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An Evaluation of Eight: Breaking down Terrence Ross’ last eight games

Ross’ recent struggles have coincided with the Magic’s struggles

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the fourth in an ongoing series for the 2018/19 season. In ‘An Evaluation of Eight’ I’ll be breaking the season into octagonal chunks, tracking the performance of a single player across eight-game stretches, as I did a few weeks back on Nikola Vucevic. We’ll be digging into the numbers and employing the eye test, with an emphasis on figuring out how what we’re seeing matches up with what we know. Eight games is only a small sample size, to be sure, but it should still be a useful exercise in identifying trends and evaluating progress. Let’s dive in.

Terrence Ross has undoubtedly been one of the more pleasant surprises for the Magic this year. After last season’s campaign was decimated by injury, he’s bounced back and established himself as a key part of the team’s rotation, and a fringe sixth-man of the year candidate. In fact, at least a handful of the team’s wins to this point have his sweet-shooting fingerprints all over them.

As has become blindingly obvious, however, the team is currently in a tailspin. They’ve only won three games since December started, with five of the losses during this stretch coming via double figure-plus margins. Unsurprisingly, Ross’ own play during this month has been precipitously down when compared to his earlier output. As he has struggled, so to have the Magic. It’s time to dive in and have a look at exactly how his last eight games have panned out.

The Schedule

vs. Indiana - 11 points and 2 rebounds on 5-10 shooting

at Dallas - 7 points and 3 assists on 3-11 shooting

vs. Chicago - 8 points and 1 rebound on 2-9 shooting

vs. Utah - 19 points and 3 rebounds on 8-9 shooting

vs. San Antonio - 7 points and 2 rebounds on 3-11 shooting

at Chicago - 2 points and 3 rebounds on 1-11 shooting

vs. Miami - 7 points and 5 rebounds on 2-9 shooting

vs. Phoenix - 18 points and 2 steals on 6-14 shooting

The Eye Test

NBA: Orlando Magic at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start with an easy observation: Ross has been really important for the Magic this year. He’s played exclusively from the bench, emerging as the go-to player for these reserve-heavy units. Despite the team’s offensive woes the fact that he’s been able to provide buckets when the starters rest has often allowed Orlando to not lose too much ground and stay in the contest. On occasion, his scoring outbursts have even been the thing to propel the team into a winning position.

For example, take the game in Mexico against the Jazz. The Magic had struggled to put the ball in the basket all night long and looked like they might be headed for a dispiriting loss against a team they were holding to 30% shooting. They were careless with the ball and struggling to generate good looks, and opened the fourth quarter down a couple of buckets with only one starter on the court (D.J. Augustin). The margin was three points in Utah’s favor when Ross caught fire.

A three at the 9:22 mark tied the game at 65. Just 32 seconds later, he followed that with another zero-hesitation triple to push the Magic ahead by one. With 8:06 remaining he sliced into the lane and finished in the paint. Less than a minute later he drilled a smooth pull-up jumpshot from near the elbow. When the dust settled he had 10 points in 132 seconds of gametime, and the Magic had a four-point lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.

Sequences like this have become commonplace for Ross this season. He’s instant offense for a squad starved of it, and the most essential part of the Magic’s bench rotation. An argument could certainly be made that his play warrants consideration for a starting role, but as it stands he’s more valuable where he currently is. Without his play helping to (mostly) keep the scoreboard ticking over, the standings likely look a lot different for a team battling to stay on the fringes of the playoff chase.

However, as is apparent from looking at the boxscores from the last eight games, when the shots stop falling, it’s hard for a scorer to make a mark. Teams have undoubtedly tightened their coverage of him since the season started, particularly on the bench-heavy units where he’s the first option on offense. Still, a lot of the looks have been good - they just haven’t been going in.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the most recent tilt against the Suns, Ross was able to eventually find some rhythm, which is hopefully a sign of an imminent bounce back for his numbers. He forced some shots over tight coverage early looking for the bottom of the net, and after he got one to drop he was able to turn it on. The three-ball was looking good, including a huge make in the dying moments of the fourth quarter that gave the Magic a chance. It was ultimately a bad loss for the team, but Ross’ contributions were once again healthy.

Defensively Ross has been mostly solid but certainly not spectacular. When he first arrived in Orlando it was with the hope that he would be a wing in the 3-and-D mold, but the defensive side of the equation -- specifically the notion of him as a lockdown defender -- has kind of gone missing this season. With the extra workload on offense it’s pretty understandable.

