LAS VEGAS — When Celtics point guard Terry Rozier was a rookie last season, there were clear indications that he had NBA-ready athleticism. He is impossibly quick and he is an explosive leaper, and up to that point in his career those two primary skills had carried him quite far.
If there was no opening, he could create one. If there were no obvious passes available, he would attack the rim and hope for the best.
But it didn’t take Rozier long to realize that approach was not sustainable at the NBA level. To truly thrive, he would have to have a better grasp of his surroundings. He realized his teammates and his opponents were aware of all the possibilities on each possession, so that meant he needed to be, too.
What are the options? Who is helping on defense? Where are the mismatches? How can he exploit them? How can he think about all of these things in a brief window of time and still execute coach Brad Stevens’s overall plan?
“I’m smarter,” Rozier said. “I think that’s the most important thing. I’m taking my time when I come off the pick-and-rolls, see a lot of opportunities I didn’t see last year. Just opening up my eyes, opening up my mind more so.”
Rozier has been the Celtics’ top summer-league performer, averaging 17.5 points, 6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game. He has appeared more comfortable and confident.
He played in 39 regular-season games last season, averaging just 1.8 points and 1.6 rebounds per contest. After starting guard Avery Bradley was injured in Game 1 of Boston’s first-round playoff series against the Hawks, Rozier was thrust into a larger role.
“We always say to embrace the process, but in the moment we all want instant results,” said Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen. “And so for him, he was patient his rookie year, but it was tough not always having an opportunity to play right away. He recognized that what you do while you’re waiting for an opportunity is probably just as important as what you do when you do get an opportunity.”
This summer, Rozier has worked extensively with his agent and trainer, Aaron Turner, as well as Allen, who has traveled to Rozier’s hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, to help him train.
Rozier, who shot just 27.4 percent from the field last season, has worked extensively on his jump shot. Even during his two seasons at Louisville, coach Rick Pitino chided Rozier about the straight-line trajectory of his jumper.
That bad habit followed him to Boston, but he is reshaping his approach by adding more arc to his shot. If the ball goes in but the shot is on a beeline, Rozier is not pleased.
“We’ll be working on his jumper and he’ll be flat and he’ll catch it and look at me and he’ll know,” Turner said. “He’ll say, ‘I’ve got to get that shot up.’ ”
During their game against the San Antonio Spurs last Thursday in the Utah Jazz summer league, the Celtics trailed by 2 points in the final seconds when Rozier caught a pass along the right side of the arc and fired a high-arcing shot he later described as a prayer. But the trajectory was perfect and the ball went in, and Rozier realized that the subtle adjustments give him, well, a shot.
“Just one of the things I wanted to work on was arc,” Rozier said, “letting the shot come to me.”
Rozier is working to improve his finishing — he made just 37.8 percent of his tries at the rim last season — and he is hoping to add a post-up game this year, using his speed and athleticism to slip past less mobile guards.
Perhaps the most essential role of an NBA point guard, though, is mastering the pick-and-roll. Last year, Rozier said, he would come off of a screen and zero in on the basket. Now he takes a moment to consider all the options a formation might present. Summer league has offered a good laboratory for that, as players do not space the floor as well as they do in real NBA games, and the big men generally aren’t as big.
Allen has made Rozier understand the importance of film study, too. The two have spent hours going over clips from Rozier’s rookie season, with Allen stopping at various points and asking Rozier what he saw at that moment, what he was thinking. Maybe Rozier did not notice a weakside help defender, or maybe he did not recover in time.
“Every day matters,” Allen said. “We’re just trying to develop the right habits that match his expectations, and if he can do that consistently, I think he’ll be fine.”