LAS VEGAS — Earlier this week, after Terry Rozier sat courtside watching his new team, the Hornets, play a summer league game here, he made his way through the crowd to get to the exit. But it took a bit longer than it would have taken most others.
With every step, there was a request for an autograph or a picture or even just an acknowledgment. Rozier, already wearing some crisp new Charlotte shorts, hardly stopped smiling along the way. And who could blame him?
Last fall, when he was coming off a dazzling playoff run in place of the injured Kyrie Irving, his representatives were seeking a contract extension from the Celtics that would pay him more than $15 million annually, and they believed he was worth close to $20 million a year. The Celtics were unwilling to go near those numbers, talks stalled, and Rozier entered last season knowing he would have to play for his next contract.
But the Celtics, of course, stumbled through a difficult year, and Rozier struggled in a limited role backing up Irving. It seemed like perhaps he had erred in turning down a good but not great offer the previous fall.
“Luckily, people respected what he did enough last year when he was a starter to put some faith in him,” Rozier’s agent, Aaron Turner said as he stood courtside after a Hornets summer league game. “People say, ‘Oh, Terry only shot this percentage.’ The Hornets are bringing him in to start. Look at his numbers as a starter. He’s right there with the elite, the [Mike] Conleys, the [Kyle] Lowrys. He’s not far behind Kyrie. He’s elite as a starter, and that’s what they’re bringing him in to do.”
As a starter last season, Rozier made 42.9 percent of his shots, 40.5 percent of his 3-pointers and 89.5 percent of his free throws, compared with 37.5, 33.7 and 75.7 percent, respectively, as a reserve.
That, apparently, was enough evidence for Charlotte, which ultimately gave Rozier a massive three-year, $57 million offer. Since the Hornets were above the salary cap, they needed to orchestrate a sign-and-trade with the Celtics to acquire Rozier. And since Boston just happened to be signing Charlotte’s All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, it was easy enough to facilitate, with the Celtics receiving a future second-round pick for their troubles.
“When we were asked if we were willing to do a sign-and-trade to help him out, we eagerly agreed,” Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge said.
Said Turner: “I think it was the right thing to do. Terry gave a lot to the organization, so I think it was the right thing to be a willing partner.”
The size of Rozier’s deal has generated considerable buzz at summer league this week, with many rival teams wondering why the Hornets would open their wallets so wide for a player who averaged 9 points and 3.9 rebounds and made just 38.7 percent of his shots last season.
But Turner scoffed at the notion that Charlotte might have overpaid for his client.
“I think he’s going to flourish,” Turner said. “I think he’s going to be Terry from the playoffs and more. I think in a year from now, people are going to be like, ‘I can’t believe the Hornets got Terry Rozier for the deal they got him for.’ Right now, people are saying like ‘Wow, people paid that much for Terry?’ I think in a year, the narrative is going to be totally different.”
There was some belief the Celtics might try to make Rozier their starting point guard after it became clear Irving was going to join the Nets. But Turner said when word spread in mid-June that Al Horford was leaving Boston — thus opening up enough cap space to sign a max free agent — it seemed obvious that Boston “was going to shuffle the deck pretty hard.”
Rozier was frustrated by his lack of playing time last season, particularly in a contract year, but coach Brad Stevens often praised him for handling a difficult situation well. At season’s end, Rozier went on several ESPN shows and made it known he had no interest in returning to the Celtics if their roster remained unchanged.
But in a conference call with reporters this week, with his big new contract secure, he had an appreciative tone when recalling his time with Boston.
“I’m thankful for my last four years, playing under [Isaiah Thomas], under Kyrie, learning so much from both of them and seeing how they handled things on the court and off the court,” Rozier said, “how much film they watched, just me being around them and learning so much.
“I feel like after those four years I was ready to be in my own space, have my own team and be in my own position. It set up perfect for me. It’s been great. I wouldn’t take those four years that I had back for nothing. I feel like I was pretty lucky to be in the position I was in, being in that great organization, being under those two guys. Now, it’s different for me, and I’m ready for it.”
Rozier said at the start of free agency Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak and head coach James Borrego came to Cleveland — his hometown — to spend time with Rozier and his family and watch him work out. There, they also laid out their vision for him, and it was everything Rozier has been waiting to hear.
“You want to play on a team where they want you,” Rozier said. “And they showed interest that they wanted me, they wanted me to come over there and be their leader. So that’s big to me. I mentioned that after the season. I wanted to go somewhere where they felt comfortable with me, not so much being that guy but just wanting me and believing in me. So that was a huge step hearing that.”