Terry Rozier dunked on the Pacers, both literally and figuratively, to buy the Celtics a miracle win on Monday night in Indiana. With seconds remaining on the clock, Rozier picked off a haphazard pass from Bojan Bogdanovic and took it to the house, rescuing what would have otherwise been a nearly inexcusable loss.
It was a rare moment in the spotlight for Rozier, who has done most of his work this season in the shadow of the Celtics’ many high-profile players and storylines. While we’ve heard quite a bit about his taste in sandwiches (frankly intriguing, in this humble writer’s opinion), there hasn’t been as much discussion about what he brings on the basketball court as there has for more heralded young Celtics like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart. So who is Terry Rozier, The Basketball Player, and what can Celtics fans expect to see from him as he matures?
We’ll start with the offensive side of the ball, where Rozier’s plus athleticism makes him a threat to beat pretty much any guard in the league off the dribble. Rozier is very particularly built to succeed as an undersized guard in the NBA; he compensates for his height (6’2”) with length (6’8” wingspan) and as you saw in that Pacers game-winner, he’s fast, agile, and explosive.
Rozier is very aware of this — perhaps a little too aware. He likes to attack the basket, but rarely has a plan for what to do when he gets there. It feels like TLC was singing about specifically him when they wrote: “I know that you’re gonna have it your way or nothing at all. But I think you’re moving too fast.”
It often seems like Terry decides whether he’s going to shoot before he actually starts moving with the ball, as opposed to reacting to what the defense gives him. If the defense stonewalls him away from the basket, he’ll toss up contested floaters from 10 feet out rather than finding the roll man or kicking the ball back out. The words “driving” and “floating” are applied to a lot of his close-range jumpers on NBA Stats, and the results are about what you’d expect from a shot featuring that combination of descriptors.
Three-point shooting is the best way for defensive specialists to carry their weight on offense and the good news is that Rozier is developing on that front. The bulk of his offensive value comes from behind the arc, where he’s shooting slightly above league average on a healthy number of attempts. His form looks good – probably because it’s literally Michael Jordan’s – and a healthy jump in efficiency like the one Jaylen Brown underwent from last year to this one isn’t out of the question… provided he’s willing to make some changes.
When Rozier fires off the catch-and-shoot, his effective field goal percentage is a shiny 60% and he connects on better than 40% of his triples. The problem is that these only account for one-third of his overall shot attempts, and his efficiency plummets pretty much as soon as he puts the ball on the floor. When he dribbles three or more times in the possession, his eFG% drops all the way to 47%, and he does this on about a quarter of his shot attempts. In other words, the longer Rozier holds the ball, the less likely he is to make a shot.
The problems here are twofold. First off, Rozier loves his pull-up jumpers, and he takes a lot of them — nearly 40% of his total attempts are pull-ups. He’s a fearless and confident jump-shooter, but this often works to the team’s disadvantage. He tends to chuck shots in tight coverage or early in the shot clock. The numbers tell the story; Rozier hits only 32% of his pull-up threes and his eFG% on all pull-ups is only 46%. From an eye test perspective, these shots just don’t look good. His transitions from dribbling to shooting seem awkward. These attempts may simply be above his ability as a shooter right now.
The second issue is that Rozier isn’t a particularly good finisher at the rim at this point in time. He lacks a soft touch on layups and isn’t great at angling the ball around defenders. He’s shooting only 42% at the rim, and those 10-foot floaters he tosses when he can’t get into the paint are only connecting about 33% of the time.
He’s a predominantly “layups-and-threes” kind of player – a good general trend to have, shot selection-wise – but it might not be a terrible idea for Stevens to let him loose in the midrange a little more. He’s hitting over half of his looks from 10 to 16 feet, most of these coming around the free throw line out of the pick-and-roll. While the pull-up threes aren’t working out so well, these shots look smooth and comfortable. Playing under control and converting some of the tough floaters into controlled 15′ jumpers still isn’t ideal, but it would be a step in a positive direction.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Rozier offensively. Most of these problems are issues that can be fixed with experience. He flashes the ability to overcome a lot of these problems. He’s developing the ability to take his foot off the gas on a drive and fake the defender out of his way, or loft a layup high off the glass past a defender’s outstretched arms. It’s important to remember that he’s only 23 years old and that he’s improved significantly each year he’s been in the league.
Defensively, Rozier is who you think he is — the latest in a line of defensive-minded Boston reserve guards. His athleticism and energy make him a handful in one-on-one situations, and his pressure frequently forces ball-handlers into mistakes.
Though he’s had a slight dip in the steals department lately (only 11 in his last 14 games) he does a good job poking the ball free from unsuspecting ball-handlers and he reads passing lanes extremely well. This is when Rozier’s unchecked aggression works in his favor. He explodes off of turnovers and creates quick fast break looks before the defense can contain him. It helps that his arms are ridiculously long – essentially a necessity for players his height to succeed – because it allows him play passing lanes and also check larger guards. In the Nuggets game, he even acquitted himself pretty well on a few possessions against the 6’8” Wilson Chandler.
