Raptors’ Terrence Ross at first real crossroads

What does the future hold for the Raptors' Terrence Ross? (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

We need to talk about Terrence.

On the heels of a third straight disappointing outing from the Toronto Raptors, it’s safe to say that the rest of the team is getting a taste of what Terrence Ross’s season has been like.

The 24-year-old’s struggles continued along with Toronto’s on Tuesday. He managed just three shots in 16 minutes, a lone three-pointer his only make on the night.

It was his seventh consecutive game with six or fewer points.

Saying Ross is in a rut is like calling the weather in Toronto “a little chilly." No, it’s $*!@$%* freezing.

Take a look at these numbers:

2013-14, as a starter (62 games): 29 mpg, 12.2 ppg, 42/40/85 shooting.

2014-15, as a starter (40 games): 27 mpg, 11.1 ppg, 41/37/88.6

Last 15 games, off the bench: 20 mpg, 6.9 ppg, 37/34/70

Ok, so, as expected, Ross’s numbers have taken a dip since he was demoted from the starting lineup. But take a look at his numbers over his last seven games:

Last 7 games: 18.5 mpg, 3.0 ppg, 18.9/23.5/50.

Read that again.

Ross’s game has regressed so far over the past few weeks that the recent franchise building block not only became the leading name in trade rumours around last week's deadline, but saw his trade value plummet to an all-time low.

So where does that leave Ross in the franchise's plans?

Having this conversation after last season—when Ross’s efforts almost singlehandedly brought his team back in the final minute of game seven against the Brooklyn Nets—would have seemed insane.

Even a scant few months ago, when this season was just getting started and Ross appeared to be picking up where he'd left off, it was idiotic to openly wonder if the third year swingman would have a role on this team going forward.

But here we are.

Ross is in a truly tough spot. At a pivotal time in his development, he’s now playing for a team that can’t afford to be patient and simply let that process play out.

Which wasn’t the plan, of course. The Raptors' rebuild and subsequent turnaround wasn’t supposed to be quite so abrupt. It wasn’t supposed to happen with one trade (and, more importantly, one non-trade).

But the Raptors—last three games notwithstanding—are rightfully in win-now mode, and that’s not always a healthy environment for young players to improve.

There’s a long list of NBA stars, particularly lottery picks like Ross, who started their careers on losing teams. For those that can overcome the defeatist culture and seize the opportunity to play through their mistakes, it can be a blessing in disguise—a luxury. And you don’t have to look very far to find an example.

In DeMar DeRozan’s third season, the Raptors finished 23-43, the playoffs—even a sniff at .500—never in the crosshairs. DeRozan had his moments, including scoring 20 or more in consecutive games six different times. But he also had his share of lapses and ice-cold outings, as most developing players are bound to.

Yet through it all, with his improvement a focal point of the team’s plans, DeRozan stayed on the floor, averaging 35 minutes per game with the fans and coaching staff alike perfectly willing to wait out the growing pains.

You can’t help but ask: If the Raps were second in the conference and eyeing a playoff run back in DeMar’s third season, would they have been patient with him? Or would there be serious concerns when he struggled, as those around the team are reportedly experiencing with Ross at present?

“That’s exactly it,” says former Raptors standout Alvin Williams, who reached the playoffs twice with Toronto. “[Ross]'s on a winning team now with expectations to go far, so the patience level isn’t very high for him right now—and not just for the fans.”

A big part of the frustration surrounding Ross’s play comes from the fact that we know what he is capable of. Whether it’s dropping 51 points in a game, as he famously did against the L.A. Clippers last season, or providing active defence, as in the final moments of Game 7, Ross has shown enough to prove he’s a talent worth fretting over.

Ross was key to Raptors' improbable run last season. He came off the bench the first game after the Rudy Gay trade but was named a starter the following contest, a role he excelled in for the rest of the season.

But this year, as the Raptors vaulted up the standings and stayed there while Ross at times seemed stuck in the mud, something had to give.

And it finally did during a January game against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. With Ross shooting poorly and looking lethargic, Dwane Casey benched him halfway through the third quarter. Ross didn’t see the floor the rest of the night. After the game, Casey made his priorities perfectly clear.

“I’m looking for what they are doing on the floor, and if they are not doing it on the floor—no matter who it is—we have to be in a position to reach a higher goal,” Casey said when asked about Ross. “If everyone’s goal is not on the same page, then whoever it is—young guys, old guys, whoever—then we have to go with the guys who are doing it on the court.”

Two games later, after playing a season-low 10 minutes in a loss to New Orleans, Ross was out of the starting lineup. He hasn’t been back since.

To that point, like DeRozan before him, Ross had enjoyed the luxury of consistent minutes. Now those days seem a distant memory, and it’s not making things any easier.

When I spoke to Ross after that Pelicans game, he acknowledged that his performance would dictate his playing time, but expressed frustration. “It’s tough,” he said, “You don’t always know how much you’ll play. But that’s how it is with this team, so you just have to keep doing what the coaches ask of you.”

Initially, he responded well, dropping 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting in 23 minutes against the Milwaukee Bucks, including two key buckets to seal the game in the final minute.

It’s been steadily downhill from there.

Maybe our expectations were way off in the first place. Maybe the 51-point game and clutch defence weren't an opening salvo, but instead an aberration.

Or maybe not.

“He’s still young, still a tremendous talent,” says Williams, who worked for the Raptors as a scout when the team drafted Ross eigth overall in 2012, “and the way the NBA is going he can provide something that’s always needed with his outside shooting.”

But, Williams continues, Ross needs to start demonstrating that ability again—and not just for the Raptors' sake.

“His time will come. It may not be in Toronto, it may be somewhere else. So every time you step on the floor, you’re auditioning. Right now, it’s about approaching the game as a true professional.”

To put it plainly, Ross looks different these days—blending in far too often, when he used to stand out.

At the first real crossroads of his career, Ross's team keeps looking to make strides forward, even it means leaving a promising prospect behind. And for both the team and player, the clock is ticking.

“He’s got to find his niche and figure out how to be part of a winning team, whether it’s going to be as a defender, as a cheerleader, or whatever it is,” Williams says. “He’s in the middle of something special right now, and he needs to find a way to be a part of it.”