When deliberating about how to move forward last summer, Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak looked back. In the 2018 playoffs, Terry Rozier averaged 16.5 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds for the Boston Celtics, starting in place of the injured Kyrie Irving as they came within a game of the Finals. Rozier hit clutch jumpers, feuded with Milwaukee Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe and showed no fear of LeBron James.

Kupchak had lost franchise player Kemba Walker to the Celtics, having decided not to offer the point guard a super-max contract. "I guess you could call it a mutual separation," Kupchak said. The Hornets did not have the cap room to sign a replacement, but Walker's choice of team created an unusual opportunity. Rozier was a restricted free agent, and could be acquired from Boston via a double-sign-and-trade. 

"We just felt we knew what he can do," Kupchak said. "We also knew that he was somewhat stifled playing behind first Isaiah Thomas and then Kyrie. So we were hopeful that once he gets to be in a position where he can start and not look over his shoulder, he would flourish."

Rozier was looking for "an organization that believed in me and want me to play my game and showcase what I can do in this league," the 25-year-old guard said. He wanted more playing time and a fresh start. Charlotte offered him all of that -- and a three-year contract worth a reported $57 million. 

"The market was pretty vibrant," Kupchak said. "There were other teams that we were competing against."

They finalized the deal, and the critical consensus was that the Hornets had lost their minds. Sports Illustrated gave them a D+ for the move. ESPN handed them an F for its offseason, citing Rozier's below-average efficiency: In four seasons, he had never finished with a true shooting percentage higher than 52 percent. Another ESPN story quoted an Eastern Conference executive calling it a "huge overpay" that is "going to be a disaster." 

Thirty-one games in, the contract looks just fine. Rozier has averaged 17 points, 4.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds, and he is having the most efficient season of his career. He has made 50 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, the league's best mark among players who have taken 50 or more of them. Approaching his first regular-season game in Boston as a visitor this Sunday, Rozier is in his element.  

After the backlash, Rozier's agent Aaron Turner told the Boston Globe that Rozier is "elite as a starter." This produced more ridicule, and while "elite" might have been a stretch, Rozier was indeed much more efficient in the 14 games he started last season. The counter-argument: It was a tiny sample, especially compared to his career numbers. 

It is a classic dilemma: A player can say that more minutes, touches and freedom will bring him more confidence and better production, but bigger roles are typically earned by producing in smaller ones. Kupchak thought the financial commitment was worth the risk, provided that Rozier put in the time in the film room and on the practice court. He thought Rozier had lots of upside and Charlotte could give him a platform and help him reach it. 

"You never know for sure," Kupchak said. "I mean, that was, you know, our hope."

Kupchak and Hornets coach James Borrego flew to Cleveland after the signing to spend time with Rozier and his family. Borrego said he wanted to get to know Rozier and the people he trusts. Rozier described the visit as "huge." He didn't know much about Borrego before then, and was thankful that they made the trip and learned about where he came from. 

They watched him work out, too, and they talked basketball. Borrego asked Rozier how he viewed his own game and the areas in which he wants to develop with the Hornets. It is a sign of the times that Borrego framed this as "partnering with him on his development" so that "we're collaboratively growing together." 

One of the subjects of discussion was his decision-making as a shooter and a playmaker. In the middle of last season, Rozier told Yahoo Sports that the Celtics were "too talented." After they lost in the second round, coach Brad Stevens told ESPN they had "seven perimeter guys who were all very good players," and "the pieces just didn't fit." That kind of environment can make on-court decisions fraught: A player might force a shot because he's not sure when he'll get another chance, or he might turn one down because he's trying too hard to defer. Borrego did not want Rozier to hesitate in Charlotte.

Rozier's next step, in Borrego's view: "When he does have a downhill drive, whether it's an attack on a point guard or a pick-and-roll, be more decisive on making a read to kick it or to play at the rim." Early results indicate that the shooting is already there. 


The playing time, Rozier said, has been what he expected. What he did not expect was to spend a significant chunk of his 33 minutes per game off the ball. A second-round pick who barely played last season changed the plan. 

