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Lewenberg: Raptors' Ross seizes opportunity as starter

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Josh Lewenberg
12/16/2013 6:22:46 PM
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TORONTO - When Rudy Gay was traded just over a week ago, he left the Raptors with 18.6 shots and 35 minutes to be redistributed nightly.

He also left them with a vacancy in their starting lineup.

So far, sophomore Terrence Ross has been the primary beneficiary.

"It [is] probably the biggest opportunity of my career," the Raptors' second-year guard said of his new role in the team's starting five. "Just taking advantage of it [and] making sure I capitalize on things is big for me."

Ross' promotion is one that came together organically in the aftermath of the Gay trade. He had been clamouring for more playing time, according to Casey, but Ross insists he never formally asked the coach to start.

"I kind of just knew when Rudy left it was kind of like, okay we only have me and Landry [Fields] so one of us is going to start," he recounted after Monday morning's practice. "So either way, [I was] going to get big minutes. I just knew it was an opportunity for me to go out there and show what I can do."

On the eve of the trade, Casey opted to start the more experienced Fields at the three-spot. Fields played 31 scoreless minutes in Los Angeles that night and has logged less than 20 minutes in three games since. Ross, the next man on the Raptors' depth chart, got the call after that.

Playing 38 minutes - the most of his career - in his first start of the season Tuesday, Ross earned mixed reviews. He was inconsistent, the ongoing theme of his 95-game NBA career, and as a result, Casey was hesitant to commit to him as the team's starter going forward. "We'll see," the Raptors' coach replied, asked about Ross' future with the first unit at that time.

Three days later, Ross earned a second start despite a pre-game slip up in which Casey suggested he might be a better long-term fit playing with Greivis Vasquez in the second unit. Whatever the message was, it was received. Ross responded with 24 points - two off his career high - on 10-of-16 shooting on Friday.

His promotion was not intended to be permanent, it still may not be, but Ross doesn't plan on giving it up without a fight.

"I know I'd do anything and everything to keep my position I have right now," the 22-year-old promised. "It's not all about scoring, it's about just really doing whatever [Casey] asks and playing hard on defence, making the right passes and not having any mental lapses."

"He's got to keep it going," Casey emphasized after Ross' breakout performance against the 76ers. "He's got to continue it, that's his biggest challenge as a young player in this league, is to stay hungry, stay driven, stay consistent. Consistency is what he's fighting for, he's a talented young man but he's fighting consistency."

Saturday's surprising win in Chicago, his third straight start, was another step in the right direction. Struggling with his shot, Ross went 4-for-12 from the field including 1-of-9 in the first half but found other ways to make positive contributions while on the floor. He grabbed six rebounds, recorded a career-best four assists and earned praise from his coach for his work on the defensive end.

The hope for Casey and the Raptors is that Ross is beginning to develop into a more consistent and versatile player. Too often in the past, he has been rendered unusable, a liability on the court when his jump-shot wasn't falling or opposing defences would take him out of his comfort zone as a slasher. He has the tools required to be more than a one-dimensional player, now it's about putting them all together.

"I've always been well aware of his athletic ability but I wasn't aware of his shooting ability," said new teammate Patrick Patterson. "I'm definitely glad he's taking this starting role to the next level. He's not satisfied with just starting, he wants to be a great basketball player and I'm definitely happy for him."

In DeMar DeRozan, Ross has a willing mentor, a player who has successfully overcome similar limitations. DeRozan - not unlike Ross, who is only a couple years younger - was once, in the not-so-distant past, considered to be one-dimensional. In his fifth season, DeRozan is blossoming into a complete player, averaging career highs in points, assists and three-point shooting, also growing on the defensive end.

"Both of them are similar," Casey said of his two young wing players. "Similar body types, similar games, fighting to find consistency. DeMar went through the same things his first couple of years in the league. Two guys in similar positions, same skill set being around each other can only benefit."

The similarities go beyond the court. Overwhelmed as a rookie, Ross, quiet and reserved by nature, is starting to open up and get more comfortable in his NBA skin. DeRozan went through the exact same evolution as a young man. Now, the 24-year-old has grown into a leader and has taken Ross under his wing.

"Through training camp, every time we practice, he guards me, he goes against me and I don't let up on him," DeRozan said of Ross, sounding like a grizzled veteran. "I try to go at him as much as I can so he can take on the challenge every night when he goes out and plays against another player, it won't be as hard."

"I love to see his growth and I'm happy for him. One thing I try to do is keep his confidence high."

"DeMar [has been] going hard at me ever since I got here so I don't even notice it anymore," said the student of his mentor. "But it helps because he's one of the top wings in the league now."

Whether he remains a starter or ends up returning to the bench, Ross has been set free. Regardless of which path the bewildered Raptors take and how they choose to get there, their former eighth overall pick figures to be a vital part of the ride. This opportunity and what he is able to do with it will be his most telling challenge to date.

"You just have to be more focused, you just have to be dialled in," said the Raptors' newest starter. "It's tough but it's fun at the same time and as long as you're having fun with it, it comes easier."

Terrence Ross (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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