Terry Rozier’s and Delon Wright’s three-year apprenticeships are paying off. The two young point guards have made names for themselves in the first round of the playoffs. Rozier has stepped in for the injured Kyrie Irving and sliced up the Bucks’ defense to help the Celtics to a 2-0 lead in their series, while Wright has been first among equals on a Raptors bench that powered the team to a 2-0 lead over the Wizards. Neither may end up being a star, but they both look ready to lead a team of their own. Acquiring one of them could be a new way forward for a rebuilding team: Instead of dealing with the growing pains of a young point guard, let them develop on someone else’s time.
Few point guards enter the NBA ready for the responsibility of running an offense. The position is incredibly demanding, both mentally and physically. Not only are they facing some of the best athletes in the world on a nightly basis, but they also have to make hundreds of split-second decisions over the course of a game. Even the best players need years of trial and error, especially in an era when most leave school early. It takes All-NBA point guards an average of five seasons in the league to make the team. Getting to that point is a long process that can impede the development of the rest of their team.
Rozier, the no. 16 pick in the 2015 draft, was far from a finished product after two seasons at Louisville. He was an inconsistent shooter and decision-maker who relied on athleticism to dominate lesser competition. After barely getting off the bench as a rookie in Boston, he spent the last two years as an understudy, first to Isaiah Thomas and now Kyrie. His progress can be seen in his 3-point shooting and assist-to-turnover numbers over that time:
Terry Rozier Over the Years
The fruit of those lessons is showing in Boston’s series with Milwaukee. Rozier is dominating his individual matchup with Eric Bledsoe, averaging 23 points and 5.5 assists on 46.9 percent shooting in the first two games. He is playing one of the most aggressive defenses in the NBA and he hasn’t turned the ball over once. Bledsoe will occasionally pick up the ball pressure in an effort to rattle Rozier, but it hasn’t made a difference. The 24-year-old runs the Celtics’ sets, gets the ball to Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, and has thrived on and off the ball.
His play on the other end of the floor has been even more impressive. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Rozier is an elite athlete with the frame to prevent Bledsoe from bullying him, and he has completely stifled the veteran point guard. After averaging 17.7 points on 47.3 percent shooting and 5.0 assists a game in the regular season, Bledsoe is averaging only 10.5 points on 36 percent shooting and 4.0 assists a game in the playoffs. While Bledsoe will likely put up more of a fight when the series moves to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Friday, Rozier has already done enough to open eyes around the league.
Wright isn’t starting for the Raptors, but he’s been instrumental in their two wins over the Wizards. He has stepped in for the injured Fred VanVleet, who has played only three minutes in the series after suffering a shoulder injury late in the regular season, to run their offense when Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are sitting. And he’s playing well off the two when they are in. At 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-6.5 wingspan, Wright has the length and athleticism to match up with players at multiple positions, and he’s gotten the defensive assignment on John Wall in the fourth quarter of both games. He’s a smart player who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, whether it’s making the extra pass on offense or the right rotation on defense.
Like Rozier, Wright came into the NBA with questions about his jumper, which is why he fell to the no. 20 pick in the 2015 draft. He shot 29.9 percent from 3 on 1.9 attempts per game in two seasons at Utah, and he attempted only 43 3s in his first two seasons in Toronto. The big change for Wright this season, like many of the players in the Raptors’ supporting cast, is that he’s letting it fly from deep. He shot 36.6 percent from 3 on 2.2 attempts per game during the season, and he’s burned the Wizards when they have left him open, knocking down four of his eight attempts in the series. His growth has offset another playoff slump from Lowry, who is shooting 36.8 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from 3.
To be sure, it’s easy to get carried away by a couple of strong showings in the playoffs. Neither Milwaukee nor Washington are particularly formidable opponents, particularly on defense. Rozier struggled mightily in the regular season while running the offense in Kyrie’s absence: He shot only 36.5 percent in the final 13 games of the year when he took over for Irving. Wright doesn’t have the burst to get into the lane at will off the dribble, and he almost certainly wouldn’t be as successful if defenses were keying on him.
