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The unfortunate reality of Terry Rozier’s reserve role

What made Terry Rozier so scary as a starter last season hasn’t translated off the bench.

Boston Celtics v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Terry Rozier blossomed as a professional basketball player last year. The brash point guard took over starting duties for the Boston Celtics in the wake of a season-ending injury to All-Star teammate Kyrie Irving. And he did so adeptly.

Rozier averaged 15.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists as a starter last year, and played an integral role in Boston’s somewhat surprising deep postseason run, brick laying in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals notwithstanding. All in all, 2017-18 represented a meaningful developmental jump and subsequent boost in popularity for the man Celtics’ fans lovingly referred to as Scary Terry.

Boston Celtics Media Day Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Rozier seemed to be something of a star on the rise. The present campaign has seen a return to health for Irving, however, pushing Rozier back into a reserve role and effectively muting some of his shine. Boston has been substantially worse in his minutes on the court this year, playing teams to a draw where they outscored opponents by more than three points per 100 possessions just a year ago, per Cleaning the Glass.

Some might claim that Rozier’s decline in positive impact is simply a regression to the mean. He’d never been a particularly good player prior to last year. Perhaps his success was simply a blip on the radar, a statistical anomaly that came at just the right time. Or maybe it was that his growth was overstated, propped up by the narrative of several massively important makes during key moments of meaningful games.

Both such arguments hold some truth, but there may also be something more structural at play. Rozier finds a variety of ways to provide value on the court, but offensively he really only has two strengths. He never turns the ball over and consistently bangs home three-point looks.

The value of the former is somewhat dubious in light of Rozier’s limited creation ability. If he were maintaining a low turnover percentage while cracking seams in the opposing defense and accessing the paint, he’d be in business. Instead, Rozier tends to probe aimlessly, varying his pace in a manner that mimics the maestros of the league, but without the same purpose or understanding of the utility of his shifts in speed.

His forays toward the basket tend to end with unsustainable pull ups in the mid-range or simple kick outs that allow the defense to reset. That’s not particularly helpful, and leaves long range shooting as the primary avenue through which Rozier can make an offensive contribution.

He’s performed decidedly well in that regard. Rozier has hit on an absurd 42.6% of his looks from beyond the arc thus far. The trouble here comes with volume. Rozier is playing 2.5 less minutes per game, and shooting 1.4 fewer three-pointers as compared to last year. Toss in the fact that three-point shooting is an inherently high variance activity, and you’ve got something of a perfect storm of limited effectiveness.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

In the aggregate things might all wind up coming out in the wash. Rozier’s three-point percentage suggests as much, but individual games don’t occur out in the aggregate. Let’s play this out with an example. Imagine a hypothetical world in which Rozier makes 5 of his next 10 shots. If all 10 shots came in a single game we’d call that an excellent performance. But what if they came in a three game sample? Let’s say he shot 1-3, 3-3, 1-4 from deep in those contests.

Suddenly that same great performance has become two bad offensive games and one hot night. We’ve goosed the numbers a bit here to prove a point, but that kind of clustering of makes isn’t all that uncommon, particularly for a player that can get as hot as Rozier does. There is a real value to consistency in a reduced role that simply isn’t a hallmark of his game.

As a result, Rozier finds himself in a classic basketball catch-22. He can’t be the best version of himself without seeing more time on the court, but can’t earn playing time without being a better version of himself. That leaves both Rozier and his teammates stuck between a rock and a hard place. Boston can hope that he earns a new, less volatile means of contributing on offense. It doesn’t need to be an extreme spike in growth.

Rozier will always have utility. He’s an excellent rebounder and a very good defender. Those things translate on every single possession in a way that his offensive game does not, and give him a floor of competence to build from.

If the Celtics are less patient (and potentially concerned about Rozier’s next contract), they could always look to trade him. Boston likely missed its window to sell high after Rozier’s impressive postseason performance, and would certainly be facing a depressed market in the wake of the start to the year, but presumably could drub up some interest. Reports have been swirling recently that there is no shortage of suitors.

Danny Ainge has never shown a desire to move Rozier, however, and at the moment the Celtics seem content to let things play out a while longer. The season is still very early, and it’s possible Rozier will settle into a more comfortable life in his return to the bench. His game isn’t suited to the transition, but he’s got plenty of talent. The Celtics just need to figure out how to unlock it again.

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