I spent much of the latter part of the NBA season saying how telling it would be if Raptors GM Masai Ujiri put a priority on signing his own free agents instead of trying to chase a more splashy name. If he really felt comfortable with the direction of the franchise and the foundation that has been laid, he would be content with building up supplementary pieces.
As the offseason meandered with big names and desperate teams dominating the hype, the Raptors did just what I hoped they would do in re-signing Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson while acquiring effective but under-the-radar James Johnson and Lou Williams. Williams will be a welcome offensive-minded backup and Johnson could perhaps bring what I thought Tyler Hansbrough would bring last year. Again, I was content not because higher profile players didn’t have a place on the team, but because it was a signal to me that Ujiri feels great about the core of his team and no overwhelming paradigm shift was necessary.
But, like the curse of too much time and constant pontification will do, that fact still does raise questions. The Raptors certainly have to be to a point where simply making the playoffs is no longer a selling point, especially after the amount of enthusiasm that they elicited at the end of the year. I wrote last week that improvement, while a difficult measure given the curious East, will be expected and they should expect it with the mix of established talent and improving young players.
So while the optimism should be present and growing, I have to come to terms with the fact that any improvement is going to have to come from the players that the Raptors relied on last year. There is no new face to alter the scheme and make everyone better. It’s a good thing, but some guys really have to make a leap. I’ve been touting it, and the franchise’s direction will seem a lot less bright if certain guys don’t make that leap.
I’ll spend the next couple of columns talking about the specific players whose improvement will be the biggest harbinger to the Raptors success. Terrence Ross is a big one.
Ross has skills, and his big-time athleticism comes in flashes. He has occasional offensive and defensive plays that make you do a double take (saved ball in Game 7 vs. Nets to set up potential series-winning shot….that was so good it was ridiculous), but his disappearances outnumber the game changing moments.
He lost confidence quickly in the playoffs and didn’t look to be aggressive when his shot wasn’t falling. I can’t say that is surprising given that he was a young second-year player thrust into a prominent role. I am certain that he is coach Dwane Casey’s pet project this summer and he is going to do all he can to put Ross in the best positions to use his athleticism.
Even in a season wrought with growing pains for Ross, stats show a pretty reasonable jump in from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign. His field goal percentage rose from 40.7 percent to 42.3 percent, including a very promising increase in three-point percentage from 33.2 percent to 39.5 percent. That can’t be ignored and definitely isn’t by me. The more proficient Ross becomes from behind the arc, the better the spacing. And anything that is going to convince DeMar DeRozan to attack more and shoot long jumpers less is going to benefit the Raptors in the long run.
Ross’s PER also increased from 10.4 to 12.1. Considering the league average is 15, Ross still has a ways to go, but if numbers like his free throw percentage improvement, from 71 percent as a rookie to 84 percent last year, are any indication of his room to grow, it stands to reason that the other elements of his game should improve as he puts more focus on them. His kind of athleticism and defensive potential are exactly the kind of buzzwords for assuming greatness in certain rookies this season, and Ross has already established himself as a capable shooter, albeit a streaky one.
I’d like to know what Uriji thinks. He obviously thought enough of Ross to trade Rudy Gay and hand him a starting job. Even though Gay was obviously addition by subtraction, Ross gained confidence in knowing that the organization was ready to commit to him. I was a little skeptical at the time in thinking that he was a curious fit next to DeMar DeRozan as both fulfilling something of a two/three redundant role. Of course DeRozan’s maturation blew me away. Ross would be smart to look to DeRozan as an ideal in game and outlook evolution.
I know what I’m looking for in Ross’s game next year. I think there is positive Raptors trickle-down potential that will happen with his progress, much the same that came with DeRozan’s from this season. It won’t even take Ross as a star. It will take Ross as reliable.