On Thursday night, Terrence Ross faced his old team for the first time as a member of the Phoenix Suns. Although the game itself was close, it marked a tell-tale sign of just how drastically his surroundings have changed.

As an 11-year NBA veteran who’d spent the last six years on Orlando Magic teams that only made the playoffs twice and never got out of the first round, Ross’ union with the Suns — fresh off a blockbuster trade for Kevin Durant — represents an opportunity to contend rather than rebuild.

“It’s fun, man, it feels different,” Ross said. “I just came from a group where there was a ton of young guys, not too many older guys in the room. So being here, it definitely feels really good to be around guys a little closer to my age, guys that have been around the game, and guys that are in a position to win. So it’s just a night-and-day difference.”

The trajectories and expectations between the two franchises couldn’t be further apart, and although Ross left Orlando on good terms via the buyout market, facing his former teammates was an opportunity he relished.

Ross didn’t play particularly well, finishing with 7 points and 5 fouls in 16 minutes. He did enjoy putting the final nail in the coffin with game-sealing free throws in Phoenix’s 116-113 victory, and teasing his former teammates about it was just the cherry on top.

But over his first nine games with his new squad, one question persists: Can Terrence Ross do enough offensively to stay on the floor come playoff time? Or, more directly, can Ross be passable enough on the defensive end to avoid becoming a postseason liability?

The juxtaposition between Ross’ shooting prowess and defensive mistakes is just as pronounced as the chasm between the two teams he suited up for this season. Bearing that in mind, it’s time to dive into what we’ve seen from the 32-year-old sharpshooter on both ends of the floor.

Terrence Ross brings valuable, contested shot-making

Through nine appearances with Phoenix, Ross is averaging 9.3 points in 18.5 minutes per game on 44.9 percent shooting. He’s made 38.6 percent of his 3-pointers, attempting 4.9 of them per game.

The man is not shy about embracing the Suns’ “let it fly” mentality. He’s one of the few players in the bench rotation that can create his own looks or heat up in a hurry. Despite a few subpar shooting nights for Ross, Phoenix’s offense has been 4.0 points per 100 possessions better whenever he’s stepped on the floor.

He won’t fill the KD void all by himself, but that shot-making is a valuable trait for a Suns team that’s currently missing a superstar who immediately elevated their offense in just three appearances.

“Guys gonna get hurt, so whenever you have to step up, every time coach calls your number, you gotta be ready,” Ross said. “That’s pretty much what I been accustomed to doing my last 10 years, so I’m fitting in perfect.”

His former coach in Orlando, Jamahl Mosley, isn’t surprised by Ross contributing on a contender. Before Thursday’s matchup, he praised Ross’ nightly professionalism and communication with his younger teammates, impressing upon them what it takes for that consistency to translate to the playoffs.

“Terrence was great for us, just being a pro at all times, talking to the young guys, and then obviously knowing what he’s capable of doing the moment he steps into the ballgame,” Mosley said. “You know, the Human Torch. He’s capable of coming in and getting quick 3s up, finding his spots in the midrange at times, but just being able to create space for other people as well.”

Like any new addition to the bench — especially one who’s only played one game with Kevin Durant — there’s been a feeling-out process. Ross came out guns blazing in his debut, taking 17 shots in 25 minutes. Then he only took 13 shots combined over his next three games.

After that, when Ross dropped 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting against the Oklahoma City Thunder, coach Monty Williams offered some insight into his revamped aggression.

“I’m trying to get him to just be himself,” Williams explained. “Sometimes he’ll get the ball, he’ll get a rebound and he’ll look to pass it to somebody, and I’m like, ‘We don’t do that. Like, just take off and and play your game.’ He’s just not used to that yet. I think there’s some deferment there, and we’re trying to get him out of that.”

Ross admitted to a certain degree of overthinking as the new guy, but he’s starting to pinpoint where he’ll get his openings.

“I think when I got out there, it was just more so trying to make the right read and not trying to overexert anything or try to mess up the flow of things,” Ross said. “But I think the more I’m playing, the more I’m understanding where the shots are gonna come from, where the attacking moments are coming from, how they like to play. And I think I’m starting to get more and more comfortable as the day goes on.”

