Terry Rozier chuckled briefly Thursday when asked about his fouls, but it was the sound of exasperation, not humor.
“I’ve just got to control them; try to be aggressive, but not overly aggressive, where I put myself on the bench where I can’t help my team,” Rozier explained following a brief Charlotte Hornets practice.
The Hornets knew Rozier’s transition as Charlotte’s starting point guard would entail some bumps. They brought him in on a three-year, $57 million contract to address the massive gap left by Kemba Walker’s departure to the Boston Celtics.
Rozier was never going to be Walker, the Hornets’ all-time scorer, and he was the first to say so. But Walker’s shadow wasn’t Rozier’s only challenge: He is simultaneously learning a brand new team, after four seasons with the Celtics, and adapting to being a long-term starter for the first time in the NBA.
So far, the biggest symptom of Rozier’s challenge is fouls. He has committed 17 in the first five games, most on Charlotte’s roster, including four Wednesday against the Sacramento Kings. Those fouls have cut into his minutes, a problem somewhat mitigated by how well his backup, Devonte Graham, has played.
Rozier’s most attractive trait is the fierceness with which he plays defensively. But starting — and the extra minutes that involves — means rationing just how much risk-taking Rozier can afford.
“There is a balance: We need his aggressiveness, his toughness and his physicality. Sometimes that comes with some fouls,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “He’s got to pick and choose those spots where he can be aggressive.
“When you’re coming off the bench, you can take a few more chances, with your minutes being limited. In this role, we need him to be out on the floor more, particularly in the first half, when he’s picked up three (fouls) pretty consistently.”
Beyond adapting to starter’s minutes, Rozier has to figure out each new teammate’s tendencies and preferences. Being the point guard, like playing quarterback in football, means facilitating every teammate’s best performance.
The nuanced understanding that requires is still a process.
“I know a lot of what the starters want to do,” said Rozier, who is averaging 15.2 points and 5.6 assists. “When I’m out there with the second string, I’m still learning.”
Four NBA seasons on Boston’s bench don’t make Rozier an “old guy,” but relative to this rotation he’s among the most experienced. Starters Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges and rookie P.J. Washington are all fairly new to what they’re doing and need guidance.
“When I was that young guy, I was always looking to that older guy to get me over the hump. I feel like that’s why I’m here,” Rozier said.
“I’m not going to tell them how to be professional, but they know I’m always here if they want to reach out, to show them the right things to do. They deserve their own space.”
Even as Rozier learns his teammates, Borrego relies on him to regulate the Hornets’ agendas, including playing at a faster pace and launching dozens of 3s, particularly since they now lead the NBA in 3-point percentage (41.9).
“I think he’s getting more comfortable every game. Other than the fouling, he’s doing a very good job,” Borrego assessed. “This is a new system for him. He just needs to keep growing.”
After backing up Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving in Boston, this is the platform Rozier craved.
“This is something that I signed up for,” Rozier said.
“I love this every step of the way.”