Danny Ainge frequently views prospects who lack a natural position as an opportunity for role versatility. Sometimes it works (Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart). Sometimes it doesn’t (Gabe Pruitt and JR Giddens).
When Terry Rozier slid out of the 2015 draft lottery, the critique of him was that he was a position-less super-athlete who didn’t have the facilitation skills or creativity to thrive as an NBA point guard, and lacked the knockdown sharpshooter potential and wingspan to excel as an off-ball guard. So where other general managers proceeded with caution, Ainge capitalized on drafting a tweener who was hungry to prove his doubters wrong.
Back in October, I wrote about whether Rozier was capable of quarterbacking the offense as a traditional backup point guard. Fast forward nine months and he has officially made the leap from part-time misfit guard to a intriguing top-20 caliber point guard prospect who appears capable of leading his team deep into the post season.
The offseason departures of Bradley and Isaiah Thomas, paired with Smart’s regular season injuries, self-induced or not, paved the way for Rozier to inflate his minutes from 17.1 per game as sophomore to 25.9 per game as a junior.
He took full advantage of the opportunity.
The third-year jump
Rozier (see also T-Rozzay, Tito, T-Ro, Scary Terry, Tito Three Sticks, and I don’t know who the **** that is) has watched his impact trajectory progress on the positive uptick since being drafted. Boston posted a 3.0 net rating when Rozier was on the floor this season, compared to -0.2 in his second year, and -6.6 in his rookie year. Since his University of Louisville days, the athletic point guard has hung his hat on pesky on-ball defensive skills with a combination of quick feet, long arms, a durable frame, and a tenacious attitude. However, the rapid development of his offensive game in 2017-18 turned him into a legitimate two-way threat. In a multitude of offensive categories, Rozier made significant jumps in efficiency from year two to year three:
Rozier has blossomed into a versatile offense weapon this season, and Brad Stevens wasn’t shy about using him in a variety of roles. On ball, Rozier now possesses a nice ability to change pace and direction, while deciphering multiple layers of the defense as he slithers his way into paint penetration. Whether it was a kick out for a catch-and-shoot triple, or a bounce pass drop off to a diving cutter, or a cross-court skip to exploit the trapping double-team, Mr. Three Sticks was almost always facilitating without over forcing.
Off ball, Rozier grew into a knockdown shooter, as he skyrocketed his 3-point rate from 31.8 percent last season to a blistering 38.1 percent in year three. His instincts for finding creases in the defense to receive spot up jumpers reveal his marked improvement for understanding NBA-level spacing. Simply put, opposing defenses can no longer ignore Rozier like they did in years past.
After Kyrie Irving was shut down in mid-April, Rozier posted eye-popping averages of 14.7 points, 5.0 assists, 6.1 boards on 36.6 percent shooting across 33.2 minutes, proving that he wasn’t overwhelmed by the sudden starting role. By the end of the regular season slate, Rozier made sixteen spot starts for the Celtics, highlighted by a January triple-double on national television:
Spring statistics can often be deceiving — while many frontline starters are shut down due to nagging injuries, tanking teams are simultaneously trying to pad their loss column to improve their lottery odds. As the regular season winds down, we typically expect to see some head-scratching irregularities in the nightly box scores. The fact that Rozier sustained his offensive success through nineteen playoff contests, posting cool per-game averages of 16.5 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds, placed him squarely on the national radar.
General managers who are in the market for a point guard should be enamored by Rozier’s ability to effectively orchestrate an offense in hostile playoff atmospheres. T-Ro coughed up only 1.1 turnovers per 36 minutes during the playoffs, by far the lowest rate amongst all starting point guards, a feat that is even more remarkable when considering that Milwaukee and Philadelphia both ranked in the top-10 in forced turnovers during the regular season.
One of Rozier’s elite qualities that often goes overlooked is that he’s consistently been one of the best glass cleaners at his position on a per-minute basis. His 9.9 rebounding percentage was 5th highest amongst all point guards in 2017-18, behind only Russell Westbrook, Dejounte Murray, Lonzo Ball, and Alec Burks (min. 50 games played). With his newfound scoring and facilitating prowess, Rozier has the potential to be a box score stat stuffer moving forward. His unique knack of snagging a defensive board, then outracing retreating defenders to get downhill to the cup is a rear commodity. This freedom to use his hyper-acceleration led to 1.184 points per possession in transition this year, good enough to be in the 66th efficiency percentile, according to Synergy Sports tracking.
To be fair, Rozier’s surprising playoff success wasn’t without flaws. Of the sixteen playoff teams, Boston had the third highest frequency of shots occurring in the final four seconds of the shot clock, which isn’t a ingredient for offensive success when you’re playing without your two best isolation shot creators.
Part of the blame should be placed squarely on Terry’s chippy shoulders. He had a tendency to hang onto the ball for too long, often over scanning the defense for a torturing amount of time. This offseason, he could stand to work on his ability to get into offensive sets with more time left on the shot clock. Doing so would provide his team with more time to run multiple actions to probe for weaknesses in the opposing defense.
With the NBA Finals almost wrapped up, Rozier ranks 8th amongst all postseason players in average time per touch (minimum 10 MPG), ahead of All-Star caliber ball handlers like Kyle Lowry, Donovan Mitchell, DeMar DeRozan, and Victor Oladipo. While Rozier had a remarkable postseason run, he hasn’t ascended to the level where he can justify being so ball dominant, especially in Brad Stevens’ pass-happy system.
