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2020 Talking Point: A Terrence Ross heat check

Can the Magic’s sizzling scorer find the hot hand when the season resumes?

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Orlando Magic v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to the latest in a new series that aims to keep the basketball conversation flowing as we patiently wait for the games to return. With each entry I’ll be zeroing in on a different player, examining a key talking point to emerge from either the wins and losses already banked, the looming playoffs, or the seasons still to come. Expect a little less in the way of statistical deep dives as we head more in the direction of dialogue, debate, conjecture, and prognostications. Let’s get started!

Hypothesis: Terrence Ross will make 35 or more three pointers in the games after the season resumes

Before we get started, an explanation. In 2018/19, Ross made 217 threes across 81 regular season contests, good for 2.68 each night he stepped on the floor. In doing so he became the first player ever to nail more than 200 triples in a season without starting a game, ultimately falling a single bucket short of Wayne Ellington’s record of 218 reserve three pointers made in a season (note: Ellington doesn’t meet the requirements of the first accolade because 9 of his 227 threes in 2018/19 came as a starter). The Magic came to rely on this offensive consistency from Ross, so I wanted to spend some time thinking about whether or not he can replicate that pace in what remains of the current season once it resumes. Realistically setting Orlando’s expected games total at 13 — the 8 remaining on the schedule, no play-in for the eighth seed, and a 5-game first round series — sees the maths shake out as 2.68 x 13 = 34.84. I rounded up because I enjoy a higher degree of difficulty. Let’s dive into the debate!

Orlando Magic v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The case in favor

As we all know, the Magic were in a serious offensive groove when the season went on hiatus, in no small part thanks to the contributions of Ross. He was a veritable flame thrower over the last twelve games, averaging 20.7 points across the stretch and cashing in from long range at a rate of 47.2%. In fact, he made a staggering 49 triples in that final month of play, a pace that suggests 35 in what remains of the 2019/20 season should be a walk in the park for one as proficient as the Human Torch. The man was seemingly born to scorch nets.

An inspection of the tracking numbers goes some way towards revealing why these shooting figures erupted in the way that they did. A feature of Ross’ shot profile in 2019/20 is that he generally found the sledding a little tougher than in his record setting season, with defenses more dialled in on the marksman and more actively working to limit the damage he could do. Last season 34.4% of his total shot diet consisted of three pointers classified as either open (closest defender 4 to 6 feet away) or wide open (6+ feet away). This year that number dropped all the way to 26.7%. However, in the final 12 games the Magic were able to spring the wing for more of these valuable opportunities, boosting that figure to a much more effective 33.4% of his total attempts. Give the Human Torch a sliver of daylight and he’ll make the opposition pay.

The Magic were also generally much better at getting Ross three point attempts in rhythm during this closing stretch, which in turn resulted in a more efficient and deadly scorer. In the season’s first 53 games 7.9% of the wing’s total shot attempts were three balls with less than 7 seconds remaining on the shot clock. In the last dozen contests that figure fell all the way to just 3.8%, a clear indication of the fact that less of these shots were bailouts after the offense stalled. His catch and shoot figures also went through the roof, with basically every second shot attempt from Ross coming in the form of a zero dribble, in rhythm three (49.2%); in the games preceding this late stretch that ratio fell below two-in-five (39.7%). Get the Human Torch into a flow state and he’ll make the opposition pay.

Another factor in favor of 35 triples or more from Ross’ fingertips is the Magic’s rotation and depth. Across the team’s final 12 games this season he experienced a significant uptick in minutes, increasing the raw number of long range attempts to a mammoth 8.8 per game. If he keeps that rate up it won’t matter even should his shooting percentages come back to earth some. Ross also saw increased playing time last year during the playoffs, accumulating almost 3 extra minutes a night during games with the highest of stakes. Add to that the increasing likelihood of Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu remaining on the sidelines and it’s easy to see the Magic continuing to lean heavily on Ross. Any shooter benefits from reps, just as any miss brings a shooter closer to their next make. Grant the Human Torch a greater workload and (eventually) he’ll make the opposition pay.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The case against

Perhaps the easiest place to start with the case against is with the 2019/20 numbers in their entirety. Isolating a 12 game stretch can result in some cute observations, but one is right to be wary of any small sample size; using only a single month as the driving predictive force is likely an exercise in folly. Instead, in 63 games this season Ross shot just 35.7% from deep, a figure which was an even icier 32.2% in his first 51 contests. Either of those percentages at his normal rate of attempts on the season leaves him shy of this exercise’s magic number of 35.

There’s also the fact that playoff basketball, which should account for at least 4 of Ross’ total remaining games, always features defensive intensity that is greater than that of the regular season. Team schemes are accompanied by specific game-planning for the most dangerous offensive options, which means Ross should expect to see plenty of tight coverage that makes life difficult for the catch-and-shoot specialist to navigate. His own playoff numbers support such an observation, with the 37.2% career long-range shooter seeing that figure plummet to 30.5% across his 36 postseason contests. Even discounting his early years, last season’s series against the Raptors involved a 4% dip in three point accuracy.

There’s also a degree of reasonable doubt over the ability of the Orlando coaching staff to adequately spring their star shooter for clean looks. Steve Clifford has never exactly been hailed as an offensive genius, instead preferring a methodical and often predictable approach to scoring that largely minimizes risk. And while the Magic have a handful of nifty out-of-bounds plays and know their collective way around a simple flare screen, when was the last time they uncorked a set play for Ross that positively bamboozled the opposing defense? The playbook simply doesn’t have the type of off-ball action and misdirection that is frequently used for snipers like Korver and Redick.

Ross is one hell of a shooter, the type of heat check guy that can single-handedly will a team into a game on the back of his hot hand. However, 35 long range bombs in the time left this season might be too tall of an order even for him. Injury could strike. The Magic might collapse. After a lengthy absence a shooting rhythm will likely be a struggle. Even discounting those factors, a projection of 13 games for the Magic would still require Ross to make three pointers at a per-game clip equal to his career-best rate (2.7 each night). It’s a lot to ask, ensuring that the under in this equation feels like the safer bet.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

The verdict

As outlined above, there are any number of convincing reasons to believe that Ross won’t crack 35 triples during what remains of the 2019/20 season. A couple of lean games would torpedo the numbers in a way that simply wouldn’t leave enough time for the bet to recover. A rolled ankle would end the debate definitively. More broadly, his numbers this season were both down and more reflective of his career averages in many ways. There’s an obvious difficulty in asking someone to replicate a record-setting outlier.

And yet, I’m taking the bet. Ross was in such a shooting groove over the final month of the interrupted season that 50 total triples doesn’t seem totally out of the question. Best of all, his improved shooting figures weren’t built on the back of high degree of difficulty shots that he happened to get lucky on. Instead, the attempts were the result of a humming team offense, with set feet, plenty of space, and a fluid trigger. It’s a potent combination for a shooter of the Human Torch’s recent pedigree, and one I’m betting is in large part replicable. Flame on.