How the Charlotte Hornets’ new case for pace falls primarily on Terry Rozier

Pushing up pace is a logical thing for the Charlotte Hornets to explore this season.

But only if playing faster doesn’t bleed into playing recklessly.

Coach James Borrego has coaxed faster pace — essentially looking to run more off defensive stops and get into offense faster — and new point guard Terry Rozier is tasked with implementing that. The Hornets did play faster this preseason with about six more possessions per 48 minutes than the Hornets’ pace last season. But that contributed to a big uptick in turnovers: 21.6 average turnovers in five preseason games, compared with a 12.2 average last season.

“We’ve got to play fast all the time, but not in a hurry,” said Rozier, the Hornets’ primary acquisition of the offseason from the Boston Celtics.

“The faster, the better. A lot of teams are going to be more talented than us, more physical than us and sometimes more athletic. But when you play with pace, that can make up for it.”

The Hornets have a lot to overcome as they prepare for Wednesday’s season opener against the Chicago Bulls at Spectrum Center. They lost an All-NBA point guard in Kemba Walker, who left for the Celtics. They lost shooting guard Jeremy Lamb, their second-leading scorer last season, to the Indiana Pacers. Those two combined for 41 of the Hornets’ 111 average points last season.

Walker’s departure means they shift from a ball-dominant, 26-point scorer to an offense with numerous players touching the ball more on offense, attempting to make plays. That will test young guys like Dwayne Bacon and Miles Bridges, who have little experience as facilitators. It puts more responsibility on center Cody Zeller to create offense with dribble-handoffs and baseline screening action.

The Hornets averaged 103.4 points — 27th among 30 NBA teams — in preseason scoring. One of the few advantages this roster has offensively is it’s somewhat built for speed. Zeller, for instance, is one of the faster starting centers in the NBA.

When Borrego and his staff evaluated last season, one of the things that emerged was the Hornets scored efficiently in transition but didn’t push pace all that much.

That is now Rozier’s job to orchestrate.

‘Got to start with me’

Rozier is the first to say he’s a long way from being Walker in accomplishment. He started only 30 regular-season games in four seasons with the Celtics, backing up Isaiah Thomas and then Kyrie Irving.

But he craved this chance to be a team’s primary point guard, and he has had flashes — particularly a playoff run in 2018 when Irving was hurt — that show potential. He’s an intense defender and demonstrated this preseason the ability to operate at different speeds.

So if the Hornets are going to change even slightly from a deliberate pace to take some pressure off half-court offense, it must revolve around him.

“A lot of this falls back on me,” Rozier said. “That’s been our emphasis since training camp (in Chapel Hill) — playing fast. Then we got to Boston (for the first preseason game) and we went away from that. The Boston game was pretty good — we were up 16 — but it’s not going to be like that all the time. Obviously, we got exposed against Philly (scoring just 87 against the 76ers in Winston-Salem) by playing too slow.

“I came in and told coach, ‘This has got to start with me; I’ve got to push the pace.’ Against Memphis (a 120-99 victory), that’s what we did. You could tell the difference between the Philly game and the Memphis game, as far as how we were playing fast. That’s how we’ve got to be.”

‘Doesn’t have to be reckless’

Borrego says this look at increasing pace is more than just chasing fast-break points. It’s starting the offense sooner in a 24-second shot clock to explore more possibilities.

Borrego compares what he wants to a football team spending less time huddled up, rather than ready to go at the line of scrimmage early in a play clock.

“Playing with pace doesn’t have to be reckless,” he said. “Look at the NFL; when they play with speed, they are putting pressure on the (opposing defense).

“When I say pace, it’s really pressure on the defense: Instead of walking it up, and letting the defense get set, and playing for 16 seconds, I want (to make) the defense to play for 21. That five seconds is significant. If this group can stay disciplined and continue to move the ball, we can find a pretty good shot in 21 seconds.”

Borrego knows that pushing pace, combined with a new, younger roster, will probably mean more turnovers. But it doesn’t have to be a lot more, as it was in the preseason.

“This is a little uncomfortable for everybody,” Borrego said. “The NBA is a long game. Can you continue play at that pace for 48 minutes?

“That’s the challenge.”

Roster notes

The Hornets effectively completed their roster Sunday by converting second-round pick Jalen McDaniels from a two-way contract to a regular, multiyear contract. The Hornets moved Kobi Simmons into that two-way contract slot.

That fills the 15 regular roster spots — the 13 guaranteed contracts in effect before training camp, plus Caleb Martin and McDaniels — with Simmons and Robert Franks filling the two two-way contract slots.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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