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Why Terry Rozier is so important to the injury-riddled Boston Celtics

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BOSTON — Back in late January, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry were engaged in one of the most tantalizing point guard battles of the 2017-18 season. But watching the Boston CelticsGolden State Warriors showdown from afar, one of their brethren in the NBA’s elite point guard society couldn’t take his eyes off another ball-handler on the court that night.

Right around the time that Terry Rozier put Kevin Durant on his heels with a vicious jab step that freed Boston’s third-year guard for a game-tying 3-pointer, Rockets star guard Chris Paul took to Twitter and wrote, “Really like watchin Terry Rozier hoop … plays hard on both sides!”

Little more than a month later, after Rozier and the Celtics gave the streaking Houston Rockets all they could handle on their home court, Paul made it a point to seek out Rozier after the final horn. His message?

“He just said he was a big fan of mine,” Rozier said. “He told me to keep working hard and that the sky is the limit. For a guy like Chris Paul, who has been in the league for a while and is one of the best point guards in the league, to get that recognition from him, it’s special.”

Rozier isn’t a household name but he is doing his best this season to change that. For a Boston team decimated by injuries, the soon-to-be 24-year-old guard is going to get every opportunity to showcase his emerging game.

With Irving (knee), Jaylen Brown (concussion) and Marcus Smart (thumb) all expected out, Rozier is likely to elevate to a starting role when the Celtics host the Washington Wizards on Wednesday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).

Shortly after Paul’s shoutout, Rozier earned his first career start against the New York Knicks. Rozier produced a triple-double that night with 17 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. A clip that photoshopped Rozier’s face into Ice Cube’s “It was a Good Day” music video spread rapidly on social media.

Over his past 16 games, starting with that win over the Knicks, Rozier has increased his scoring output by more than six points. He’s averaging 15.4 points per game — the second highest scoring average on the team in that span, trailing only Irving — on 43.6 percent shooting, including 45.7 percent from beyond the arc. He has added 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists over 28.4 minutes per game.

Paul saw this coming before most.

“His energy, how hard he plays on both ends. All I do is watch games, and I think his energy is contagious,” Paul said. “While he’s not the guy for them, he’s important to everything they do.”

Rozier admitted he was as surprised as anyone to hear of Paul’s praise and he’s humbled by it. Rozier said he had no past encounters with Paul and quickly added, “I don’t know nobody.”

Which is surprising because Rozier sure seems to be the type of guy that everyone else is gravitating toward.

As Celtics players readied for an afternoon session at training camp on the campus of Salve Regina University in late September, most players were getting up some light shots or stretching in preparation for the hard, taped practice ahead. But at one end of the Rodgers Recreation Center, Rozier and Irving were involved in spirited one-on-one work with assistant coach Jerome Allen.

Irving dipped deep into his dribble toolbox, but Rozier stuck with him and contested every shot. After Rozier successfully defended a pair of Irving drives, the All-Star Celtics newcomer playfully pounded the cushioned wall beyond one of the baskets.

Rozier then went over and half-jokingly told reporters, “[Irving is] definitely gonna learn a lot from me. He’s still got to check me in practice.”

These occasional Rozier-Irving battles have become must-watch events. The day before Boston’s visit to Golden State, it was Irving, Rozier and Allen engaged in a post-practice game of P-I-G. But instead of the usual batch of long-distance chucks, every shot had to be some sort of creative finish near the hoop.

While Irving took an early lead with moves like shooting over the top of the backboard, Rozier rallied back to win the showdown with a series of between-the-leg and behind-the-back finishes that showcased his own ball skills.

Like Paul, Irving sees the potential in Rozier and is eager to nurture that development.

“Eventually, I would love to see Terry be the starting point guard,” Irving said, suggesting they would fit alongside one another in the starting lineup. “I think that should be his goal. He should have that confidence in himself, to have that IQ develop as a great point guard in this league.”

“All I do is watch games, and I think his energy is contagious. While he’s not the guy for them, he’s important to everything they do.”

