What’s in store for NBA’s biggest trade sacred cow, Celtics point guard Terry Rozier?

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DETROIT – Terry Rozier, as the running joke goes, is the NBA’s most unattainable player.

Celtics president Danny Ainge reportedly wouldn’t trade Rozier for Serge Ibaka, according to the actual report which sparked the gag. Didn’t trade Rozier for Kyrie Irving. Hasn’t traded Rozier for Anthony Davis.

And why stop there?

“Me getting traded for LeBron,” Rozier said, “and then Danny hangs up the phone.”

That’s Rozier’s favorite version of the joke. He can laugh along with it.

More so, he appreciates the subtext – that Ainge really does value him deeply.

“He’s one of the guys that believes in me most in this league,” Rozier said. “And I think that’ll allow me to wake up every day, just knowing that I can breathe easily and just play my game and be me.”

It’s a good mindset, as the next 16 months will test Boston’s and Rozier’s loyalty and usefulness to each other.

Satisfied backing up stars Isaiah Thomas and now Irving at point guard, Rozier is an important part of the team with the Eastern Conference’s second-best record. He can help the Celtics win in the playoffs this season and in future seasons.

But how long will Rozier, who turns 24 Saturday and will be eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension this summer, remain content? He has declared he’ll become a starter in the NBA, but that almost certainly won’t happen in Boston as long as Irving is there.

“I know there’s a lot of teams I can start for right now,” Rozier said.

“It’ll be the right time soon enough. It’ll happen for me.”

Rozier has developed into one of the NBA’s top reserves. Victor Oladipo will win Most Improved Player, and Lou Williams will win Sixth Man of the Year. But Rozier should contend for spots on both ballots.

He already has 4.7 win shares this season – 3.3 more than last season. That’s tied for the fifth-largest increase from a previous career high. Here are the league leaders in win share increases from a previous career high – the previous high on the left, this season’s mark on the right, the increase in the middle:

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And Rozier’s 4.7 win shares rank sixth among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players:

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At 6-foot-2 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Rozier is a dogged defender who really gets into his man. He primarily makes opponents uncomfortable on the perimeter, but he’s also comfortable mixing it up inside, where he defensively rebounds well for his position.

Rozier has also become a good 3-point shooter, making 39% of his 4.7 attempts per game. That shooting breakthrough has made all the difference in Rozier’s growth.

Can he take the next step and become a starting point guard somewhere?

“There’s an athleticism requirement at that position because of how dynamic those guys are,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Competiveness, skill and just an everyday mentality and mindset. And he’s got a lot of those things. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

Athleticism? Rozier is fast, a high-flyer and definitely strong enough. Competitive? To a fault. Everyday mentality? “He never takes days off,” Stevens said.

Skill is the question mark.

Rozier isn’t much of a playmaker, a deficiency that would become an even bigger issue if he started. When playing with other top players, distributing matters more.

Rozier’s 5.2 assists per 100 possessions would rank last among starting point guards:

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(Jamal Murray, who starts for the Nuggets and also averages 5.2 assists per 100 possessions, plays with an elite passing center in Nikola Jokic.)

To be fair, Rozier’s assist numbers are negatively impacted by Marcus Smart. Rozier and Smart often share lead-guard duties off the bench, so each takes assist opportunities from the other. And Smart doesn’t space the floor well when off the ball, making it harder for Rozier when he has it.

But none of that excuses Rozier’s pedestrian passing. Steven often tells him to take more risks. Dribble more to engage defenses. Make higher-upside passes. Those aren’t dependable skills for Rozier yet – which is fine for a bench sparkplug. As a starter, it’d become a far bigger problem.

And then there’s blemish already hurting Rozier: He’s an awful finisher.

He too often gets out of control when he attacks the rim. He doesn’t have the touch on floaters. Though he can penetrate, it doesn’t bear much fruit.

Among 163 players with at least 200 attempts in the paint, Rozier ranks dead last in field goal percentage (43%)

Still, Rozier brings enough tools – athleticism, competitiveness, defense and outside shooting – to create the rough outline of a future starting point guard. Court vision can take a while to develop. (The poor finishing is more worrisome, though at least Rozier’s ability to get into the paint is encouraging.)

“Every indicator would be that he’d continue to get better and better,” Stevens said.

That makes upcoming decisions tricky.

Locked into a bargain $3,050,390 salary next season, Rozier will also be eligible this offseason for a contract extension that would start in 2019. He said he’d appreciate an extension, as it’d show Boston’s faith in him.

But would he resist an extension to keep open his options to become a starter elsewhere? Will the Celtics even offer an extension?

That might depend on Smart.

He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer, and Boston projects to have about just $9 million to pay him below the luxury-tax line without making other moves. The Celtics might decide Smart and Rozier overlap too much and let Smart walk or keep him on his qualifying offer. Or Boston could re-sign Smart, which could make Rozier the unaffordable luxury.

In 2019, Kyrie Irving will be up for a new contract. In 2020, Jaylen Brown‘s new deal would kick in. In 2021, Jayson Tatum‘s new deal would kick in. Al Horford (2019) and Gordon Hayward (2020) also have player options on their max contracts.

Perhaps, that leads to keeping Rozier next season while he’s still on his cheap rookie-scale contract then maybe even another year on his qualifying offer. Then, if he bolts for a place he can start and get paid more, at least the Celtics will have gotten several years of valuable production from him.

Or, if it’s headed down that path, could Boston do the unthinkable and trade Rozier? He’d return value, which could trump keeping him for another year or two then losing him for nothing. At some point, would Rozier welcome a trade to a team seeking a starter?

“I know it’ll work out if it’s meant to be, so I don’t really think about that,” Rozier said. “I’m just trying to seize the opportunity and, like I said, control what I can control and work my butt off every day, whether I’m the starter or coming off the bench.”