Hard Work This Past Summer Paying Off for Ross

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

ORLANDO – When Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford saw guard Terrence Ross tirelessly working on his game all offseason, he fully expected the veteran would have a big bounce-back season.

Evan Fournier, meanwhile, saw beyond Ross’ countless hours of summer-time shooting and his craving for the basketball in big spots. Instead, Fournier saw something that let him know that Ross would once again be the high-energy, high-scoring guard that the Magic so desperately needed off the bench this season.

``You could just feel that he missed basketball,’’ Fournier said of his backcourt mate for the Magic. ``It had been a while since he was able to play, and you could just feel his energy again.’’

Orlando (6-8) has ridden the energy of Ross much of this young season as the guard has returned from last season’s devastating knee injury and once again resembled the player capable of piling up points in a hurry. As the Magic head into Wednesday’s home game against the Philadelphia 76ers (9-6) and newly acquired wing Jimmy Butler, Ross is unquestionably the squad’s most surprising and offensively explosive player.

Being able to help his team again brings a big, toothy smile to Ross’ face.

``It was tough sitting and watching almost all of last year,’’ Ross said, referring to the knee sprain and tibial fracture that knocked him out of action for 57 games. ``So, to be out there and be able to help, it feels really good.’’

Philadelphia, which drilled Miami on Monday, will be trying to incorporate Butler with superstars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on the fly. Butler, an all-star each of the past four seasons, had averaged 21.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.4 steals in 10 games with Minnesota, but he never meshed with Timberwolves’ stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The 76ers held an introductory news conference for Butler in Philadelphia on Tuesday and he could make his debut in Philly red, white and blue on Wednesday in Orlando.

``(The Big Three nickname with Embiid and Simmons) sounds really good, but now we’ve just got to go out there and make some things happen,’’ Butler said in a news conference televised by NBA TV. ``When we get out there and play together, I think it will be a different story and a good one that hopefully ends with a happy ending. When guys get out there and play basketball – which everybody on this roster does – it’s all going to fall into place. I don’t think anybody is going to step onto anybody’s toes.’’

Ross, who undoubtedly will spend time guarding Butler if he indeed plays on Wednesday, helped the Magic to two straight wins and victories in four of five prior to Monday’s 117-109 loss in Washington. In that game, Orlando shot a solid 48.3 percent from the floor and made 15 of 30 3-pointers, but it put the Wizards on the free throw line too often late in the game.

Ross had 21 points and five 3-pointers in Sunday’s romp in New York and another 21 points and four 3-pointers on Monday in Washington. He became the first reserve to lead Orlando in scoring in consecutive games since former Magic guard Shelvin Mack accomplished that feat last March.

Through 14 games, Ross has averaged 13.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.0 steals while shooting 43.2 percent from the floor and 38.1 percent from 3-point range. Consistency has always been a problem throughout his streaky career, but this season he’s been the Magic’s most steady and productive reserve on a nightly basis. He’s led the team in scoring three times, has 10 double-digit scoring nights, he’s pumped in at least 20 points three times and he’s hit at least three 3-pointers in seven games. His numbers this season are much more in line with his career numbers – 9.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 0.8 steals while shooting 42.2 percent from the floor and 37.1 percent from 3-point range.

``He’s playing great, he’s being aggressive and he’s really giving us a spark off the bench,’’ Fournier said. ``As soon as he gets the ball, he’s looking for his shot or looking for a teammate. We are definitely playing through him on that second unit and he’s giving us a lot now.’’

Throughout his career with the Toronto Raptors and the Magic, Ross has split his time as a starter (176 games) and a top reserve (249 times used off the bench). He opened last season in the Magic’s starting lineup and struggled while being relegated to a third or fourth option behind teammates Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Fournier.

In 20 starts last season, Ross averaged just 9.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting pedestrian numbers from the floor (41.1 percent) and 3-point range (32.9 percent).

Not long after posting those numbers, Ross collided with Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook in mid-air at the rim and landed awkwardly, causing his right knee to buckle. His MCL sprain and tibial fracture knocked him out of basketball for four months – the longest he’s ever been out of the game and, admittedly, it got to him at times mentally. He made it back for two games in April, but Ross said he was a shell of himself after having to spend so much time away from basketball.

``I didn’t play last year. Well, I played a little bit and it’s unfortunate that (the knee injury) happened, but I’m just back to playing my game now,’’ Ross said. ``My offseason started pretty much at the end of the regular season and I’ve just been working ever since.’’

Quite possibly, no one knows about Ross’ streaky shooting more than Dwane Casey, the guard’s former head coach with the Raptors. The two of them often had a father/son type of relationship while together in Toronto as Casey tried to guide Ross through the many ups and downs of the NBA.

``T-Ross has the right mindset to be a great scorer off the bench because he doesn’t remember his last miss, so to speak,’’ said Casey, now the head coach of the Detroit Pistons. ``He’s got a sniper’s mentality.’’

Casey was Ross’ coach in 2014 when the guard incredibly and unexpectedly poured in 51 points in Toronto’s defeat of the Los Angeles Clippers. That night he made 16 of 29 shots, 10 of 17 threes and nine of 10 free throws. What happened the next game two nights later, however, spoke volumes about the inconsistent nature of Ross’ game for years.

``There’s not many men in this league who have scored 50 and he’s got a scorer’s mindset,’’ Casey said. ``He just had one of those nights (on Jan. 25, 2014) where everything he shot went in. But, if I remember correctly, the next (game) he had (10) points. But, for that one night, he couldn’t miss. I don’t think (the 51-point performance was a hindrance). It should have given him confidence because very few men have ever scored 50 points.’’

Ross said he’s worked since those tireless sessions in the gym over the summer to build a daily routine that will help him be more consistent for the Magic. He has been steady – both in production and leadership – thus far. When the Magic’s reserves struggled badly in a loss to Detroit last week, Ross organized a pre-practice meeting with the group to address the issues plaguing the group. That brought a big smile to the face of Clifford, who likes seeing players take ownership of the team’s play and approach to games.

``He’s very verbal with his teammates and when we’re scripting offense, he’s always quick to grab (rookie center) Mo (Bamba) and say, `Look to do this when they do this,’’’ Clifford said. ``I think it’s just part of his makeup. It probably started when he was young and guys who had played more years helping him. (Leading) is one thing that he does for our group that’s very important.’’

Having been out of the game for much of last season, Ross isn’t taking anything about this season for granted. He loves the fact that the Magic are looking to him to lead and to be a driving force in the offense as a go-to scorer off the bench. Once again, he’s happy and enjoying the game that he missed so dearly a season ago.

``I’m just playing my game and doing whatever I can to help the team to win. Coach (Clifford) is putting me in more positions to help, so I’m just happy to be a part of it,’’ he said. ``I felt good. I’ve been keeping with my routine so I can try to build some consistency so I can keep providing that (scoring punch) for us.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.