Making His Point
Surrounded by All-Stars, Rajon Rondo Is the Quiet, Confident Quarterback of the NBA's Best Team
Rajon Rondo is growing into his role as a playmaker for the league's best team.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty
Pretending to read his e-mail, Rajon Rondo cradles his iPhone in his enormous right palm as he looks off into the distance, surveying a conference room. He's wearing the same serious look that's presumably etched across his face 24 hours a day, only now his eyes are wide open with his eyebrows raised as if he just saw Paul Pierce slip behind his man on a backdoor cut.
He's wearing a borrowed gray suit for a DIME magazine photo shoot, and he appears remarkably comfortable in front of a camera for a guy who otherwise doesn't seem to enjoy media attention. Describing the shoot to his fans on his blog the next day, Rondo jokingly wrote, "the camera loves me."
The camera may love him, but Rondo just loves clothes. He has a large sneaker collection, countless pairs of jeans and spends a lot of his downtime at shopping malls across the country adding to his wardrobe.
In fact, Rondo likes shopping so much that this summer, after meeting a group of Jamaica Plain students through the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, he took them back-to-school shopping for new outfits and shoes on a whim.
During breaks in the photoshoot, Rondo talked casually to the crew about some of his own clothes, his snowstorm driving tactics and a recent blowout win over the New York Knicks, quipping to the photographer, "they didn't even show up that night. It was crazy." He went on to talk about which guys in the locker room dress well, throwing a few teammates under the fashion bus as well.
"Some guys think they know fashion, but having style is more than just matching a printed T-shirt with some jeans," the point guard says as he poses for another shot, this time straightening his necktie in an imaginary mirror.
Right now, he looks more GQ than starting PG. He poses for a few more pictures in street clothes and even does a few outdoor shots in the snow. DIME sent a few preview shots to the Celtics offices, and the pictures from that day are certainly dramatic thanks to dark lighting and his straight-faced approach to modeling. Most striking, however, is the air of confidence Rondo portrays to the camera. Just because he's an amateur model doesn't mean he can't look like he knows exactly what he's doing.
Likewise, when it comes to quarterbacking a traveling circus of NBA All-Stars, Rondo has that same confidence, even if he is still learning on the job.
Surrounded by microphones and notebooks, Rondo's hardly candid. Reporters in Boston and Lexington (Rondo played two years of college basketball at the University of Kentucky) often describe Rondo as quiet.
If your only interactions with him are basketball interviews, you'd probably say the same thing. Put on the spot about his struggles with the perimeter jump shot or fighting over a the top of a pick and roll, Rondo responds quickly; he's economical with his words, and you may not even notice a slight Kentucky twang in his voice.
If you're a sportswriter who needs a quote, Rondo's probably not your guy. He's into brevity and rarely elaborates.
But the teammates who know him and rely on him to ignite the Celtics' offense can tell you a different side of the story.
"If you didn't know him, you'd think he's just this quiet kid," teammate Kendrick Perkins says. "But he can be the loudest guy in the locker room."
Quiet or not behind the scenes, he's certainly overshadowed in the media by the presence of a troika of All-Stars on the court.
On paper, his job looks simple: get the ball over half court and get it to one of the stars. Sure, just dump it off to Kevin Garnett on the elbow, thread the needle to Paul Pierce slashing through the lane or find Ray Allen hiding out in the left corner waiting to bury a three.
"It's a tough job. He's got three guys who could tell him what to do, and at times he has to tell them, and that's not easy," says Celtics Head Coach Doc Rivers, who regularly reminds reporters that Rondo is still a second-year player who is improving on a daily basis. "He's vocal. Rajon talks. I don't know if he says the right thing all of the time just yet, but that will come. He just has to understand that guys are going to be on him more than anybody else, and his teammates are going to be on him more than anybody else. It's not personal, it's called being the quarterback."
Making an Impression
Rajon Rondo sees the play developing before his eyes, much like his teammates and fans are watching the second-year guard mature on the job.
The only true point guard on the roster, Rondo shoulders a massive amount of responsibility. But he's gained the respect of the team's three veteran leaders, which goes a long way toward empowering the guy who decides which All-Star is getting the ball and when they're getting it.
"He does a great job with it, Rondo's not afraid to tell us where we need to be. He's a confident guy and that's important when you're the point guard," says Celtics captain Paul Pierce, who's watched Rondo go from a third-string bench warmer at the beginning of last season to a guy who's been all but anointed as the point guard of the present and the future.
It didn't take long for Rondo to make an impression on his new All-Star teammates, either. Kevin Garnett gushes when he talks about Rondo, regularly dousing him in praise and predicting big things for the smallest guy on the team.
"If Rondo is not the best point guard in three or four years, I'd be very, very surprised. He has all the tools to lead a team. His defense is unlike any other guard I've seen," Garnett said just days before the season began. "He has the quickness of a Tony Parker. He has the eyes and the passing skills of a Jason Kidd. He has to establish that 15-foot jumper, make it stick and be consistent. But I'm very, very, very, very impressed with Rondo."
