Terry Rozier is proving the Hornets made the right decision in Kemba Walker sign-and-trade deal

 By Chase Whitney

February 21, 2021

Photo: Chris Carlson / AP Photo

The Charlotte Hornets’ offseason moves were not well received when the franchise entered the rebuild. Signing Gordon Hayward was universally criticized and the year prior, general manager Mitch Kupchak and his staff were ripped by the media and fans alike for giving Terry Rozier a three-year, $56.7 million contract coming off a poor season with the Boston Celtics. At the time, it was assumed the Hornets acquired Rozier to avoid losing Kemba Walker without gaining anything in return. 

One and a half seasons later, and it’s evident the majority of the NBA community was dead wrong about Rozier. The main point of criticism– his salary– has been justified by a rapid ascension as one of the league’s elite three-point shooters while serving as a veteran leader for a young team. 

Rozier’s fourth season in Boston was the team’s infamous 2018-19 season that fizzled out despite being preseason NBA Finals favorites, and he played a part in their struggles, averaging nine points per game and shooting 38.7 percent from the field with questionable shot selection. The concerns about Rozier weren’t exactly unfounded, but the trajectory and focus of the Hornets as a franchise clearly weren’t levied significantly enough when this deal was being analyzed in July of 2019.

Charlotte brought in Rozier to be the team’s starting point guard. We know now that he’s no longer just a point guard by any means, and the Hornets’ strategy of employing him strictly as an off-ball movement shooter has uncovered a new career path for him. The Hornets put Rozier in the best position to succeed and moving him off the ball after a disastrous beginning to the 2019-20 season yielded immediate results.

As of the date of publication, Rozier ranks seventh among NBA players that average at least four three-point attempts per game at 46 percent on 7.8 attempts and, when limited to catch-and-shoot three-point attempts, his 50.7 percent on five attempts ranks fourth in the league. Averaging 21.1 points per game makes Rozier the Hornets’ second-leading scorer, and one could argue he’s been the most consistent scorer on the team all season long. A salary of $18 million per year isn’t a big price to pay for that level of reliability and consistency.

On the other side of the fence, things aren’t looking so hot for Kemba Walker. His career in Boston started off swimmingly, as he slid into his new role as the third option behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. He posted 20.4 points per game, earning his fourth All-Star selection.

Late in the 2019-20 season, though, his knee issues resurfaced, and both Philadelphia and Toronto schemed their defenses around Walker in the playoffs, preventing him from getting downhill and creating space for pull-up jumpers or making plays for teammates. While his numbers were solid against Philadelphia, his production trailed off against Toronto and Miami as Boston fizzled out of the playoffs.

In Walker’s age-30 season, things have taken a turn for the worse. The entitlement and unquenchable anger of Boston sports fans may contribute to the overly negative media perception of Walker in 2020-21, but unfortunately, some of his trademark burst and first-step speed seems to have simply faded away.  

Granted, Walker has picked it up as he plays himself back into shape following an off-season knee injection that sidelined him for three months and caused him to miss several games. But as we know from his time with the Hornets, Walker would not use any of those reasons as excuses. The fact of the matter is: he needs to play better if his role is to stay the same.

Walker is averaging career lows in field goal percentage (38.4 percent) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.81), and 17.2 points per game is the lowest since his rookie campaign. The lack of burst hinders his ability to get by defenders and break down defenses, which is an integral part of what makes him a great player. He’ll likely get a bit faster, stronger, and more fit as the season goes on, but Walker’s margin for error is much smaller when he can’t leverage his athleticism and he’s relegated to a jump shooter. 

Boston is slightly above a .500 winning percentage– a record well below their talent level and expectations– and his play is a big reason why. The Celtics are currently 4.9 points (per 100 possessions) worse when Walker is on the floor and he ranks in the 61st percentile or below in every shooting metric apart from non-corner threes, per Cleaning The Glass.

Regardless of how the Kemba Walker era goes in Boston, one thing has become clear: the NBA world as a whole needs to have more trust in Mitch Kupchak. Letting Walker depart for a more competitive team and hitting the reset button with Rozier in the fold was unquestionably the right move. If the move wasn’t made, Devonte’ Graham doesn’t break out, Rozier’s shooting prowess isn’t unearthed as soon, Hayward probably never comes to the Hornets, and most of all, Charlotte doesn’t get lucky in the 2020 NBA Draft lottery and land LaMelo Ball with the third pick. 

Which team got the “better player” is a nuanced debate with a lot of moving parts that are still to be determined, but for their situation, the Hornets made the right move in acquiring Rozier. The franchise is far ahead of schedule in just the second year of a rebuild and he’s a big reason why.

For all the great memories that Walker gifted to basketball fans in the city of Charlotte, the Hornets made the right move in letting him leave for greener pastures. 

Check out the remaining 2020-21 schedule for the Charlotte Hornets.

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