LAS VEGAS — The Boston Celtics’ backcourt didn’t need an upgrade this offseason.
Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and young prospect James Young already constitute a packed guard depth chart.
That logjam of talent did not stop Celtics general manager Danny Ainge from surprising the NBA world and selecting yet another small guard in Terry Rozier with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft last month. The decision was widely panned as a reach by executives around the league, according to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck, but it also left Celtics fans to wonder: How will another guard make an impact in a crowded Boston backcourt?
Rozier's performance over the past two weeks of NBA Summer League in Utah and Las Vegas gave us our first true look at how the Celtics can utilize their top first-round pick.
2015 Summer League Stats: 12.2 PPG, 3.9 APG, 35.4 FG%, 38.6 3P% (eight games)
The first thing that stood out about Rozier on the offensive end was his speed, as he sports a terrific first step and changes gears well. This explosiveness allowed Rozier to get by his defender consistently in the half court and work his way into the paint. He struggled to finish down low, largely due to his small size, but the 21-year-old still managed to draw contact and get to the free-throw line on a regular basis.
Rozier averaged 4.5 attempts per game at the charity stripe, and that’s really an area the young guard could help the Celtics with next season. Outside of Thomas, no player on the Celtics averaged more than 2.6 attempts per game at the free-throw line last season.
Bringing another aggressive shot creator to the mix should help create easy scoring opportunities within Boston’s offense, and Rozier showed signs he could develop into that type of player. Smart and Bradley haven’t showed that ability yet, so adding some reinforcements there could take some pressure off Thomas.
During summer league, the Celtics split Rozier’s minutes between point and off-guard, and those varying responsibilities put a bit of an onus on the youngster, as head coach Brad Stevens explained to reporters.
“It’s going to take time. He’s a young guy. Getting into a league. We’re asking him to learn off the ball and learn with the ball so that when he’s playing with Marcus he can play off of it some,” Stevens said. “So I mean it is not going to happen overnight. He does show signs, as you can see, of the [speed] burst. Obviously he’s going to have to make shots, and I think he will.”
Stevens likes the speed he saw from Rozier, but he wants the former Louisville star to push the pace more often once the regular season hits to help enhance his pace-and-space offense.
"I don't want him to harness the burst. I want him to play and fly up the court. I'd love for him to play faster up the court, get the ball up quicker and look to take advantage of his speed early on.
"It's just a matter of working on the skill part of it, and that's going to come with continued work. He's got a good work ethic. He'll get used to playing off the pick-and-roll, and the spacing of the NBA and all those type of things. He'll be in good shape," Stevens said.
Despite experiencing some expected growing pains, one general manager told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald that he was skeptical of Rozier’s ability to handle an NBA offense:
"The thing is whether he’s a point guard. I just don’t see it. He’s going to be good on defense, but I can’t see him running an offense. He makes too many mistakes."
But moments later, according to Bulpett, a peer of the GM's noted, "I don’t know how it’s going to work out for (Rozier), but he’s a tough kid, and a lot of times guys like that somehow find a way."
Rozier showed that kind of grit in late-game scoring situations in Las Vegas. He scored the final eight points of a tightly contested 91-85 win over the Portland Trail Blazers last Thursday and added a game-tying three-pointer against the San Antonio Spurs in the quarterfinal matchup of the tournament. That kind of production in the clutch did not go unnoticed by Boston’s coaching staff.
"Some people shy away from [the big shot] because they don't want to miss it,” assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry told MassLive last week after Rozier's clutch baskets. “But you see Terry the last two nights has stepped up and really kind of taken the lead, and kind of put us on his back. … A lot of people take [big shots], but to be able to make them in crucial situations, that's something that coaches need to know. Sometimes you need to know that I can count on him, I can count on him."
Rozier shot just 33.1 percent from three-point range in his two collegiate seasons, so it’s too early to say whether his strong outside shooting performance in summer league (38.1 percent from deep on 3.1 attempts per game) will carry over to the regular season. Perimeter shooting remains a need for Boston though, so if Rozier can prove himself to be a capable NBA three-point shooter, he may find his way into some three-guard lineups if Stevens opts to go small to help his team stretch the floor.
Like Smart, Rozier’s top NBA skill is his defensive ability. He’s got tremendous energy and has the speed and athleticism to bug ball handlers on all parts of the floor.
As Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman points out, “Rozier also creates turnovers at the other end with his quickness, length and pressure. Defense and rebounding are ultimately attributes that differentiate him. He's active under the boards, and he locks down on the perimeter.”
The early signs of this were on display in summer league, with Rozier tallying up 1.2 steals per game and showing the foot speed and strength to contain penetration.
Those kinds of skills are already prevalent in the Boston backcourt with Bradley and Smart, but Rozier should provide Stevens with some added depth in that department off the bench.
“Terry can play defense in the NBA right now and be very effective,” Ainge told NBA TV last week. “When you are playing at the point guard position, you have to guard guys like Chris Paul, Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving if you are going to win playoff games and he has that kind of physical ability. He also has that mentality, sort of like an Avery Bradley mentality, defensively. He has a chance to be a very special player.”
Rozier’s main defensive drawback will be his size, forcing potential matchup issues when he’s on the floor with a smaller player like Thomas. Still, Rozier’s hustle was a constant over the past two weeks, and the Celtics’ second-half surge last year was predicated by an uptick on the defensive end.
Rozier proved in summer league that he can be a contributor in that facet of the game right now, and that could be the gateway for him playing his way into the rotation in his rookie season, making him a better fit for Boston than most anticipated.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of NBA.com. All quotes were compiled firsthand, unless otherwise noted.