Rozier could stand to improve his defense in a team context because, like many young players, he can be mistake-prone as a help defender. The tunnel vision he shows on offense can carry over to this side of the floor, as well. e seems to focus so much on his man that he can lose some awareness of his surroundings. It feels like he gets screened out of plays particularly often, and I suspect it’s because he doesn’t always feel the screen coming. In this play, you can see his indecisiveness about going over or under Kenneth Faried’s screen, and he loses Jamal Murray as a result.
So, to address the question posed in our headline: who is Terry Rozier?
The lazy comparison would be Avery Bradley, but beyond being undersized, defensive-minded two-guards who played for the Celtics, there really isn’t much in common between the pair of them. Bradley’s offensive game functions inherently differently than Rozier’s — he’s one of the league’s best cutters and a high-quality spot-up shooter. He keeps a low-profile, lulling defenders to sleep off the ball; he goes around the defense instead of going through them. He caught John Wall – an elite on-ball defender – sleeping on him off the ball a number of times in the playoff series against Washington last year. There’s a lot of subtlety involved in how Bradley generates his points, and Rozier is about as subtle as the Impact font.
No, Bradley doesn’t work as a Rozier comp. The guy who does work, though? Patrick Beverley.
Though we were introduced to him as “The Guy Who Hurt Westbrook,” Beverley has built a name for himself as one of the NBA’s premier guard defenders. He’s a two-time All-Defense guy, a 40% three-point shooter, and the emotional leader of whatever team he suits up for. He’s essentially a 6’1” Draymond Green. It doesn’t take long to piece together how he and Rozier stack up against each other — their numbers in their respective third seasons are striking.
Those numbers hold up with the eye test as well. Both players generate their value in similar ways. Like Rozier, Beverley isn’t a cutter or spot-up shooter — he likes to put the ball on the floor. He’s surprisingly ball-dominant for someone who shared the floor with James Harden so often, getting most of his looks on pull-up or step-back jumpers and drives to the basket. They’re both undersized and athletic with long arms (PatBev is 6’1” with a 6’7” wingspan and a 37” max vert) and neither is afraid to get in someone’s face on defense.
The difference is that Beverley plays like a six-year veteran, as opposed to a 23-year-old getting his first crack at contributing to a contender. It’s worth noting that in Beverley’s third season he already was a six year veteran, having played professionally in Europe for three seasons before making an NBA roster.
Beverley doesn’t fly around picks to shoot those pull-up threes; he’s almost lazy about it, keeping his handle relaxed and prodding at the defense. He doesn’t sprint into his drives, he creeps into them, and when he gets close, he can float the ball up and around defenders from a variety of angles. For a player with such a fiery, demonstrative demeanor on defense, he’s surprisingly restrained as a scorer — like a Mustang that never shifts out of second gear.
Beverley’s drives remind me of the extreme patience of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. He works slowly, stopping and starting and mixing his speeds until he sees a window in the defense. A missed rotation, perhaps, or a defender faked off-balance. His handle will hardly blow you away, but he understands how to use his momentum – or lack of it – to his advantage. He can turn on the jets and blow past people, of course, but it’s not his factory default setting.
Beverley forces turnovers in much the same way as Rozier does, albeit at a higher level. His quick hands can strip ball-handlers before they realize what’s happening, and he uses his length and awareness to play free safety in passing lanes. His very presence creates issues, especially for players with less experience. It’s hard to imagine a funnier first assignment for Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball than Beverley, who is the defender equivalent of a very angry pitbull.
Rozier and Beverley set out to do essentially the same things on the court, but Beverley does it all in a more refined way. He’s a better shooter from range, a better finisher, a more willing passer, and a more aware defender. This isn’t to knock Rozier. A 23-year-old getting his first significant minutes should look worse than a guy with nine professional seasons under his belt, but it illustrates the avenues for improvement.
Rozier needs a lot of refinement, which is not a terrible thing for a young player. It’s encouraging to see him contribute to this team in a positive way, especially considering how NBA defense is generally the hardest thing for young players to learn. As he matures, he’ll learn how to harness his aggression in a more productive way. If Patrick Beverley has never been an All-Star, Terry Rozier certainly won’t be, but the All-Star Game is far from the only metric for player success. If he turns into something resembling Beverley that’s a very useful NBA starter, and I believe that kind of upside is within his grasp. Perhaps he even sneaks onto an All-Defense team, in the right situation.
At this particular moment, Rozier is a quality young role player that has gotten better with every passing season, and I’ve yet to see any reason why he can’t continue to improve. He was a popular punchline when it came to Danny Ainge’s trade inactivity the past few years, but he’s proven he belongs in the NBA and is justifying Ainge’s faith. The game-winning play against the Pacers was a great moment for the kid, and given what we’ve seen from him this season, I’m betting it won’t be the last time he delivers a Celtics’ win.