Bombs away: Why the Raptors need a slumping Terrence Ross to keep shooting

Toronto Raptors forward Terrence Ross (Chris Young/CP)

Two hours before tip-off on Sunday, Terrence Ross and Nik Stauskas stood at opposite ends of the Air Canada Centre court, working through their pre-game shooting routines. For each, the exercise was seamless: Ross’ bouncy fluidity made every shot seem in perfect rhythm; Stauskas’ flawless form was unwavering. To watch the respective displays, you’d think they were warming up for the Three-Point Shootout to be held on this same court at All-Star Weekend in February.

But the pair of would-be sharpshooters won’t be anywhere near that competition. For each, the 2015-16 season has been a long, unrelenting struggle that, in the process, has create difficult questions for their respective coaches. Namely, how much leash can you give a shooter who isn’t knocking down shots?

Turns out that the answer in both cases, for different reasons, is “a lot.”

Raptors fans have grown impatient with the inconsistencies of Ross, the recent recipient of a three-year, $30.5-million contract extension earlier this season. He’s responded to that vote of confidence by turning in perhaps the worst stretch of his career, averaging 6.2 points in 20.4 minutes while shooting 36.8 per cent from the floor and 31.8 per cent from long-range.

Up-and-down play for Ross, who has a 51-point game on his resume despite averaging 8.9 points over four seasons, is the norm, but the extended cold period from beyond the arc is not. He’s a 37-per cent career three-point shooter and his jumper is the lone constant that even detractors of his extension could agree is a legitimate NBA tool.

The moribund second-unit offense is partially to blame, as Ross has been asked to create late in the shot clock too often and is 0-of-15 on threes coming with seven seconds or fewer left, according to data from NBA.com. At the same time, a good number of those shots have been open, and the Raptors in general have been doing a terrific job of getting Ross clean looks. He’s just not knocking them down like he did as a sophomore, and he’s not knocking down catch-and-shoot opportunities like he’s done his entire career.

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The tough shooting stretch isn’t cause for panic. Shooters go through rough patches, and even if six weeks seems unseasonably long, there’s a much larger sample of Ross being an adequate shooter than a poor one. It can be tough to take the long-view on a game-to-game basis, but research from Nylon Calculus suggests that the stabilization rate for three-point shooting doesn’t come until about 750 attempts. The high-variance nature of three-point shooting requires patience for performance to regress to the mean, and it’s important to trust the larger sample rather than react to a slump.

And with starting small forward DeMarre Carroll sidelined with a knee contusion, head coach Dwane Casey has had little choice but to continue to give Ross minutes, even inserting him into the starting lineup. Ross responded with his best game of the season in his first start on Dec. 7, scoring 22 points and hitting four triples against the Los Angeles Lakers. The bump to the starting unit was borne of necessity, but Casey hardly seemed surprised with the results.

“Offensively, he got a rhythm going and for a scorer like him, having extended minutes really helped him,” Casey said. “Hopefully that gets him jump started from the offensive end.”

Since then, however, Ross has continued to struggle with his shot, hitting just 3-of-13 in the four games since. It does seem to have helped him pick up his game on the defensive end of the floor, and his overall performance as a starter has far surpassed what he was doing off of the bench.

“It gets you more comfortable,” Ross said of the after-effects of a big shooting night. “It should,” Casey agreed. “It should give him more bounce.”

In the opposing locker room last Sunday, Stauskas was taking the opposite approach. Head coach Brett Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers have shown a willingness to let non-shooters take a great deal of threes to learn or display that skill, so long as they’re contributing in other ways. With Stauskas, the organization has faith the shots will eventually start dropping, and while he puts in a great deal of extra shooting work, he believes defence will carry over to offence.

“The offence will kind of just take care of itself,” Stauskas said, emphasizing a primary focus on two-way play. His coach agrees. “Let him think, act, play through defence,” echoed Brown. “It’s not all about ‘are you gonna make a three?’ because lately we haven’t been.”

Despite not having an NBA track record like Ross, Stauskas’ struggles are even more surprising. In two years at Michigan, Stauskas hit 44.1 per cent of his threes and ESPN’s Kevin Pelton projected his rookie three-point percentage to be 38 per cent, second only to Doug McDermott in the 2014 draft class. He was first among prospects in points per-possession on jump shots in 2013-14, according to Draft Express, and was regarded as an elite shooter both off the dribble and spotting up.

Instead, Stauskas shot 32.2 per cent from outside as a rookie with the Sacramento Kings and was flipped to Philadelphia, where he’s shot worse, canning 28.8 per cent of his 5.2 attempts per game. Like Ross, some of that is due to team context, even though he’s only hit 30.4 per cent of looks classified as open or wide open, per NBA.com. Stauskus is 4-of-26 on threes with seven seconds or fewer on the shot clock, and the team has played the bulk of the season with a patch-work point guard rotation that’s struggled with post-entry passes and finding shooters in stride.

“We’re putting him in bad spots sometimes,” teammate T.J. McConnell said. “Making him shoot shots he probably normally wouldn’t take. Great shooters go through slumps. The only way to get out of it is to shoot your way out and that’s my job to get him the ball.”

It’s wrong to suggest these two are “due” for a hot streak (that’s called the Gambler’s Fallacy), but their slumps don’t suddenly render the Ross or Stauskas as non-shooters, either. The more appropriate Bayesian approach is to consider the stretches as new information and weigh it appropriately against prior expectations and information, keeping in mind how small the 2015-16 sample is so far. Ross and Stauskas are still defined as shooters, and they should be firing accordingly.

The Sixers won’t ask Stauskas to shoot less because, these days, they’re in the prospect development business. And the Raptors can’t give Ross the hook because they simply lack options to replace him given their depth-chart of non-shooters who cramp spacing. Opponents are still respecting Stauskas and Ross from outside and stretching their defence accordingly, so both are providing value with their shot even when they’re not falling.

It might not be what impatient fans want to hear, but the response to a shooting slump if often to just keep shooting.