Rockets G Chris Paul, on his impressions of Terry Rozier

Irving is only two years older than Rozier but he yearns to nurture him based on his own experiences.

“When I was coming up — I say that as if I’m older — when I was going into the league, I wasn’t afforded the unique opportunity to learn from some of the great point guards to really show me the ropes and how to run the team correctly,” Irving said.

“Just getting adjusted to the NBA pace, I kind of learned that on my own, just watch and observe. For me, I just take it as an opportunity … he wants to learn.

“We all see how scary and crazy talented he is. I just want him to keep going.”

While most view Boston’s young core as players such as recent top picks Brown and Jayson Tatum, Rozier might be just as critical to Boston’s potential to grow into a full-fledged title contender. Irving believes they’ve only scratched the surface with Rozier.

“I think it’s less his skill set and more the approach to the game. He’s willing to learn and, of course, he’s willing to do everything possible in order to put our team in a great position to win,” Irving said. “That’s something that you can’t really teach.”

When the Celtics selected Rozier with the No. 16 pick in the 2015 draft, the selection was met with immediate criticism. Draft gurus had pegged Rozier as a late first-round pick at best and one internet headline screamed, “The Celtics drafted Terry Rozier with the No. 16 pick and no one knows who he is.”

Rozier had gathered with family and friends at the Cleveland home of agent Aaron Turner and everyone roared when Rozier’s name was announced on a TV that had been set up near a backyard pool. Rozier proudly — and loudly — scoffed at the suggestion that he would be a second-round selection before Turner handed him a phone with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge on the other end.

“I just remember telling [Ainge], ‘I won’t let you down,'” Rozier said. “I had a lot of different feelings. I told him I won’t let him down and you know I’m a hard-worker and I knew it was only a matter of time before people started to realize how much time I put in and it was going to pay off.”

When his phone call to Ainge concluded, Rozier — in a full suit — leaped into Turner’s pool in celebration.

Ainge, stiff-armed in his over-eager attempts to trade up to land Justise Winslow earlier in that draft, instantly became Rozier’s biggest supporter. When the Celtics overhauled their roster last summer, only four players returned. Rozier is now the second-longest tenured Celtics player behind Smart.

It has become a running joke around the team that Rozier is the only player on Boston’s roster that Ainge won’t ever trade away. Rozier made a similar quip last summer but is emphatic it was just a joke.

For Ainge, Rozier’s emergence is validation but not one that Ainge ever needed. He often repeats Red Auerbach’s assertion that, “Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.” And Ainge can’t get enough of Rozier’s often eccentric personality.

The Celtics’ fan base — even those that wondered out loud who he was in 2015 — have embraced Rozier as well. Finding a nickname was initially a bit of a struggle as teammates called him “T-Ro” and there was a flirtation with the social media-led “Tito” (a nickname that had worked for former Red Sox manager Terry Francona).

The success of the animated television show “Rick and Morty” offered up the character “Scary Terry,” and Rozier embraced it.

A cartoon image was crafted of Rozier in a Celtics uniform but with the famous white mask from the “Scream” movie franchise. In February, Rozier and his marketing team created merchandise with a logo — hoodies and T-shirts — that almost immediately sold out. New stock, including different variations, is expected back online for Rozier’s birthday (March 17).

Rozier has a bunch of test-runs, including a hoodie with his caricature spinning a basketball with the Ice Cube lyric, “Messed Around And Got a Triple-Double,” in a nod to his exploits in his first career start.

“That’s just for us,” Rozier said. “But I might put it on the market. I don’t know yet. Stay tuned.”

Some have noticed that Rozier has a lot of similarities in his game to Michael Jordan’s and created a comparison video. Everything from his free-throw release to his jump shot has him looking a bit like MJ at times. Rozier swears it’s just a coincidence.

“Obviously I’m a fan of what he did to the game, things like that,” Rozier said. “But [the similarities are] just random.”

The approval of his All-Star peers. Comparisons to Jordan. Impacting the game on both ends for one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams. Rozier has an awful lot going for him. And the rest of the NBA is finally starting to take notice.

ESPN’s Tim MacMahon contributed to this story.

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