Ross has been in a bit of a shooting slump the last three games, but the Suns have already seen how quickly he can ignite into Human Torch mode. And perhaps just as importantly, they’ve seen how capable he is when it comes to knocking down tough, contested 3s:

“Once I get into a rhythm, man, I know how I like to get the shot off,” Ross said. “If the guy’s in a position where I think he can’t get a hand on it, then I feel like I’m comfortable. But for the most part, that’s how I always played. Getting to those spots and trying to elevate has been something I’ve kind of always worked on. It’s just kind of part of my game.”

We’ve covered this in detail before, but Ross isn’t used to getting wide-open looks. That was a product of his environment, as well as a direct result of a slower release that turns uncontested shots into contested ones.

But as much as defenders’ closeouts look like good contests, Ross is so unbothered, the Suns want him to keep taking those shots.

“He’s staying aggressive like we’re telling him to,” Devin Booker said. “I’ve said it before, even the shots that you take and you think somebody’s contesting, he has such a high release and such great lift on on every shot that he takes where it’s almost uncontested. So we need him to keep being like that, keep being aggressive and being himself.”

According to The BBall Index, Ross’ openness rating on 3s ranked in zero percentile in Orlando. After nine games with the Suns, that number has improved, but it’s barely moved; he now ranks in the second percentile.

Because of his reputation as a 3-point gunner and because his smooth shooting form takes some time to unfurl, Ross isn’t going to get many wide-open looks. But because of the elevation he has on his jumper and that rainbow release of his, he’s still getting off clean looks that rarely get blocked.

“Even with a high release point, when he’s playing off the bounce, he can still get off the ground a little bit, and that helps with the high release, especially when it’s not a quick release,” Williams said.

It’s something Ross has worked on since childhood, and it’s something he continues to perfect to this day. He believes his approach helps get the ball over the front rim when he gets tired.

At the practice facilities in both Orlando and now Phoenix, Ross works with tracking technology that measures the arc on each jump shot. When he aims as high as he can, the usual scores in the 30s and low 40s leap to the high 40s and low 50s.

“I always had pretty good leaping ability, so when I jump, the ball is going high,” Ross said. “So when I shoot, I have a high release, so just those two things added to each other kind of make it look like it’s just a rocket. I could try to shoot it, I shoot it pretty high. Like, I try to do drills where I shoot a shot higher than the shot clock, and make a few of ’em just to get that rhythm.”

Having the confidence to take big shots come playoff time is one thing, but having the ability to actually make them over an outstretched hand or a desperate closeout is another entirely. Fortunately, Ross has both the skill-set and the mindset to check both boxes.

“The thing that I’ve always liked about him was he wasn’t afraid to take big shots,” Williams said. “In Orlando, I think they ran like every ATO for him. And you knew it was coming, and you still couldn’t stop it. That’s a mentality that we value: guys who are sitting in that huddle know the ball is coming to them and they can make a play. It’s a combination of all that — the high release, the athleticism, but I think the mentality is something that we hope can be a weapon for us.”

The question of defense

Terrence Ross can be streaky, but he’s been a consistent sixth man for most of his career. The looming question is whether he can avoid becoming the “pigeon” other teams target on defense. In a playoff series, every flaw is exacerbated, and so far, Ross is already looking like a liability on that end.

It’s the reason that, despite being a flamethrower on offense, he’s been a -28 overall in 151 minutes on the court. It’s also the reason the Suns go from a team-worst 124.8 defensive rating with him on the court to 106.2 with him off the court, per NBA.com. That’s a swing of 18.6 points per 100 possessions!

As nice as it’s been to go from a league bottom-feeder to a team with legitimate title aspirations, Ross admitted that change of scenery comes with an adjustment process on defense.

“It’s just creating different habits,” he explained. “Coming from where I was just at, we didn’t do any of the things that we’re doing here. So trying to just get my brain to rewire and just kind of get in the habit of doing what we do here.”

What’s been the biggest part of that adjustment?

