TORONTO — With 23 seconds on the clock, the game out of hand and some meaningless free throws about to be taken, Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten joked and laughed as they stood behind the three-point line. They'd been exchanging words all game, like it was a University of Washington practice in 2012.
The two had played against one another as pros before Friday, but not like this. Ross heard his name called in the starting lineup for the Toronto Raptors, and Wroten heard the same for the Philadelphia 76ers. Both made big plays in crunch time, with Wroten cutting the Raptors' lead to two on a layup with under two minutes left and Ross extending it to five with a corner three on the next possession. Ross called it "kind of surreal."
"Me and Tony always trash talk," Ross said. "He said, ‘Anytime you shoot a three, I'm gonna shoot a three.' And he actually hit a few of ‘em, too. That's the funny thing about it. We were just having fun out there."
Wroten's chance has come after an offseason trade from the Memphis Grizzlies and early-season injuries and ailments hampering close friend Michael Carter-Williams. He registered a triple double in his first NBA start last month and is averaging 18.4 points, 5.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals with Carter-Williams sidelined. The 6'6 second-year point guard is making an impact largely the same way he did in college: driving left relentlessly, zipping no-look passes through traffic and hounding opposing guards. The energy is always there, and the execution is getting better.
In Toronto, Wroten made a career-high five of eight three point attempts — one more make than he had in his entire rookie season — and finished with 23 points, five assists and three rebounds. He was shooting 19 percent on threes coming into the game, but took them without hesitation.
"I know I can shoot, and I work every day on it," Wroten said.
Ask Sixers head coach Brett Brown, though, and he'll tell you he and his staff are trying to break years of habits with Wroten. He is still shooting 56 percent on free throws, after all. All the 76ers are hoping for is incremental improvement.
"Didn't see it coming at all," Brown said of the explosion at the Air Canada Centre.
His shooting has come back to earth a bit since then, with Wroten going 10-for-28 from the field in two blowout losses and missing four of five three-point attempts on Monday in Brooklyn. At this stage It's unreasonable to expect the No. 25 pick in last year's draft to make those shots all the time.
"He's trying to get his form right, leave his follow through and stay in his shot, all those things that matter," Brown said. "That's the partnership, that's the arrangement."
The coach isn't too concerned with makes and misses, not this season. The idea is to get Wroten reps, fix his form, build his confidence. Brown's happier with his progress in practice than his breakout game. If Wroten buys in, as he has, the percentages are irrelevant.
"Otherwise, there's no deal and he's hurting the team," Brown said.
The door opened for Ross after the Raptors rerouted Rudy Gay to Sacramento. As a reserve he played 21, 10 and nine minutes in the first three games of December, respectively. As a starter, he's averaged 32 minutes per game in his last three.
"It's an opportunity, Ross said. "Probably the biggest opportunity of my career."
Against Philadelphia he had what might have been his best game since Toronto drafted him eighth overall last season. He scored a season-high 24 points on 10-for-16 shooting, adding five rebounds and going 4-for-7 from deep. Ross had a pair of highlight dunks, but more meaningful was how composed he looked, how he made quick decisions in a Toronto offense that was moving the ball more effectively than it had all season long.
The next night, Ross went 4-for-12 in Chicago, scoring just nine points on tired legs. He didn't look the same as against the Sixers, but Toronto head coach Dwane Casey expected that and was pleased with the way he competed.
"He did other things other than sulk after he missed a shot," Casey said. "He played through that, he got back on the defensive end, he made some assists, and that's what's important."
Ross' talent is obvious when he's swishing a three or soaring through the air. He's smooth, long and stands 6'7, a perfect prototype for a two-way swingman in today's NBA. The knock on him is that he's shown his skills only in flashes, that you can't count on him from night to night.
"His biggest challenge as a young player in this league is to stay hungry, stay driven, stay consistent," Casey said.
The ideal version of Ross is engaged away from the ball and avoids mental lapses. He makes the right play and attacks the rim when there's an opening. Ross knows this, and he'll tell you he's concentrating on putting it all together while he's in the starting lineup.
"I'll do anything and everything to keep my position I have right now," Ross said.
The two former Huskies are apart now, but in similar situations. Wroten and Ross are unproven at this level, just starting to demonstrate what they can do. They're packed with potential, possessing physical gifts superior to most of their peers at their positions. Their highs are captivating, their lows frustrating. They haven't escaped the criticisms that developed when they shared a backcourt; Ross needs to be more aggressive and focused, Wroten needs more discipline and a better jumper. It'll take patience and persistence to change the story.
"[Wroten] is a 20-year-old kid that gets to the rim about when he wants," Brown said, about a minute after shaking his head at Ross' athleticism and calling him hard to guard. "If he can partner that up with the ability to shoot, that's a pretty special combination."
Both have had some nice results lately, but it'll remain about the process. They'll meet again in late January, early April and presumably in the summer's UW alumni game. Let's see what they have to talk about then.