Rick Pitino has had a nice run of talented lead guards on his Louisville teams in recent years. Edgar Sosa made way for Preston Knowles who shared a back court with Peyton Siva before Siva’s former running mate, Russ Smith, turned into a First Team All-American this past season. This year, former JuCo Player of the Year Chris Jones returns to carry the torch for the feisty little point guards that Pitino has had so much success coaching.
But none of the five players mentioned above had as much natural talent at Louisville as rising sophomore Terry Rozier, which makes him one of the most intriguing players in the country to keep an eye on as we inch towards the 2014-2015 season. Rozier is not only the best NBA prospect that Pitino has had in his back court in years, but he also just so happens to be the most important player on the Cardinal roster this season.
Let me explain.
Chris Jones is what he is, a talented-but-undersized combo-guard that shoots a little too much and isn’t quite a good enough playmaker. Montrezl Harrell may be the toughest, most aggressive, hardest-working big man in the country, but he still does the overwhelming majority of his damage in the paint and around the rim. In other words, Jones is not going to make up for the offense lost with Smith’s graduation and Harrell isn’t the guy of post player where Pitino can force-feed him the ball in the post.
With three other sophomores and a six-man freshman class devoid of a one-and-done lottery pick on the roster, if Louisville is looking for a game-changing talent, Rozier is their guy.
And to his credit, he’s put in the work to get himself into a position where he can capitalize on that opportunity, as he worked through the invitational camps this summer — Nike’s Point Guard Skills Academy in June, the LeBron James Skills Academy in July, adidas Nations in August — impressing at every step along the way. He was already poised to find his name on just about every Breakout Stars list this preseason, now he’s finding himself mentioned as a potential lottery pick in next June’s draft.
“That’s something that I’m happy I’m a part of and happy to be hearing about,” Rozier told NBCSports this summer. “I don’t really let it get to me much, but I’m happy to take on the challenge. Right now, you hear talk about it but that means nothing if I don’t do anything [this season].”
Rozier was impressive at times for the Cardinals last season, but being stuck behind a guy like Smith on the depth chart has a way of limiting minutes and shots. He averaged 7.0 points, 3.1 boards and 1.8 assists per contest while shooting 37.1% from beyond the arc. He only played 18.9 minutes per game, but in the games where he saw extended action — usually Louisville’s blowout wins — he was impressive. He averaged 14.7 points during one four-game stretch in February, and while that’s not exactly proof that Rozier is destined for the NBA, it is evidence that the talent is there.
The key for Rozier this summer was to continue his growth as a point guard, he said. He may not be listed as the starting point guard for the Cardinals, but Pitino has a habit of playing two leads guards at the same time. In other words, the one and the two are interchangeable in the Louisville attack, meaning that Rozier is going to be spending plenty of time running off of high ball-screens the way Smith did last season and Siva did before him.
“I learned a lot about [how to run] the pick and roll. That was my goal on what to get better at,” Rozier said. “Just how to read it. I struggle a little bit coming off pick and roll, mainly setting my man up.”
And while Rozier did provide a bit of a coaching lesson on how to play the role of the ball-handler in ball-screen actions — “It’s the first two dribbles that’s the most important dribble when coming off the screen-and-roll,” he said, “one for reading the defense and one for the attack.” — it will be interesting to see how that understanding translates into actual gameplay. Last season, Louisville ran pick-and-rolls on 26.3% of their total offensive possessions, 42nd nationally according to Synergy. That was almost a third of their possessions that came in the half court.
Put simply, Louisville relies heavily on ball-screens, and if Rozier is going to be one of the guys that carries this team, he’s going to have to excel handling the ball in those situations.
Rozier also said that he’ll be looking to play more of a leadership role with this group, which is understandable given the amount of youth and inexperience on the roster, and that learning how to be a veteran voice from Smith and Siva was key.
“They’re always talking,” said Rozier, who played last season with Smith but did a post-graduate year in 2012-2013 and was never actually on the Louisville roster at the same time as Siva. “They still come back to the gym and spend time with me. They’re real good at what they do. They made sure leadership was important.”
Rozier knows that replacing the presence of Smith, both in the locker room and the box score, won’t be easy, but he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“I’m really confident in myself,” he said. “I’m ready to play. I’m ready to do it.”