“Switching,” Ross said. “I’ve been so used to staying with my own man, getting through the screens, fighting over stuff. Now, when you switch, you gotta be aware of your man and you gotta be aware of the next man that you’re about to guard. So just getting into the swing of that.”

On a rebuilding team with younger players in Orlando, the Magic abandoned most of their switching schemes early in the season. The Suns’ defensive coverages are more complex.

There have already been numerous instances where Ross looks confused about whether or not he should be switching. In that mayhem where communication isn’t as sharp as it needs to be until the play is over, confusion reigns and offenses score easily. Ross has made mistakes both on and off the ball in this area:

“I know he’ll make the adjustment quickly because he is a vet,” Mosley said. “But it is difficult at times to go from one system and one way of playing and getting out of your own way sometimes in order to do exactly what’s right for what that structure is in that moment.”

“I think when you haven’t switched the way that we do, and he’s been in the same system for a while, it can be an adjustment,” Williams agreed. “One, it’s an adjustment to effectively switch, and then two, it’s an adjustment to hear the switch call behind you. When you’re focused on the ball, you’re just thinking, ‘I got my eyes on his hips.’ And then you hear a switch call, and you’re like — it can be tough.”

In-game mishaps can be frustrating, but Ross credited his new teammates with helping coach him through their schemes and terminology. And for his part, Ross has been open to criticism, saying it’ll help him learn quicker and avoid making the same mistakes later on.

“When somebody barks at you or says, ‘You should have did this, that,’ like, don’t take it any kind of way,” he said. “Everybody, we have the same goal, we’re on the same page, so that part’s just kind of the maturity of the game.”

Even so, Ross has never been labeled as a lockdown defender for a reason, and the tape hasn’t been kind. Some of his struggles have amounted to confusion over switching schemes, but they also stem from being unable to stop guards or wings from getting to their spots. Most of these are straight-line drives to the basket right by Ross, and the rest are split-second lapses off the ball leading to open jump shots — the kind that can feel back-breaking in tight playoff games.

“I think he’ll get better at it as he understands how we try to implement our defensive style to keep the ball out of the paint,” Williams said. “He’s working his tail off to get better at it.”

Unfortunately, Williams’ correct assertion is still worrisome: Ross is trying. He’s already aware teams are targeting him on that side of the floor, like when the Milwaukee Bucks ran action after action in Ross’ direction in their first meeting with Phoenix a few weeks ago. In the span of a couple of fourth-quarter possessions:

  • Khris Middleton hit a turnaround jumper over Ross from the post
  • Jrue Holiday drove on Ross after running him through two screens
  • Holiday hit a pull-up 3 coming off a screen set on Ross
  • Grayson Allen came off a screen with Ross on him and found Brook Lopez for 3 as the Suns failed to rotate correctly due to miscommunication

Not all of those can be blamed solely on Ross, and he was doing everything in his power to avoid being a liability. But against high-caliber teams, even being perceived as a pigeon is enough to imbue some of the world’s best scorers with the confidence to go out and torch nets.

If anything, Ross’ overthinking and overeagerness to prove he’s not the weak point in the defense can be used against him. It’s part of the reason he’s given up so many and-1s:

Terrence Ross has a unique opportunity to contribute to a title contender for the first time in his career. It’s one that he’s grateful for, and there’s no question he has the offensive chops to elevate the bench and even the motivation to just be passable on defense.

But when playoff opponents aim to expose every weakness, Ross still has to prove the looming storm clouds on defense won’t overshadow his beautiful, high-arching rainbow of a jump shot.


Gerald Bourguet serves as PHNX's reporter, writing savant and podcast co-host for all things Phoenix Suns. He's been a basketball fan since the day he could say "Michael Jordan," graduated from the Walter Cronkite School at ASU in 2013 with a BA and MA in sports journalism and has been covering the NBA ever since. As a credentialed media member since 2015, Gerald dealt with his Suns-related depression through his writing...until the Bubble Suns changed everything. Now, the Artist Formerly Known as Zewio is just as excited to cover winning basketball as Suns fans are to enjoy watching it.

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