance again this year, but it’s breakout or bust this time.
Expectations were high in 2014-15 for Ross and the young wing headed into the season with a level of confidence that wasn’t evident prior to his first two seasons in the NBA. However, when DeMar DeRozan went down with an early season injury and opportunity knocked loudly on Ross’ door he failed to step up. It was a more timid and less aggressive Ross than anyone anticipated, but maybe there was an undisclosed reason for the apparent lack of effort to grab the bull by the horns.
After the season ended Ross had bone spurs and loose bodies removed from his left ankle and Casey confirmed that Ross had played through the problem. While that’s positive, in a backhanded kind of way, it’s an excuse by pro sports standards. It will be up to Ross to show last year was a grind it out through pain season and this year everyone will see the “real Ross” on the court.
Even hobbled by a wonky ankle Ross fired up almost five three-point shots per game and hit on a very respectable 37.2 percent of them. Willing shooters with range are a valued commodity so Ross has an NBA skill, but this former slam dunk champion has set the bar higher than that all by himself. Casey has other options to give minutes to if three-point shooting is all Ross is going to bring to the table this season.
The Raptors had a strong summer and President and General Manager Masai Ujiri filled the obvious holes in a 49-win roster with players that fit Casey’s system and his own belief that no one should be able to push around a team he runs. Ross will have real competition for minutes if he doesn’t step up.
Slotted in as DeRozan’s backup at shooting guard, Ross could grab more minutes by becoming Casey’s best option at backup small forward as well. Becoming the third wing in a three wing rotation would be the ideal situation Ross for to carve out. In his way are some real threats however.
The Raptors signed Canadian free agent point guard Cory Joseph this summer and the former Spur comes with Championship experience not often seen in Toronto. Joseph will be backing up Kyle Lowry, however, he played in the two-point line-ups Casey has become a fan of and the Spurs have used effectively. Minutes that might otherwise have belonged to Ross could just as easily go to Joseph, especially if Joseph is effective defending either guard position like he was in San Antonio and Ross looks lackadaisical on defense. Defense is what wins minutes from Casey, it’s no secret.
Waiting in the wings is another threat to Ross minutes at shooting guard. Rookie Norman Powell looked incredible during Summer League and while that performance won’t get him into the Raptors rotation alone, the NBA is built on young players coming into the league and taking jobs away from someone else. Everyone expects Powell to start his pro career playing with the Raptors 905, but he has looked like a rookie who was planning on taking someone else’s job instead.
While there are also minutes available at backup small forward and Casey might want Ross to win this battle, he can’t just hand them to him.
James Johnson has moved in and out of Casey’s doghouse, but the 28-year-old can be very good when he’s on his game and last year he was more effective than Ross most of the time. Johnson doesn’t have legitimate three-point range, but he’s on an expiring contract and he has been through the school of hard knocks more than once in his NBA career. Johnson isn’t going to let Ross just take his minutes. It’s taken several coaches and the risk of being out of the league to beat the importance of doing what your coach says into Johnson’s skull, but he’ll play defense and collect the garbage at the offensive end if that keeps him on the court and in the NBA. Ross needs to outwork and outperform Johnson if he wants those minutes.
Another player who may or may not quite be ready to storm onto the scene is last year’s rookie surprise Bruno Caboclo. Caboclo can shoot the three-ball and he has the height, length and athleticism that got him drafted in the first round despite minimal basketball experience. How much he’s improved over the summer isn’t known and it’s anticipated Caboclo will start the season with the Raptors 905 to get minutes, but sometimes the light comes on and a young player starts to “get it” – Ross doesn’t need any extra competition for minutes this year.
On a team expected to win about 50 games, the Atlantic Division crown and finally get out of the first round of the playoffs, opportunities will have to be earned. The kid glove treatment is over for Ross. Other players will get their shot at his minutes if he doesn’t perform.
Ross was back in the Raptors practice gym in June so the ankle issues should be behind him along with any excuses for a slow start to the season. So, expectations shouldn’t be tempered because of what happened last season, if anything, they should be raised.
Ross has the talent, athleticism and skill to be an impact player off the bench for Toronto this season and nothing less should be considered acceptable. This is a breakout or bust year. Ross either starts to fulfill the promise he came into the NBA with or he slips into the role of limited three-point shooter and underachieving, bench-warming lottery pick bust.
Casey, “What a lot of people don’t understand is that he had a lot of stuff in his ankle. He had that taken out this spring. He played through it last year. Whether that was why he took a dip defensively, I don’t know. I tell everybody that he was our best defensive wing player two years ago, and we were pretty good.”