Terry Rozier hit the water. He submerged himself into the pool, fully clad in a specially selected suit. The temperature could have been ice cold or scorching hot – he doesn’t recall. His drenched body was numb to it, filled with too much excitement to feel anything in that moment.
The celebratory plunge in front of an exuberant crowd at a private party for family and friends on Draft Night was the culmination of 21 years of working hard and chasing dreams. Life was about to change for the hard-nosed guard from Ohio.
Then again, Rozier’s life has always been about change.
A Change in Home
The streets were filled with kids looking for a pickup football or basketball game to get involved with outside. Rozier was one of the more active children. He participated in any sport he could get his hands on and took on new ones to avoid having an offseason.
Inside his two-story Youngstown home, the scene was just as busy. His mother had friends and relatives over on a regular basis, each visitor was a welcomed face to Rozier. He enjoyed having people around.
“Somebody new would come every day and you’d look forward to it,” he told Basketball Insiders during a sit-down interview.
Rozier liked to be active and on the go. But around the age of six, it went from preferential to mandatory. His father was arrested, sparking a backlash that put Rozier in jeopardy.
“When my dad first got out, I moved with him and was living with him. I was having the time of my life,” Rozier recounted. “We’d put on the gloves, he had me running with weight vests, it was a lot of fun just to be with my dad. He had got in trouble, charged with murder and kidnapping, and there were some guys that couldn’t get a hold of him because he was locked up. The word on the street was, they were going to come after me.”
As a result, Rozier was forced to move from his mother’s house to live with his grandmother in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. He didn’t want to leave.
“I couldn’t even accept it at first,” he said. “There was so much of me wanting to me be with my mom. My grandmother, we still talk about it to this day, how we didn’t really click at first, it was crazy. But I love that woman.”
Rozier was a tireless child. His grandmother brought him to the park to release his energy. New to the neighborhood, Rozier tried to get acclimated with his surroundings. He discovered there were other kids who shared a similar love of playing sports. They bonded over the commonality.
“That’s when I started to find myself,” he said. “At first it was, ‘Why is she taking me here?’ Then it was, ‘I can’t wait to go back.’ I loved the park. That’s basically where I grew up.”
A Change in Basketball Plans
Rozier started playing organized basketball around sixth or seventh grade. He modeled his game after Allen Iverson and Dwyane Wade. At first he didn’t shoot the ball much – he had a flair for crossovers and passing. Even though football was his first love, he began to draw more attention for his skills on the court. Once he joined an AAU basketball team, he chose that sport over football.
Rozier rose in the ranks to become the top player in the Cleveland area. He was recruited to play college basketball at the University of Louisville. Rozier clicked with head coach Rick Pitino from the time Pitino had watched one of Rozier’s high school games.
“I respected him since day one,” said Rozier. “I like a guy who won’t sugarcoat anything and will be honest with me. That’s the kind of guy he is. He has his times when he’s uptight a little bit, but I love that man.”
Rozier’s sights were set on college, but those plans were altered when he found out he had to improve his academics. He was frustrated to learn a summer course he had been taking to increase his grades didn’t count for credit. Instead, he had to attend prep school at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia.
The time at Hargrave during the 2012-13 season was a crash course in discipline. Rozier woke up every day at 6 a.m. The noise of horns blaring and staff members knocking on his door became familiar sounds. Some days they took away his phone, a temporary disconnect from the outside world.
Rozier used the time to think and read. He reflected on being a teenager back home with all the freedom in the world, texting his friends whenever he wanted and seeing them as he pleased. At Hargrave, he had to make new friends and maximize the situation he didn’t expect to find himself in. Rozier averaged 29.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists that season, highlighted by scoring 68 points in a double overtime win.
“Once I couldn’t go to college and I heard the worst news of my life that I had to go to prep school, it turned out to be the best thing for me,” Rozier said. “I’m off in a military school. I had days when I’d cry, it was the worst. It was something you’re not used to. But I actually found myself. I got stronger, I started getting the confidence that I was really good at this game.”
A Change in His Body
In between Hargrave and Louisville, Rozier changed up his training regimen. He enrolled in Crossfit. For two months, he pushed his body to the limits. Eventually he excelled so much he was breaking records and other athletes there were encouraging him to become a Crossfit competitor.
Thousands of pushups, pullups, situps and burpees later – as well as countless hours of being screamed at by his trainer, Gina, to keep grinding – Rozier underwent a mental and physical transformation as he prepared for his first season in college.
“I liked it, I was seeing progress from my body,” Rozier said. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t wait for that feeling to go away. But once it went away, I kept doing it. I stopped being sore and you could see the results. People were saying you look bigger and you just love to hear that, I couldn’t wait to get back in the gym.
