Improvement from Raptors’ kids, Part 2 – Defense


Dec 20, 2013; Dallas, TX, USA; Toronto Raptors shooting guard Terrence Ross (31) and center Jonas Valanciunas (17) react against the Dallas Mavericks during the game at American Airlines Center. Toronto won 109-108. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we discussed to what degree the Toronto Raptors’ kids – whom I defined as Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross – could be expected to improve offensively. Today we’ll consider what kinds of strides we should expect when the bad guys have the ball.

Caveat emptor: discussing defense is at least as much art as science. Like the so-called “hockey assist” (i.e., the pass leading to the pass leading to the bucket) which still isn’t counted as an official statistic, there are many elements of sound defense for which there is no measure. I can tell you what I’m looking for:

  • staying in front of your man
  • boxing out
  • fighting through screens
  • confronting your man while in a fundamentally strong stance – knees flexed, leaning forward from the waist, active hands and feet
  • not “biting” on ball fakes or jab steps, and getting a hand up when the shot motion is for real
  • avoiding cheap fouls (you can’t avoid them all, or you’re not trying)
  • being ball-aware to such a degree that you are tipping passes, or rendering them difficult/impossible, without losing your man

Notice I haven’t said anything about blocked shots. OK, now I will – I love them, but they are dangerous. For every block a defender makes, there are about 9 attempts which turn into either fouls or a premature leap, after which the ball-handler steps around and is off.

Lecture is over. Let’s look at JV’s defensive stats. He bumped his defensive rebounds from 4 to 6 PG [Per Game], which is significant on a percentage basis, but not overwhelmingly so. JV average over 4 minutes more playing time PG as a sophomore, which surely helped his rebounding. His blocked shots went down, but so did his foul rate, and that’s a trade I’ll take every time. There’s no else who can defend the rim once the paint has been penetrated. As my colleague Dinos has pointed out, we’re in need of help at centre. JV can’t be sitting because of foul trouble, or our defense may be fatally compromised.

To my eyes, JV looked smarter as a second-year player, more aware of his man and of the need to play help defense. Let’s grant him 2 more rebounds, and 5 more minutes of burn PG. Everything else can stay the same, and we’ll be happy.

Terrence Ross’ situation is much different. He’s out on the perimeter, guarding the opponents’ top scorer in many cases. His defensive improvement was huge from his rookie to his sophomore season, and was almost certainly why he remained a starter despite his offensive struggles. While he’s a touch undersized, he more than makes up for that shortcoming (yuk, yuk) with his mobility. This young man can move. He played almost 10 more minutes PG than as a rookie, but his defensive stats didn’t reflect that bump. He needs to produce more than a meagre 2.6 defensive boards, and I’d like to see his steals increase markedly as well. (Steals are moot for a centre, but if you’re interested, JV had 0.3 in each of his two seasons. You’re welcome.) I think TRoss is smart and dedicated to his craft, and will improve the critical numbers. Let’s grant him another 1.4 defensive boards, which will push him to a healthy 4.0, and he’ll average a steal a game. His fouls, at 2.3 PG, are tolerable, but need to be monitored as his minutes PG climb to nearly 30 this season. He was whistled for at least one silly foul every game last year. Let’s hope he’s earned more respect from the zebras.

I’ve attempted to add some statistical goals at which our youngsters can aim, but the more important results won’t be countable. To know whether JV and TRoss have truly improved will require Your Correspondent to use his eyes relentlessly. I’ll keep you posted.

In the final portion of this discussion, I’ll attempt to synthesize what effect our kids’ improvements will have on team results. In the meantime, Comments welcome.