Two years ago, Terry Rozier appeared to be on the precipice of something great.
One year ago, Rozier took a clear step back.
Today, at long last, Rozier is a full-time, starting point guard — which is only to say: Buckle up, folks, the breakout season is finally upon us.
After a season of frustration, Rozier now reigns as the top dog in Charlotte, where the Hornets will rely on him to do it all for 82 games in 2019-20. No, seriously, as far as metaphorical leashes go, Rozier will have next-to-none — just ask head coach James Borrego. Heading into training camp, Borrego said he’d like to play Rozier about 34 minutes per game.
Not only is that a significant jump from the 22 minutes he averaged with Boston last year, but only 24 players reached that mark at all in 2018-19. Unsurprisingly, most of them are former All-Stars. One of them, of course, was Kemba Walker, the Hornets’ previous incumbent cornerstone and, naturally, the Celtics’ new starting point guard. Over the hot-and-cold season, Walker did his best to drag the Hornets to the postseason by dropping 25.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists on 43.4 percent from the floor in over 34.9 minutes per game.
Consider the gauntlet thrown, Terry — still, a constant comparison of the two isn’t something Rozier wants to spend the entire year discussing. At Charlotte’s media day, Rozier, upfront and forward as ever, made his thoughts on the matter clear.
“I’m not Kemba. I’m not coming in here acting like I’m Kemba. I’m Terry,” Rozier told The Charlotte Observer. “I respect the hell out of Kemba. When I play against him, I’m going to give him my best, and I know I’ll get his best. But Kemba? I don’t want to hear it. Don’t talk to me about Kemba.”
The former Louisville prospect burned brightly in bursts for the Celtics over his four-year stint up north — however, being a perpetual second choice on the depth chart eventually took its toll. A scan of Rozier’s up-and-down game logs shows the same story: Inconsistency and inefficiencies in bunches, often rivaled with a handful of impressive, bucket-getting haymakers. Following the Isaiah Thomas-Kyrie Irving-centered swap in 2017 — one All-Star-worthy point guard for another, an instance that pushed against Rozier’s quest for reliable minutes — the 6-foot-1 playmaker didn’t soar until a late-season injury.
Irving, suffering from an ailing knee, was shelved just before April hit, leaving Rozier as the undisputed starter for the first time in his career. Over Boston’s 19 postseason games in 2018 — a journey that ended at the hands of LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals — Rozier put up 16 or more points in 12 of them. In his pièce de résistance, the would-be chef’s kiss of a presumed forever-breakout, Rozier tallied 29 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block on 7-for-9 from three-point range in a Game 1 blowout of Philadelphia. Electric and springy, elite defenses like the Milwaukee Bucks and 76ers had trouble containing Rozier and the Celtics’ balanced attack throughout the playoffs.
The Cavaliers eventually did well to influence some streakier percentages — although he’s never seen a shot he didn’t like — but the damage was already done: To many, including himself, Rozier deserved a bigger share of the minutes.
Except, next autumn, he didn’t get them.
With Irving back and healthy in 2018-19, even with the slew of off-the-floor distractions Boston faced, Rozer’s minutes dropped to just 22.7 per game. But over two full seasons of 20-plus minute averages, a once-small sample size suddenly became hard to ignore. If Rozier played, he put the ball in the basket; when he didn’t, he struggled. From 2017-19, when Rozier received at least 30 minutes, he scored 13 points or more in 21 of the 28 applicable contests. A pill harder to swallow, the sparkplug guard only logged 30 minutes in nine games last year — but in them, the Celtics were 7-2.
On the other end of the spectrum, Rozier had issues leaving a positive mark on the game within his bit-time role. During 2018-19 alone, there were 31 instances in which Rozier played 20 minutes or less and he managed to score double-digits in just nine of them. As Boston continued to shuffle the deck all season, Rozier would start in 14 games too, tallying a more-than-optimistic 13.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists on 40.5 percent from three-point range.
For a microwave-ready scorer like the point guard, the conclusion is a fairly simple one: Give Rozier consistent and hearty minutes, and good things will happen. So, after years of taking a team-first backseat, the always-confident Rozier was rightfully done with it all.
In May, Rozier, a restricted free agent, told ESPN: “No, I might have to go. I might have to go. I put up with a lot this year, so I said what I said after this season. I think we all know I’m not trying to step into that again.”
According to Rozier, he’d sacrificed his talents for Gordon Hayward and Irving long enough.
“Obviously [I was] in the shadow of some guys…I feel like Terry Rozier was just in the corner or on the bench,” he said. It was time for him to grab his promising career by the scruff.
And although Charlotte is likely headed toward the league basement this year, there’s plenty of room for Rozier to take control of his professional fate and prove himself all at once.
To wit, the Hornets’ second-highest scoring piece from last season, Jeremy Lamb, signed with playoff-ready Indiana in June. Charlotte’s backup point guard — the position Rozier never truly escaped in Boston — is manned by Devonte’ Graham, a second-year up-and-comer that played just 14.7 minutes over 46 games as a rookie. Marvin Williams and Nicolas Batum, the two elder statesmen of the roster, averaged just 10.1 and 9.3 points per game in 2018-19, respectively.
Of course, there will be higher hopes for Malik Monk and Miles Bridges, but make no mistake — the keys to the car have been handed to Rozier. The talent was always there, undoubtedly, but never the full opportunity. In Charlotte, finally free of a situation that tapped his potential ceiling, he can be himself — whatever that may end up entailing.
He’s not Kemba. He’s not Kyrie. And he’s not Isaiah, either — but he doesn’t want to be.
He’s Terry Rozier, the Hornets’ brand-new $58 million dollar man and starting point guard.
And, to be fair, Rozier has never had an issue believing in himself — but soon, hopefully, he’ll make a believer of everybody else, too.
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