Offseason Hard Work Paying Off in Big Way for Ross

by John Denton

NEW YORK – Out of action 57 games last season because of a serious knee injury, Orlando Magic guard Terrence Ross vowed that there would be no offseason for him, and he went straight into training for what he knew would be a pivotal time in his career.

Rather than taking an exotic vacation, lounging by the pool or losing himself in the comic books he still loves to read, Ross spent hours on end last summer honing his jump shot, bettering his body and rebuilding a confidence shattered by injury and a shaky season.

Now, both Ross and the Magic are reaping the benefits of all that dedicated hard work from last summer.

``This is definitely one of my most intense summers,’’ Ross said of the sweat equity he built up from mid-April to mid-September to prepare for this season. ``It went from me rehabbing all (last) year to not really even getting a break. So, it’s been like 356 days of just straight being in the gym, rehabbing and basketball. It definitely paid off.’’

Has it ever? Ross, 28, is not only averaging a career-best 14.9 points and a career-best 3.5 rebounds, but he’s shooting 43.5 percent from the floor (second-best in his seven-year career) and 38.3 percent from 3-point range (third-best in his career). His 151 made 3-pointers are just 10 shy of the career-best 161 he made in the 2013-14 season and he could blow by that mark by this weekend considering the groove that he is currently in.

Ross was at the center of another Magic victory on Sunday in Toronto, which just so happens to be the place where he spent the first 4½ years of his career prior to getting traded to Orlando in February of 2017. He was once again dynamic off the bench, scoring 28 points, tying a season high with nine rebounds and drilling three 3-pointers as the Magic toppled the Raptors, 113-98.

It mattered much more to Ross that his stellar performance allowed the Magic to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss to Chicago on Friday than him playing well in front of the Raptors’ fans who used to cheer him.

Orlando (28-33) pulled to within a game of the Charlotte Hornets for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. In the playoffs three times earlier in his career, Ross admitted that being in a postseason chase again has energized him. That, he stressed, means everything to him now.

``That (loss to Chicago on Friday) was tough, but this is the part of the season where you have to move forward no matter what (happens),’’ said Ross, whose Magic face the Knicks in New York on Tuesday following a day off on Monday. ``You can’t let (a loss) determine how you start the next game. You’ve got to come out with that same intensity and make sure that you’re ready to play. This is that time of the season when it starts to get fun.’’

The Magic have had all sorts of fun watching Ross break the collective will of other teams this season with his ability to hit closely guarded shots and pile up points in rapid-fire succession. Outside of the nightly consistency of all-star center Nikola Vucevic (20.6 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.15 blocks and 43 double-doubles), a case could be made that Ross has been the Magic’s most valuable player. Heck, even Vucevic made a case for the electrifying guard after his torrid shooting on Sunday.

``When he comes in, he’s a game-changer because the defenses have to focus on him so much,’’ Vucevic admitted. ``He helps us so much. Even if he were to go zero-for-10, the defense would still have to respect his shot. He gives the rest of us so much space and he opens up so much for the rest of our team. He’s been efficient, he makes tough shots and he’s been big for our second unit. And then, at the end of games, when he plays with (four Magic starters), he’s huge four us because the defense has to focus so much on him.’’

Ross’ 907 points are the fourth-most among bench players this season, making him a strong candidate for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. He’s led the team in scoring 11 times, and he’s had 13 20-point games and two 30-point efforts.

Magic coach Steve Clifford shudders at the thought of how many fewer victories the Magic would have this season without possession such a weapon as Ross off the bench. Why, just recently, Ross scored 13 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter of a come-from-behind win over Indiana that jump-started Orlando’s best stretch of basketball of the season.

``He’s been so consistent in that (sixth man) role,’’ Clifford said, using a word (consistent) that hasn’t been attached to Ross’ play very much throughout his up-and-down career in Toronto and Orlando. ``Again, people are loaded up to him (defensively) but he’s finding ways to get to his spots and he’s making shots.’’

Contrast that to last season when Ross opened the year in the starting lineup and struggled badly as a fourth offensive option. Then, on the final day of November of 2017, Ross got tangled up with Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook on a play high above the rim and ended up spraining the MCL in his right knee and suffering a fracture in his tibia.

That injury all but ruined Ross’ season, knocking him out of action for four months. He admitted that his time away from basketball and his teammates – the longest such stretch of his career – left him feeling depressed, alone and as if he were not even a part of the team.

Ross did get back for three games late last season, allowing him to get over the mental hurdle of trusting his repaired knee. ``It was just good to verify that I was healthy,’’ he said.

Then, the real work began for Ross, who was hungry to get his basketball swagger back. In addition to starting with a drill where he must make 10 shots in a row, Ross would often put a ring around the inside of the rim that forced him to be more accurate with his jump shot. He took thousands and thousands of catch-and-shoot jumpers – hundreds of them off difficult angles – until he had his confidence where he wanted it heading into the season.

``As soon as I played those last three games of the season (in mid-April), I took like three-or-four days off and then I called the trainer, went straight up there and we started working out,’’ Ross said with conviction.

Clifford, who was hired as head coach by the Magic last May, could tell by August that Ross was poised for a breakout season. From his office high above the practice court at the Amway Center, Clifford would watch as Ross poured in jumpers on a daily basis.

``I just think it goes back to all the work that he put in to get ready for the season,’’ Clifford said. ``He worked so hard in the offseason, he was in great shape and when we started (training camp) he was very good from the beginning. I just think it’s a product of how hard he’s worked.’’

Ross was one of most pursued players on the Magic roster prior to the Feb. 7 trade deadline, but Orlando chose to keep him. Now, he has the Magic in position to battle for a playoff spot for the first time since 2012.

Personally, Ross is happy that all his hard work last summer and his success this season has helped him reestablish who he is as an impactful player with his ability to make closely guarded shots and be consistent on a nightly basis.

``I hope so,’’ Ross said of the recognition he’s gained around the league from coaches who have put him at the top of their opposing scouting reports. ``I can only control what I can control and I’m going to play my game, regardless. I’m just kind of comfortable and in my zone now.’’

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.

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