That being said, across the last eight games, Ross has had decent steal and deflection numbers, and the bench units have largely brought a strong level of enthusiasm and effort to this side of the ball. Individually, he’s done a solid job of defending his immediate assignment. He’s forever capable of opportunistic ball-hawking, perhaps best exemplified by a fantastic swipe he made at the top of the arc late in the game against Phoenix. As a team, the Magic have had some trouble stopping anyone during this stretch, but Ross has never felt like a major part of that problem.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of Ross over this most recent stretch is the hot and cold nature of his performances. Because of his heavy reliance on jump shots there’s always going to be some variability to his output, but it’s been particularly up and down across the last eight. He’s had five games during this stretch in which he failed to crack double-digits scoring, a few of which have coincided with sluggish and dispiriting team losses. If Ross can’t get it going, the Magic are almost invariably going to struggle.

The Numbers

NBA: Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the sixth-man designation, he’s playing close to a career-high in minutes per game (26), a figure which has actually grown as the season continues to wind on. Considering the relatively clean bill of health the team has enjoyed, this is a pretty clear indication of how fundamental he has become to Orlando’s success.

Despite his reputation as a three-point threat, Ross has actually dialed back the frequency with which he’s flinging from deep this season. It’s still an incredibly large number -- 47% of all total attempts! -- but outside of his rookie season it actually constitutes a career-low. Luckily for the Magic, he’s connecting at a near career-best 39.1% on these attempts, and on high volume (5.4 attempts per game). He’s cooled off a little from beyond the arc across the last eight, but even during these games he’s made 33% of his long-range attempts.

A slightly worrying takeaway from his shot distribution is that attempts at the rim have largely dissipated this season. Only 5% of his shots are coming within 3 feet of the hoop, with the number being made up largely in the mid-range. Almost one out of every three of his field goals are two-point attempts taken from 16 feet or further out, a pretty inefficient shot type to be leaning so heavily on. At the moment his overall effectiveness has been buoyed by an almost 50% conversion rate from this distance, a number which stands out as an outlier (and has already cooled off some this season). Expect further regression.

In terms of scoring efficiency, Ross is currently close to or setting career-highs in other relevant categories, including true shooting percentage (55.0%), effective field goal percentage (52.8%), and usage rate (22.7%). He’s being asked to do more than at any other point in his career, and hot shooting is ensuring that he’s making this extra responsibility count. His free throw rate is still well-below league average (.131), so it’s not really something he can lean on if the shots stop dropping.

Elsewhere one can find reasons for sedate optimism when looking at Ross’ figures to date. His assist numbers have never been great, but he does have a recent game with a tally of three (his season high is only four), and generally speaking he’s a willing passer (as his still-low-but-career-best assist percentage of 9.7% attests). He doesn’t ever hit the offensive glass, but is corralling misses on the defensive end around his career rate, while his steal and block numbers have remained in line with expected averages. Outside of scoring, he rarely fills the stat sheet up, but considering his role this is largely fine.

Perhaps most importantly, Ross has kept his turnovers down despite seeing the ball more frequently. He’s only had three total over the last eight, and never more than one in a single game. On the season, his turnover rate sits at just 8.2%, despite a jump in usage rate of almost six percentage points from last year. This largely means that he’s getting shots up when the opportunity presents itself, and for an offensively-challenged team like the Magic, this is undoubtedly a good thing.

The Conclusion

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Honestly, it’s been a pretty unspectacular eight game stretch for Ross, a fact which can obviously be said of the team at large. However, when he can provide it his scoring has been incredibly valuable for the Magic, who undoubtedly wouldn’t have as many wins as they do without his offense. He hasn’t had huge boxscore contributions (and to be fair, outside of his points totals, he never really does), but that’s largely reflective of the role he’s being asked to play.

Perhaps the biggest lingering question when it comes to T-Flight is in regards to what happens next. He’s currently playing on an expiring contract, which means he’s both an important cog in the current rotation and a potential trade chip. A lot of fans would like to see him stay in Orlando, but it’s not yet clear what will bring the team the most value moving forward. Should they aim to keep him as they continue to push for the playoffs? Or are the Magic playing above their heads and better off flipping him for a future asset? It’s tricky.

Regardless of the long term outcome -- and despite the downturn of the last eight games -- it’s been easy as a Magic fan to appreciate Ross’ play this season. Let’s hope there are still a few flamethrower performances yet to come.