No one will accuse Terry Rozier of hiding his thoughts.
He’s blunt. He’s emotional. And he’s not sorry about it.
“I’m pissed off about a lot of stuff,” the Charlotte Hornets’ new point guard told the Observer. “I want to prove myself again.”
He will get abundant opportunity to do so. For the first time in his soon-to-be five NBA seasons, Rozier is about to be a full-time starter, replacing the Hornets’ all-time leading scorer, Kemba Walker.
With Hornets training camp starting Tuesday, Rozier understands the love Charlotte had for Walker, the three-time All-Star who signed with the Celtics this offseason. He also knows the comparisons are inevitable — and that it’s impossible for him to immediately replicate all that Walker did for Charlotte.
“I’m not Kemba. I’m not coming in here acting like I’m Kemba. I’m Terry,” Rozier said.
“I respect the hell out of Kemba: When I play against him, I’m going to give him my best, and I know I’ll get his best. But Kemba? I don’t want to hear it. Don’t talk to me about Kemba.”
Rozier was the Hornets’ only significant roster move this offseason — and that was a gamble. He’s a player with minimal experience in a starting-five and was guaranteed an average of $19 million over the next three seasons. Since the Hornets didn’t have the salary-cap space for such a signing, they had to arrange a sign-and-trade with the Celtics that will likely cost the Hornets a future second-round pick.
The cost-effectiveness of acquiring Rozier was panned by critics over the summer. What sold the Hornets on the move?
“The No. 1 thing you can say about him is he competes every night,” Borrego said.
For several reasons, that comment is particularly important to this situation: In addition to being by far the Hornets’ best player, Walker was the emotional hub. Veteran power forward Marvin Williams has been more vocal this summer in serving as a mentor, but Borrego acknowledged there is a leadership vacuum that must be filled.
The Hornets are in rebuild mode (or, as they call it, “transition”), and that means a heavy reliance on young players such as Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk and rookie PJ Washington. Someone has to set a standard for those guys.
Rozier has his hand up.
“I know my energy is contagious. I know it’s going to rub off on other guys,” he said.
But only if his performance lives up to his attitude in an NBA role he’s never before filled.
Different skill set, persona
OK, no comparisons to Kemba, but some context:
Walker scored 12,009 points in eight Hornets seasons, evolving into an efficient shooter and one of the NBA’s better clutch-time scorers.
Rozier lacks that efficiency, never having finished an NBA season shooting 40 percent from the field. But he’s a better defender than Walker was, and the Hornets need that fierceness, particularly since coach James Borrego has made improving poor defense a top priority.
But Guarding point guards is probably the toughest challenge in the NBA because of the severe restrictions on hand-checking. Rozier brings an edginess that is a different vibe from Walker’s.
“He will drive our defense. When you have a point guard who is going to pound the opposing point guard every night, that sets the tone for us defensively,” Borrego said.
There’s a smoldering anger in how Rozier plays, an “I’ll show you” pugnaciousness in his approach. He says he’s always been that way dating to his early childhood growing up in Cleveland.
“When I lost, I used to just shut down. In Little Leagues, I used to throw fits,” Rozier recalled. “I got better about handling myself, but that competitiveness never left me.”
Rozier admits he never cared about defense in high school. In college at Louisville, coach Rick Pitino demanded it, and Rozier came to relish the challenge of not letting his man get by him.
“I want my man to know that I don’t care if we’re friends or not, I’m going to do little things that push you,” Rozier said. “So you’ll have to push me.”
Over four seasons in Boston, Rozier backed up two All-Star point guards in Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving. He says he learned a lot from both about his craft but it was time to stop being an apprentice.
When Hornets owner Michael Jordan joined into the recruiting effort, Rozier was sold on Charlotte.
“He didn’t have to show me too much. Him being Michael Jordan was 80 to 90 percent of it,” Rozier recalled. “He believes in me. He wanted to give me the opportunity to show my talent at the highest level. How can you turn that down?”
In execution, the change is more complicated. There will be a game-after-game reliance on Rozier that he has never experienced in the NBA, and that’s an adjustment for both him and Borrego. He’s replacing a player who averaged 35 minutes per night the last four seasons while missing just five regular-season games.
“When he goes from playing 18 minutes a night to 30-plus, I’m going to have to manage him the next day,” Borrego said of Rozier. “I want him to play (all) 82 games, stay healthy and have energy every single night.”
Rozier’s performance as a Celtic ranged from the spectacular (19 playoff starts in 2018, when he averaged 16.5 points and 5.7 assists) to underwhelming (averaging nine points and three assists last season).
“We can talk about last year where things were tough. (Where the perception was), ‘Alright, Terry went back down to the bottom again.’ ” Rozier said. “This is a great opportunity for me to bounce back.”
And he believes the clarity of knowing he’s a starter will make a big difference.
“People always go back to my field-goal percentage — how I never shot 40 percent — and I can’t blame them. But when I was in that starter’s position, it was different: I didn’t have to look over my shoulder, I didn’t have to worry about what minute I was coming in,” Rozier said.
“I can go in with a clear mind, ready to play.”
He understands the doubts. He embraces the scrutiny.
“I’ve got a lot of heads to turn.”