The name Terrence Ross has become synonymous with one of the most exciting plays in sports. The slam dunk. Ross won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest as a rookie last season and will once again participate in the event this weekend.
Surely you’ve seen the GIFs and YouTube clips of his best aerial exploits. Chris Bosh, Andray Blatche and Kenneth Faried are just some of the players that have been on the receiving end of a Ross jam this season.
However, he’s much more than a dunker. Ross, who turned 23 earlier this month, has played important minutes for a Toronto Raptors team that leads the Atlantic Division and sits third in the Eastern Conference.
The December trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings paved the way for Ross to take on a bigger role. After logging just under 20 minutes per game in November, he averaged 31.3 minutes in January.
“[Dwane Casey] sat me down and told me that he was putting me in the starting lineup,” Ross told RealGM of how he learned his minutes would increase. “He said it was an opportunity for me to get more playing time and really make the most of helping this team.”
Ross is averaging 12.5 points and 3.8 rebounds as a starter, but just 6.5 points and 2.5 boards off the bench. His shooting percentages are poor in both situations, although he has developed into a threat from deep.
He is shooting just 41.1 percent from the floor, but hits 40 percent of his three-point attempts. His shooting appears to be an indicator of Toronto’s success. Ross is shooting 45.2 percent in victories, while that figure drops to 35.9 percent in defeat.
“His shooting has been there and he’s getting more consistent with it. He knocks them down in practice,” Casey said in Boston last month. “He’s learning to play without the basketball, how to get his shot off. His shot has been there, but understanding as a young player how to get away from physicality. That’s the biggest challenge for most young players, how to deal with physicality. Someone grabbing and hitting you and still being productive with your shot. He’s learning to do that.”
The sample size isn’t huge, but Ross is at 34 percent in February. That comes after a big dip from December to January (43.6 to 40.3). Tyler Hansbrough sees the same thing Casey does in practice and believes shots will eventually start falling for Ross.
“He can really shoot the ball,” Hansbrough told RealGM. “Anytime someone can shoot the ball like he can, you have to come out and guard him. With his athleticism, he’s then able to go around people. He can also get out and run the floor. He’s played great for us.”
Adding more wrinkles to his offensive game is something Ross has been working on. His midrange numbers have been poor -- at home he shoots the same percentage from three as the rest of the floor -- and he is still harnessing his explosiveness on drives to the basket.
“Attacking the basket, I want to improve that,” Ross said. “Everybody has been playing me for my shot, so it would help me to add that to my game.”
Casey is looking for consistency from Ross, who was the eighth pick in 2012 after two seasons at the University of Washington.
Since Jan. 1, he has scored ten or more points in 12 of 22 games. That includes his 51-point outburst against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 25. He went 16-for-29 and 10-for-17 from deep in a game that also saw him grab a season-high nine rebounds.
“He’s taken advantage of the opportunity. He’s more consistent. I think that’s the key word with him,” Casey said. “I think that has been the main knock on him, like most young players. One good game, one bad game. Two good games, one bad game. Maturity is going to help him a lot. Looking at how players are playing and approaching the game. He’s had a very professional approach and it helps to have a guy like John Salmons around. A very quiet demeanor, he leads by example. He doesn’t say very much, but he gets the job done.”
The Raptors, who entered Wednesday three games up on the Nets in the Atlantic, are 13-9 in 2014 and will need continued improvement from Ross to make any noise down the stretch.
“More than anything else, we are still growing. Two of our starters are year-and-a-half guys in Ross and Jonas Valanciunas,” Casey added. “It’s not like they’ve been around the block fifteen times, so there are going to be a lot of new things they’ll see.”
The playoffs will soon be one of those new experiences.