The Toronto Raptors have been on the rise since Masai Ujiri rejoined the organization as general manager in 2013. Under Ujiri, the Raptors have been extremely steady and consistent with their growth, culminating in the franchise’s first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals this year.
This offseason, the Raptors did what they were supposed to by re-signing All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan to a long-term deal. But fans hoping for more moves were left disappointed. In a market where free agents came and went, Toronto didn’t land any “big hitters” and kept their roster relatively similar to last season. Aside from the DeRozan deal, they lost Bismack Biyombo to the Orlando Magic, signed forward Jared Sullinger to a one-year contract and drafted rookie center Jakob Poeltl. This relatively inactive summer suggests that Ujiri and his staff are content with the pieces they have in place and believe that internal development is the key to the team taking the next step.
Toronto seems to be betting on their younger players to continue improving. Terrence Ross, the 25-year-old wing who was drafted eighth overall in 2012, is one such player the Raptors are counting on – especially after signing him to three-year, $33 million extension last fall.
Ross has had an up and down four years in Toronto. Over the course of his career, the former Slam Dunk champion has averaged 9.1 points and 2.6 rebounds in 23.4 minutes per game while shooting 41.9 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from three-point range. During the 2015-16 regular season, he contributed 9.9 points per game while hitting 43.1 percent of his field goals and 38.6 percent of his threes. He has shown progress, but he knows there’s still work to be done and his consistency must improve.
“I have just been focusing on getting better in every way I can,” Ross told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been putting a lot of focus on getting stronger too; that’s the main goal for me this offseason. I want to make sure I can be more physical when my team needs me to be.
“I want to continue to get stronger and be able to absorb contact better when I’m driving. I’ve been shooting a lot of mid-range shots too. I’m just learning how to read defenses and make the best play possible when I’m out there. Strength helps a lot of things, but thinking about the game and putting myself in scenarios in practice is just as important. I want to become a complete player, so that means I have to work on every area of the game. I’m fully taking advantage of the offseason to improve my game and that’s what I’ve done since I came in the league.”
As Ross mentioned, he isn’t easing up just because it’s the summer. He knows that the offseason is when players must expand their game and put in the hard work that pays off when the season begins.
“It’s a dangerous time [for some players] because you can get distracted and lose focus,” Ross said. “You have more time to do whatever you want, so you just have to stay focused and not get too caught up in the extras. I’m pretty motivated and focused most of the time, so it’s not too hard for me. … I’ve been working out a lot and playing some games at the Drew League. It’s been a fun and productive offseason.”
During Toronto’s postseason run, Ross’ minutes decreased to just 16.8 per game and he averaged 6.3 points. But there’s no question that advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers motivated him and his teammates. They’re determined to advance even further next year, and Ross hopes make a bigger impact if the opportunity presents itself again.
“Playing in the Conference Finals was an amazing experience,” Ross said. “Playoff basketball is different as far as pace and intensity goes, but when it’s in the Conference Finals, it jumps [up] another notch. It made me hungrier because you realize how close you can get by playing the right way. It was as inspiring as it was an eye-opening experience. Obviously, losing to the eventual champs gives us confidence that we will use come next season. I definitely want to get back to that level with this group because I think we can go even further next season.”
For Toronto to go even further, Ross and others will need to step up. The Cavaliers aren’t going anywhere and fellow East contenders (like the Boston Celtics) have significantly improved. A breakout campaign from him would certainly raise Toronto’s ceiling.
“I want to win,” Ross said. “I love this game and would play it if I had to pay someone to let me play. So for me, it’s about getting better and competing at the highest level. I’m blessed to have this opportunity to play at this level and be successful, but I want to be better.”
Looking at the Raptors’ roster, Ross is confident in the squad’s ability to compete.
“I think we are a versatile team,” Ross said. “We have guys who can play different roles and guys who have different skill sets, so really everything boils down to matchups. Coach [Dwane] Casey plays whoever he feels can get the job done and I respect that.”
Because Ross was a top-eight draft pick and has so much potential, expectations have been pretty high for him since he entered the league. This, of course, comes with some criticism and negativity – even from Toronto fans (who are very passionate). He has tried block all of that out, focusing instead on his support circle of teammates, coaches and family.
“I just keep working. People have a right to say what they want to say, but I just lean on my teammates and coaches,” Ross said. “I always have to make sure I continue to do anything I can to help my team win. What people say is out of my control, good or bad.
“[My motivation comes from] my family mostly. I want to make them proud. I also get motivation from my teammates. We got pretty far this year and I want to get better so we can improve our chances next year. I think everybody on the team feels that way. That’s what makes being in Toronto with these guys so special.”
Whether or not Ross remains in Toronto long-term remains to be seen. While he just signed his extension last summer, his name has surfaced in trade rumors at times throughout his career. But, like the criticism he sometimes receives, this is out of Ross’ control. Rather than worrying about the speculation, Ross is just enjoying his current situation. Based on what he says, he seems really happy in Toronto and close with his teammates.
“I’m just looking forward to getting back out there and representing Toronto,” he said. “It’s a great basketball city with passionate fans. It’s just a great atmosphere for basketball.”
The Raptors have done a good job creating that positive culture. It’s clear that the organization has confidence in their team as currently constructed, and part of the reason for that is because of up-and-coming individuals like Ross, Jonas Valanciunas, Norman Powell and Cory Joseph among others. The Raptors have 10 players who are 25 years old or younger, including Ross.
Ross has the potential to become a complete player, as he stated, since he has impressive athleticism and the ability to shoot threes. He seems to possess all the necessary tools to be a talented scorer. Although his strength has been questioned in the past, he’s committed to improving that aspect of his game this summer.
Veterans like DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and DeMarre Carroll may be the Raptors’ leaders, but it’s Ross and the rest of the young core that seem to hold the keys to Toronto’s long-term success.
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