Updated Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 11:57 AM
TORONTO — And now, the best dunks this season from high-flying rookie Terrence Ross!
Ross is stunned. Did he hear that correctly? He's in the middle of pregame warm-ups on a Sunday afternoon at Air Canada Centre, and right there, on the big screen above him, the Toronto Raptors are showing highlights of his aerial audacity. Ross tries to play it cool, but teammates won't let him. He shakes his head and acts embarrassed by the attention, much like he did at Washington last season when the Alaska Airlines Arena crowd would go into awe-struck mode.
The video is over before Ross can get too bashful, however. It's just a 60-second glimpse of a rookie year that hasn't been all dunks and doting fans. Ross is having a typical first NBA season for a player who left as a sophomore and was drafted No. 8 overall based on potential rather than refined talent.
The 6-foot-6 shooting guard is averaging 6.1 points and 2.1 rebounds in 16.7 minutes per game. He has scored in double figures in only six of his 23 games, including a season-high 19 points against Houston last month. He projects to be a deft shooter at this level, but he's shooting just 38.4 percent overall and 26.5 percent on three-pointers.
But the numbers are neither startling nor foretelling of Ross' future. Few rookies dominate, or even contribute consistently, in the NBA anymore. The draft classes are so young and raw, and every coach has a different way of handling it. Toronto coach Dwane Casey, the former longtime Sonics assistant, prefers to give Ross regular small doses of playing time right now. Casey says Ross is progressing nicely.
"The key thing with him, he doesn't shortchange himself when he comes in," Casey says. "He's going to get his shots up and create some things offensively. The thing that's going to help him is recognizing when to drive it, when to pull up and take a shot, when to drive and kick, and that's going to come. But you can see his growth offensively. And you can see it defensively."
Casey raves about Ross' defense, actually. In that game last month against Houston, Ross didn't just score 19 points. He also guarded Rockets star James Harden for a stretch, and the team still is marveling about how effective Ross was.
"He was better defensively than I thought," Casey said. "Playing the passing lanes, anticipating, defending one on one, he has been a pleasant surprise. He's going to be in this league for a long time because he can shoot it. But there's more to his game."
You could see the potential by the time Ross left Washington. He had gone from a shoot-first freshman to an all-around player who averaged 16.4 points and 6.4 rebounds and often guarded the opposing team's best wing player. When Toronto took him with the No. 8 pick in June, it completed his remarkable rise from underrated college recruit to elite NBA prospect.
But Ross isn't having trouble handling the expectations of being a lottery pick. In fact, he seems more patient now than he was when he arrived at Washington and pleaded for more playing time.
"I really try not to think about it and try not to do what other people or what everybody else is expecting," Ross said. "It's hard to live up to everybody else's expectations because they're always going to want more. You've kind of got to go at your own pace and take your time until you get comfortable with everything.
"It's a lot different now because, in college, at that point, you're trying to play and get noticed by the NBA and get to this level. Now that you're here, people know what you can do, so you really have to just take your time and master your craft and make sure you can stay in this league for as long as you can."
Sunday, the Raptors played the Rockets again, and Ross' performance was a reflection of his season. He came off the bench and sparked the Raptors at the beginning. He had an incredible four-minute stretch. First, he stole a pass and dished to Linas Kleiza for a dunk. Then he blocked Carlos Delfino's shot, volleyball style, which drew an "Ahhh!" from the crowd. Later, Ross followed his own missed shot for a quick bucket and then hit a stepback three-pointer.
Overall, though, he was more of a mixed bag. He made 4 of 10 shots and scored nine points, but he missed two clutch free throws with 1:41 left in the game. Still, the Raptors won 103-96, capturing consecutive victories for the first time this season. At 6-19, Toronto has the fourth-worst record in the NBA.
"The losing, getting so close every night and not coming up with the victory, I think that's been the hardest thing," Ross said softly.
The Raptors aren't bad without promise, however. They have a solid core of young talent, and the combination of former USC guard DeMar DeRozan and Ross could develop into one of the most dangerous and athletic perimeter tandems in the NBA. Ross' sweet shooting would be a nice complement to DeRozan's slashing style.
"He's a sharp kid," Casey says of Ross. "The light is on."
Now, Ross must develop the efficiency and consistency required to be a factor every night at this level. It will happen, Ross promises. Soon.
If so, he had better get used to blushing at his own highlights.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com.
NATHAN DENETTE / AP
Toronto's Terrence Ross has had several highlight-reel dunks during his first season in the NBA.