With a team chock full of players in their early-to-mid-20s, it's easy to look up and down the roster of the Toronto Raptors and find a handful guys with tremendous upside and untapped potential.
To be fair, there's no true formula for measuring someone's upside. Even the most respected statisticians and analytic teams on the planet can't foresee how a player is going to perform three-to-five years down the road. They can make an educated guess, but there are so many variables involved that it's next to impossible to be right all of the time.
Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors' last two first-round draft picks and the youngest players on the team, are safe choices if you're looking for breakout stars over the next few seasons.
DeMar DeRozan is starting to get recognition around the NBA, while Kyle Lowry is garnering praise for his career year. Neither man has entered his prime, but you have to think that they can't get that much better than what they've shown in 2013-14.
Ross and Valanciunas aren't in their class as of yet, but that doesn't imply that they won't be one day. In just their sophomore seasons, both players have carved out consistent roles in the rotation while becoming integral parts of Toronto's success.
Terrence Ross' rookie season left a sour taste in the mouths of many. Selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, expectations were high for the 6'6" guard out of the University of Washington.
It wasn't pretty. His percentages were extremely poor, he was a major liability on defense and he was looking like more of a detriment than an asset in the grand scheme.
What a difference a year makes. In 2013-14, Ross has (for the most part) avoided the dreaded sophomore slump while earning the confidence of the coaching staff and his teammates.
During a seven-game stretch from Feb. 21 to March 10, Ross scored in double-figures a career-high seven times in a row. He averaged 15.9 points on 53.2 percent shooting from the floor during that span. The streak was broken on March 12 against the Detroit Pistons when he fell one point shy (nine points, 4-of-9 shooting).
Who could ever forget his 51-point outing against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 25, which tied the franchise record for most points scored in a game. According to Elias Sports, Ross also became the first player ever to score 50 or more points in a game while averaging less than 10.
Was it a flash in the pan? That aforementioned performance caught a lot of people off guard, including me. Ross can catch fire in a hurry, but 51 points? Could he have set the bar too high for himself?
He followed that game up with three-straight double-figure scoring nights, which was followed by four games of nine points or less. Consistency is extremely important, especially for a player who is not only building trust, but hoping to keep it as well.
That's where defense comes in. Ross is still a work in progress in that department. But head coach Dwane Casey has taken notice of his improvement on that side of the floor, via Doug Smith of the Toronto Star. "He probably has the best defensive hands of all of our guys," Casey said.
While his shot selection has gotten better, Ross needed to add more to his defensive repertoire in order to avoid being just a one-trick pony. He's been counted on in recent weeks to defend some of the quicker and more elusive backcourt players for the opposition. Shots aren't always going to fall, so if Ross can turn himself into a defensive stopper in late-game situations, he'll offer even more value to the Raptors.
By the way, never discount the importance of being able to wow audiences with highlight-reel dunks. It garners attention, which is never a bad thing. While appearances on the SportsCenter Top 10 will get eyes looking your way, strong play will keep those eyes in your direction.
Drafting big men has been a hit-or-miss proposition for the Raptors since their inception in 1995. Andrea Bargnani, Charlie Villanueva, Michael Bradley, Aleksandar Radojević and Rafael Araújo are just a few names which send shivers down the spines of Toronto diehards.
Say what you will about former general manager Bryan Colangelo, but he got one right when he picked Jonas Valanciunas with the fifth pick in the 2011 NBA draft.
A back-to-the-basket frontcourt talent who would rather work his magic in the post than settle for jumpers around the perimeter? Get out of here. They still exist?
The problem with Valanciunas for a majority of the season has been his inability to stay on the court. His 201 fouls are 10th most in the NBA, via ESPN.com. There have been many occasions where he gets overly physical early in games, picking up silly fouls which send him to the bench almost immediately.
Coach Casey wants Valanciunas to be smarter on defense and keep his emotions in check, via Eric Koreen of the National Post.
We just need clean physicality: screening. That, to me, is nasty. Setting a screen is nasty. Boxing out is nasty. Those are the kind of nasty things we need. We don’t need elbows. We don’t need [demonstrative] facial expressions.
These are things that he will learn over time. Valanciunas isn't much of a rim-protector (0.9 blocks this season), so he'll need to be more adaptive on defense and learn when to be aggressive with his hands.
On offense, Valanciunas has started to look for his shot more around the basket while taking the aggressive nature he has on the defensive end and putting it to use in other areas.
Yes, his numbers have taken a hit in certain categories, but he's playing more minutes and taking more shots than last season. His rebounding also has gotten considerably better, which was on display against the Detroit Pistons on March 12 when he pulled down 13 boards in a matchup with Andre Drummond.
He has 24 games this season with double-figure rebounds, which is 14 more than he had in 2012-13.
Deciding whether Terrence Ross has more of an upside than Jonas Valanciunas or vice versa is strictly a matter of opinion. They play two totally different positions with different roles and responsibilities.
If I had to go with one, I'd lean toward Ross because he's further along in his development. We're starting to see what he can really do on both ends of the court, while Valanciunas still has a shroud of mystery surrounding him.
That's not to say that Ross isn't in the same boat. Neither guy has two full seasons under his belt, so there's not a great deal to go on in terms of projecting where they'll be in the future.
They both make their fair share of mistakes. They're bound to happen.
Perhaps we'll all get a better understanding come the postseason as Ross and Valanciunas will be put to the test in a major way.
Whether you believe it's Ross or you believe it's Valanciunas who has more upside, there's no denying that both players are well on their way to leaving their mark in the annals of Raptors history.
The sky's the limit.
*All statistics (unless indicated otherwise) are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com*
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