In training camp, Borrego could tell that Devonte' Graham had improved, but no one knew what was coming. Armed with an accurate pull-up 3, one of the deadliest weapons in the game, Graham scored a combined 47 points in the Hornets' first two games, shooting 12-for-16 from deep off the bench. In their seventh game, he dropped 35 in 42 minutes. In their 11th game, Graham started next to Rozier. Both would handle the ball, but the player making $1.4 million would initiate the offense more often. 

Rozier chose Charlotte thinking that he'd be its point guard of the future. To hear him tell it, though, Graham's emergence has not been a shock to the system. "He's been playing very well," Rozier said. "I'm very happy for him. He works hard. He deserves it." He said it is easy for them to play together. 

"This is new for both of them," Borrego said. "They're learning on the fly as well. I'm really proud of how they've embraced this, that this has not been a real challenge for them."

Borrego has watched them become more aware of each other on the floor and spend more time together. Rozier described Graham as a "real good dude" he can joke around with away from the court. He also pointed out that he played off the ball in high school and college.

"I think Terry's instincts are to score," Kupchak said. "I think Devonte's instincts are to score, too. And when Devonte' is in the game with Terry, I think Devonte', understandably so, has the ball in his hands more than Terry does, so he'll look for Terry to score. And then when Devonte' comes off the court, now Terry has to adjust a little bit and not only continue to look for his shot but make sure he gets the other guys involved."

It helps that Rozier has been shooting so confidently and consistently. Borrego is always looking for creative ways to use the guards together, but their shared ability to space the floor simplifies things.  

"They're blitzing [Graham] or hugging up to him on the pick-and-roll," Borrego said. "Having another elite shooter around him allows me to play him at that position," Borrego said. "But when Devonte's off the floor, still assuming those point guard responsibilities is a luxury for me as a coach."

Criticism has motivated athletes since time immemorial. Rozier, however, said he did not use the reaction to his contract this way. 

"I'm always fueled," he said. "I try not to let nothing else fuel me." 

Rozier has overcome real-life obstacles, and he was not a popular pick when Boston drafted him No. 16 in 2015. "I'd be lying if I said you don't see it," he said. "Everybody sees when they get criticized." Sometimes, the best way to prove people wrong is to not worry about doing so, to quietly focus on small improvements.  

"You just gotta stay true to yourself," Rozier said. "If you can look yourself in the mirror and tell yourself what you're capable of, I feel like you're good. You can keep it real with yourself about what you're not capable of."

Borrego addressed the pessimistic predictions about the Hornets on the first day of training camp, hoping it would rally the team. He has not, however, felt it necessary to do the same with Rozier on an individual level. Increasingly, Borrego sees Rozier taking what the defense gives him and making the right plays in the paint, as they talked about months ago.

Kupchak is not surprised by Rozier's play but is impressed by his rebounding and range. "So far, so good," Kupchak said. "We're pleased." The Hornets are 13-18, half a game back of the playoffs in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, exceeding expectations largely because of their new backcourt and an NBA-ready rookie. That rookie, P.J. Washington, called Rozier "a great guy for all the young guys to look up to, even though he's a young guy." 

Charlotte is in the first stage of its rebuild, though, and it is only 25th in net rating. It is one thing for Rozier to be a surprising early-season story, and another to build something sustainable, eventually contributing to real success. Rozier said Charlotte doesn't look at its start an accomplishment, and both he and the team are still learning.

"I still got a long ways to go," Rozier said. "But I feel like I still haven't shown everything that I can do. I feel like there's still another level that I'm going to take it to. And I feel like it's coming."

Borrego believes that, to coach a player properly, you must understand who he is at his core. He sees a resilient spirit in the Hornets collectively. In Rozier, he sees determination. 

"He's a very proud, competitive kid," Borrego said. "He wants to get this right. And I don't think he wants to be a one-hit wonder, a one-contract wonder. He really wants to make this work, and he believes, he really has an internal belief that he can."