“Crossfit tests your mental toughness because no workout was over 30 minutes so you had to fight through it and get to the next one. That, Louisville, things that happened when I was young, all adds up to my mental toughness. That’s why I can run after a hard workout. We had to do a three-minute run with all the guards, I’m training to do things like that so I can fight. I can tell my legs, ‘You can push through this.’”
A Change in the Public Perception
Rozier played two seasons for Louisville and declared for the 2015 Draft. He left school averaging 17.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists as a sophomore, and believed he was ready to become an NBA point guard. Others, however, didn’t have the same opinion.
Because Rozier played primarily off the ball in Louisville, there were critics who questioned his potential at the one spot.
“I know people say I can’t play point guard when I’ve been playing it all my life,” Rozier said at the NBA Draft Combine.
Rozier worked with trainer Cody Toppert at the Elev8 Sports Institute. Whereas he changed his body going into college, the 6’2 guard changed aspects of his game going into the league.
“We had to battle the perception that he was a volume shooter, only looking to score, not looking to pass, wasn’t great in the pick and roll, but who had all the physical attributes you’re looking for,” Toppert said. “Those are a lot of things to change in a short amount of time.”
Rozier was also critiqued for his shot. Toppert described Rozier’s shooting technique out of college as “kind of catapulting the ball.” They worked intensely on attaining the optimal 47.5 degree angle, analyzing the differences in such detail that a matter of two degrees made a major impact, focusing on where his elbow finished on the release.
Toppert also resonated the importance of running the floor. Since the role wasn’t solely on Rozier’s shoulders at Louisville, Toppert noticed Rozier often was the inbounder. Going into five-on-fives at the Draft Combine, Toppert told Rozier he had to the be the player who dribbled the ball past halfcourt, unless they were in transition. By being more demanding of the ball, Rozier was able to show himself more as a point guard.
During the draft process Rozier worked out with 16 teams, including twice with the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs. He participated in a Pro Day toward the end of his workout schedule. Even though he had shown most of the teams what he had to offer at that point, he was hard on himself for what he considered a poor offensive performance. He insisted on spending at least another hour putting up more shots while the activities wrapped.
“He’s a blackout worker and he’s so dedicated to his craft that those changes were easy,” said Toppert.
A Change in Leadership
The role of a point guard is to be the floor general. In addition to ball handling, they are tasked with communication and vocal leadership. The non-basketball aspect of the position was a new challenge for Rozier.
“I definitely feel like Terry can be a great leader, but he’s never had to be in that situation before,” former college teammate-Houston Rockets rookie Montrezl Harrell said. “It’s something he’s going to have to learn, but I think he definitely has a chance to be great at it.”
With every aspect of a player’s game under a microscope during pre-draft workouts, Rozier’s verbal leadership was a talking point during the process. Rozier recalled a conversation he had with Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge about it during a visit with the team.
‘He said, ‘I’ve been around the game for a long time – how Jason Kidd was, how Larry Bird was, as far as they don’t talk on the floor that much, but you might have a lot of stuff built up inside of you, but it works well for you because you take it out on the court,’” Rozier recalled. “He was like, ‘Some people probably wonder why they can’t get through to you, why you don’t talk enough.’ He was right on the money.”
This emphasis has continued throughout Rozier’s training. Toppert implored him to become a vocal mainstay, talk consistently and adopt the communication style E.L.O. — early, loud, often. Even though Rozier’s style is leading by example, it is important for him to work in leading with his words as well.
“Terry is a great guy, nice guy and because of that sometimes he was non-verbal in his communication with his teammates at Louisville and even early on in the draft process,” said Toppert. “That was something he really had a big improvement on. He did a great job at coming out of his shell.”
A Change in Life
Rozier was one of the surprises of the 2015 NBA Draft, skyrocketing up the boards to go 16th to the Celtics.
From standout sophomore to eager rookie, Rozier now finds himself in a position to learn from his teammates rather than being a go-to. He is approaching his first season with a balance of soaking up proven basketball knowledge and fulfilling his role as a contributor.
“Terry’s unbelievable,” said Marcus Smart. “He’s a quick learner and really coachable. … He has an ability to create for himself and others. Most rookies don’t come in with that type of motor. He’s really aggressive getting to the rim and making plays.”
Off the court, the irony is Rozier isn’t much different at all. He is still the ambitious kid from Ohio, the one who visited his former school after being drafted and remembers where he came from, a motivating factor in why he wants to keep moving forward.
“I’ve seen too much (failure), “he said, “You want to be the reason why your family smiles. You want to change up everything.”
In the midst of the Draft Night festivities, as Rozier stood dripping from a poolside celebration, his cousin told him, “Nobody makes it out of Youngstown.” Rozier did. Even though he had changed his location and many aspects of his game along the way, there was one thing he refused to alter.
“I’ve been motivated since I was young and I don’t think that’s ever going to stop,” Rozier said. “That’s what I learned to get me through and get me to this point, so why change?”
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old