Garnett said he constantly gets asked if the Celtics can truly be a championship team when they rely on a second-year point guard, and he makes it clear that Rondo can handle the pressure.
"He was thrown in that position for a reason, and if Doc didn't believe in him or he thought he was too young to have it he wouldn't have put him in that position. It wasn't like he got it [because] it was on the table and he took it off. He earned it, busted his ass and earned it," Garnett said, noting that Rondo watches tons of film.
"He's like a student. He has this little video pocket thing that has all the film on it and he carries it around. You laugh at it but at the same time you're impressed," Garnett says. "When you see a guy like that working toward his goals, its good to see."
Watching film is just part of the renovation. Since his college days, Rondo's been hearing that he can't shoot. He heard it again at the NBA Draft and he heard it last season, and the critics had a point. While he was effective scoring around the basket, when left open for midrange jumpers, Rondo was a liability because he didn't want to shoot them, and when he did, he wasn't connecting. According to NBA.com's shot charting tool, last season Rondo hit just 38 of his 123 (31%) mid-range jumpers.
In contrast, through the first 40 games this season, Rondo had already knocked down 53 of his 117 mid-range shots (45%), a drastic improvement that has not gone unnoticed. Along with his ability to finish at the rim, this enhancement contributes to his ranking among the top 15 guards in the league in shooting percentage this season.
Still, opposing teams continue to challenge Rondo to beat them by leaving him wide open to double-team Garnett, Pierce or Allen.
"I'm not the All-Star, those three guys are the All-Stars. So they're going to try to take away our main threats. I'd probably do the same thing, make the other guys beat us," Rondo says. "Now I'm getting a lot more open shots with those guys. When it's uncontested, it's just like practice."
Rondo insists that he hasn't changed his shooting technique at all, but he has taken notes from teammate Ray Allen with regard to how he practices his shot. He concentrates on replicating game-situations in his shooting drills, focusing on details like trying to ensure he's getting the same type of elevation on his jumpshot in the gym as he would during a game in the arena.
Room for Improvement
Shooting is just part of the equation. While Rondo has proven to be one of the best ball-stealers in the league (he lead the NBA in steals per 48 minutes last year), too often his gambling has led to defensive breakdowns for the team, something his coaches won't tolerate.
"Rajon is like a really good roller coaster. He has some really good highs, but he goes up and down," Rivers says. "The fans see the steals, but we talk about solid defense."
Early in the season, Rivers challenged Rondo to improve his defense because opposing point guards were torching the Celtics. Himself a former point guard, Rivers has traditionally been tough on his young point guards. He's been no different with Rondo.
When a TV reporter asked Rivers about Rondo's play in December, likely expecting to hear praise for his improved shooting, he instead got a pointed answer about the second year guard's deficiencies on the other end of the floor. It's certainly nothing that Rondo hasn't already heard from his coach, but Rivers seemed to make a point about letting it be known in no uncertain terms: Rondo must improve on the defensive end.
"He's got to be a better defensive player. He's got to improve defensively," Rivers says. "If he improves defensively we're going to be fine. I love who he is, I love the potential, but for us to be a better team, Rajon Rondo has to keep working and improving on his defense. When he does that, then I'm going to be really excited about his game. He's going to work on it, and he's going to do it."
Consider the gauntlet thrown down. The pro game moves decidedly quicker and is incredibly physical in comparison to college basketball. Rondo and his 6'1", 171 lbs. frame is still finding this out.
"Every night, it's a beating you take," Rondo said of defending the pick-and-roll, the NBA's staple play.
For a point guard, defending the play includes recognizing the personnel running the play (is the guard a shooter or a threat to penetrate? Will the big pop out or head for the hoop? Are we trapping the play?), trying to avoid the pick all together, and if that doesn't work, fighting over players who are typically twice his size. Depending on the game plan, the defensive strategy can change from night-to-night, and in some cases, minute-to-minute when the game's on the line.
But pick-and-roll defense is just a part of the equation, and for Rondo, improvement on the defensive end boils down to the basics: keeping his man in front of him and picking his spots when it comes to going for the steal. Rondo acknowledged as much, admitting that he probably gambles too much because of his natural abilities.
"I think I stand up more often than I should on defense. I've got to be solid and continue to get better," Rondo said. "Stay between my man and the basket."
Above-average quickness, surprisingly good leaping ability, long arms and freakishly huge hands (reportedly the largest hands the Celtics current training staff has ever measured) are great attributes for an open court defender, but Rondo is still undersized against guys like Chauncey Billups, Deron Williams and some of the larger point guards of the league. If they're not trying to rub him off on a pick on the top of the key, they'll take him on the box and try to post him up.
"Each guy you play, not just the elite guys, because it's the NBA, every night you've got to make an adjustment. The more you play against a guy, the better a feel you have for him," Rondo says.
With just a year of pro experience, Rondo is still learning the league's personnel and how to defend his opponents. Perhaps more importantly, he's learning about being a leader, running a team and managing a trio of superstars.