Wright and Rozier shouldn’t be featured players at this stage in their careers, regardless of where they are. What makes them interesting is their versatility within a system. Boston and Toronto both run lots of sets with multiple ball handlers, and Rozier’s and Wright’s growth as shooters and defensive players over the last three seasons means they can be plugged into a number of different roles. Rozier would be excellent as a Patrick Beverley type who hounds opposing ball handlers and serves as a secondary playmaker. Wright could function like George Hill: alternating between spotting up and running pick-and-rolls and filling in wherever necessary on defense.
Indiana’s point guard rotation could serve as a model for rebuilding teams. Instead of bottoming out and searching for a primary ball handler at the top of the draft, the Pacers built their offense around Victor Oladipo while using Darren Collison and Cory Joseph in smaller roles around him. Neither Collison (17.5 usage rate this season) nor Joseph (14.7) is asked to do too much, but they defend, knock down open shots, and don’t make many mistakes with the ball, three things young point guards often struggle with. Collison and Joseph won’t win games by themselves, but they won’t lose them either.
Winning in the NBA with a young point guard is almost impossible unless your point guard has the size of a center. Only one (Markelle Fultz) of the five taken in the lottery of last year’s draft was on a winning team, and he barely played this season; Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell played a majority of his minutes at the 2 alongside another facilitating guard. The more likely outcome is what happened with Sacramento and Dallas, both of whom turned their offense over to a 19-year-old point guard (De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr., respectively) to predictably disastrous results. The Kings’ net rating was 5.9 points higher without Fox, while the Mavs’ was 10.1 points higher without Smith. It was a trial by fire for both, as they could no longer rely on the overwhelming edge in speed they had at lower levels of the game.
A team that drafts a point guard high has to believe they will turn into an elite player. If their ceiling is only a good starter, there’s no reason to bother with all the development necessary to get them there. As one NBA executive told me, “The question is whether the juice is worth the squeeze.” The worst-case scenario is what happened to Orlando, which was stuck in neutral the past three seasons while waiting for Elfrid Payton to develop. Having a bad shooter like Payton who needed the ball in his hands made everyone around him worse, and it contributed to their decision to give up on Oladipo too early.
No NBA franchise wants to spend too much time in the lottery. Even the 76ers made only four trips during the Process. The key is to make the most out of your time there, which means not spending picks on players who will hinder their teammates’ development and cutting corners when you can. There are only a handful of point guards in the NBA who are true difference-makers, and it’s one of the hardest positions to predict since so much of the development necessary is mental. Brandon Knight was taken one spot ahead of Kemba Walker. Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn were taken directly in front of Steph Curry.
The safer route is to draft wings and big men high and trade for a caretaker point guard who can make their lives easier. Rozier and Wright won’t be restricted free agents until next offseason, but they aren’t long for their current teams. The Raptors and the Celtics can’t afford to pay their understudies starter-level salaries, not with so many other long-term deals on their books. A team like the Suns, who have their own lottery pick plus the no. 16 and no. 31 picks in this year’s draft, as well as two future first-round picks from the Bucks and the Heat, could easily trade for one of them, accelerating their rebuild in the process. Draft Collin Sexton or Trae Young and they could be waiting for years for them to pay off, if they ever do.
Rozier and Wright both learned from point guards whose previous teams had given up on them. Neither Lowry nor Thomas looked like stars when they came to Toronto and Boston, respectively. Lowry, the no. 24 pick in the 2006 draft, was on his third team in seven NBA seasons. Thomas, the no. 60 pick in 2011, was on his third in four. Point guards take a long time to blossom. It’s hard to project them when they are in their mid-20s, much less when they are teenagers. Rozier and Wright provide certainty at an uncertain position. Even if they don’t get much better, they are already good enough to help a team. The playoffs are proof they are ready for the training wheels to come off.