Of course, Rozier has been under the microscope for his Eastern Conference Finals performance. Over his 7 games against the Cavaliers, he shot an underwhelming 37 percent from the field, including a ghastly 25.5 percent from behind the arc, culminated by an forgettable 2-for-14 performance in Game 7. The lack of offensive production was especially concerning given Cleveland’s season-long defensive issues. Now, the Celtics must answer whether Rozier simply ran out of Scary Terry magic dust or if his inconsistency reveals a truer outlook on his long-term viability.
The Contract Status
Next year will be the final season of Rozier’s 4-year, $8.77 million rookie-scale deal, which means that he is currently eligible for a contract extension.
A few hurdles stand in the way of Boston and Rozier putting pen to paper this summer. Fellow spark plug Marcus Smart will have his current restricted free agency take immediate precedence. If Ainge gets the sense that Boston will lose Smart in free agency, then offering an extension to Rozier could become more of a priority. Boston certainly cannot afford to keep both of their energizer bunnies, but retaining one quality backcourt veteran would be essential for a future championship run. However, Ainge has always prioritized maintaining cap flexibility, so extending Rozier prior to his restricted free agency feels like an unrealistic scenario unless they agree to a bargain price tag.
The Celtics would be thrilled to add another year to Rozier’s contract by getting him to accept his $4.286 million qualifying offer next July. However, the likelihood of that happening is akin to the Chinese Basketball Association hoping that LeBron James takes his talents to Shanghai. Rozier has earned the right to make starter-level money, and there is no reasonable rationale for thinking that he will accept his qualifying offer next summer. With Irving’s contract also up in 2019, the chances of Rozier getting his $15+ million salary offer from Boston seem dubious.
Unlike the financially restrictive outlook of this summer’s free agency, a greater number of teams will have abundant spending power in July of 2019. Barring a catastrophic 2018-19 season, Rozier will enjoy multiple options to ink a lucrative offer sheet with another team who views him as a building block starter. Even if Rozier’s development slows next season, he can easily attribute a decline in production to being relegated back to the bench. His 35-game sample size of successful starter production is a rock solid foundation for him and his representatives. Realistically, the value is holding Rozier’s Bird Rights is non-existent given that Boston should anticipate being substantially outbid in next July’s market.
So is Rozier gone?
The combination of Rozier’s impending contract negotiations, paired with his unexpected playoff success makes him one of the most likely Celtics to be traded this offseason. Assuming that (1) Boston re-signs Smart and (2) Irving’s knee makes a full recovery (both are far from guaranteed), then Ainge would be prudent to shop Rozier to make room for a long-term cost controlled developmental guard.
One of the upshots of only a few teams expecting to have spending room this summer is that general managers looking to hitch their wagon to a young point guard may need to get fiscally creative. With only $3.050 million owed to Rozier next year, a team could theoretically use 2018-19 as a tryout season before needing to make a substantial financial commitment long-term. That kind of affordability should give Ainge plenty of negotiation leverage.
The problem is finding the right suitor. According to Basketball Reference, Rozier was used as a point guard 78 percent of the time that he was on the floor this season, up 6 percent from 2016-17. At 6’2” and 190 pounds, teams won’t view Rozier as a potential combo guard given that the league is trending toward longer and rangier perimeter players. Only a handful of teams are uncomfortable with their current starting point guard, and no one is going to offer up big-time assets for Rozier just to watch him walk in restricted free agency. Identifying a team that (1) has a PG need, (2) has ample 2019 cap space latitude, (3) has a GM who views Rozier as a shrewd investment, and (4) has the right compensation package to send to Boston, won’t be a simple task.
So what if Ainge can’t find a trade partner?
Keeping Rozier would guarantee that Boston would have the league’s most formidable starter-backup tandems at point guard. Rostering a secondary capable ball handler and facilitator as Irving recovers from multiple knee surgeries will be paramount, and The Boston Globe reports that Shane Larkin is likely to procure a multi-year deal elsewhere. Hanging onto Rozier would allow Boston to ease Irving back into his regular minutes load, while Rozier could be leaned on for extra playing time and spot starts. With Boston poised as a championship contender, sustaining Irving’s health into May 2019 is imperative.
Rozier’s decision to publicly state his willingness to re-assume the backup role was an excellent PR move. He’s aware that his value has never been higher than it is now, and the last thing he should want is to fan off-season smoke of a swelling positional battle. Rozier and his camp know that he will have his starting spot by October 2019, whether in green or not, and that patience is the best strategy. He is playing his cards right.
Terry Rozier making the national TV appearances lately. He refuses to get baited into talking about being underpaid, moving back to the bench, and potential trade destinations. He's handling everything with class. #Celtics— Matt Chin (@MattChinNBA) June 5, 2018
The downside of standing pat on Rozier is that Boston is almost guaranteed to eventually lose him for nothing. Apart from a unthinkably calamitous 2018-19 season, the Celtics will not be sellers at next February’s trade deadline. The burden of losing Rozier’s utility prior to the playoff push won’t outweigh the last-minute value that Ainge could obtain from trading him in haste. Therefore, this summer feels like the last feasible window to make a transaction involving Rozier. That said, Ainge has to consider the detriment of opting not to run this same team back for another championship drive. The Celtics claim that they intend to keep the Irving/Smart/Rozier trio intact, but seasoned green teamers know better than to overlook Ainge’s willingness to jump at alluring value.
So put yourself in Danny Ainge’s shoes. What would you do?
What would you like to see the Celtics do with Terry Rozier this offseason?
This poll is closed
Extend him and let Marcus Smart walk.
Allow Rozier’s contract play out and lose him in 2019 RFA.
Capitalize on the value and sell to the highest bidder.
All non-cited statistics are from Basketball-Reference or NBA.com. All non-cited salary information is from Spotrac and Real GM.
All statistics are accurate as of games heading into June 8, 2018.