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Rondo?s Mighty Ascent

Much ink has been expended on the breathtaking emergence of Rajon Rondo in the 2009 playoffs. Averaging a triple double, Rondo is now playing at a level that makes him the best player on the Celtics and one of the very best players in the NBA. In short, he is a superstar. For diehard Cs fans, Rondo?s emergence has taken the sting out of the injuries to Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe which have decimated the team?s chances of repeating as NBA champion in 2009. Thanks to Rondo, something special is happening this spring in Boston.

As one who has followed the Celtics for four decades, and who has seen nearly every game Rondo has played in the NBA, let me add a few points to the discussion.

1. There has been only one other magical moment like this in Celtics history, where a young player has simply emerged almost overnight and made the world reappraise his standing. That was in April and May 1992 when Reggie Lewis became a dominant player in the playoffs, averaging 28 points per game. It looked then like the 26 year-old Lewis would not only be an all-star, but also become an all-NBA player, maybe even another Havlicek. Alas, he never played at quite that level again and he died a year later. That was the darkest day in Celtics history.

2. For some, perhaps many, NBA players, a look at the statistics tell you all you need to know. Look at LeBron?s stats, or Kobe?s, or Chris Paul?s, or Dwight Howard?s, and the numbers bowl you over like a tidal wave. Only superstars produce at their statistical levels. It is only in the 2009 playoffs that the stats came close to providing a sense of how Rondo has come to dominate games. If one looked at his stat line before April 2009, and did not watch him play, you would be clueless. And that is why his emergence has surprised everyone except Celtics fans.  I recall two conversations with knowledgeable NBA fanatics ? both Knicks fans -- over the past 18 months. When I explained how Rondo was in the process of becoming the best player on the Celtics and one of the top players in the league, they were both bewildered, and they questioned my sanity. In their view, he was a journeyman. Taking a casual look at his points per game, and his free throw percentage, and indeed he appeared that way.

3. It is impossible to say what effect playing on a championship team, and with veterans like Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen has done for Rondo?s development, but it has obviously been quite positive. Had the Cs remained a perpetually rebuilding team of players in their early 20s, Rondo may still have developed, but he also may have developed bad habits, and he might not have had the same understanding of team defense. He might have had better numbers, but he would not have been as good a player in the long run. As it is, he has no bad habits. His major weakness has been that he has disappeared in games, especially on the road, but that tendency is less apparent with more experience. He is beginning to grasp that being a superstar is a full-time job and there are no nights off.

4. The first thing that strikes you about Rondo are his physical attributes: long arms; huge soft hands, world-class speed and quickness. The second thing you notice when you watch him play is that he has tremendous floor sense, a great handle and he never loses his composure. He can get anywhere he wants on the floor with the ball at just about any time. He has an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time at both ends of the floor. But what you only grasp over repeated viewings is his heart and emerging leadership. KG once said Rondo has the heart of a lion. This is what distinguishes Rondo, more than anything else, from players of similar talents who never amount to much. He has the ferocious need to win that marks all superstars. As once commentator put it, ?Most NBA players really like to win; superstars need to win.?

5. The other point that statistics cannot capture is that Rondo is a charismatic player who demonstrates basketball genius. I do not use these terms lightly. The only other genius the Cs have had in the last 40 years was Bird. By genius I mean that at all times he seems to have a command of the floor that no one else has on either team. It is impossible to get angry at him for a turnover or missed shot, just like it was with Larry, because the motivation was correct. When Rondo is playing his game, it is always an intoxicating experience for the fans, because he is seeming to be going places no other NBA player has ever gone. It is like watching Picasso as a teenager. ?The simple truth,? Bob Ryan writes, ?is that, style-wise, there is no one like him now and probably never has been. Rajon Rondo is utterly sui generis.?

6. What Rondo needs to do to become an elite player in the game is pretty clear: he needs to become an 80 percent free throw shooter. Once he is there he will be more comfortable getting to the line 8-10 times per game. He needs to finish with his left hand around the basket. He needs to work on his jump shot. As Doc Rivers put it earlier this season, once Rondo masters the pull-up mid-range jumper, ?It?s over. He will be impossible to guard.? He has already shown considerable improvement on these fronts, and there is little doubt with his drive that he will eventually make these improvements. And it would be nice if he could become a 35 percent 3-point shooter. I don?t want him looking for that shot often, but once or twice a game he finds himself holding the ball out there with the clock approaching zero. Nailing that shot will be the cherry on the sundae. Rondo draining occasional threes has the effect of making the other team feel utterly helpless.

7. Obviously, Rondo is not going to average a triple double in the regular season, or even for an extended playoff run. (If he does, then he will make a claim to being the greatest player of all time, and I am not willing to go that far.) But 17 ppg, 9 apg, 6 rpg and 2 spg is not unrealistic, along with an annual slot on the all-defense team. In fact, it seems quite likely at this point. By his peak in his late 20s it may well be that a season like that will be considered an off-year for Rondo. There is a chance Rondo will put up numbers like almost no one ever has before.

8. Let?s put those numbers ? 17 ppg, 9 apg, 6 rpg, 2 spg -- in perspective. Only two other players in NBA history have produced those numbers in a single season. Magic Johnson did it once, and Oscar Robertson ? are you sitting down? ? did it nine times. (Steals were not recorded before 1973, but based on how Robertson played, it is likely he would have surpassed 2 spg in those nine seasons.) That?s not all. Only six other point guards in NBA history have met three of those four statistical levels in a single season: Michael Ray Richardson did it once; Kevin Johnson did it once; Chris Paul has done it the past two seasons; John Stockton did it three times; Isiah Thomas did it three times; and Jason Kidd has done it five times. Oh yeah, Magic Johnson did it seven times, in addition to the season where he nailed all four. Take away Richardson, whose career was destroyed by drugs, and we are talking about most of the dominant point guards of the past 50 years. The greats of the game.

9. So Rondo is going to be in very exclusive company. In short, the indications are that he will make all-NBA and the all-star team for the next 10-12 years, barring injury. For much of his career, he will garner MVP attention. What may impede trips to the first-team or second-team all-NBA squad will be the fact that the NBA is in the midst of a Golden Age of points guards. Paul, Deron Williams, Rondo, Rose, Parker, with a few more studs on the way. This is like centerfield in New York City in the early 1950s.

10. The single outstanding issue for Rondo is whether he will be good enough to be the best player on an NBA championship team. As has been amply demonstrated, the vast majority of NBA championship teams are led by players who are the dominant players of their eras and all-time legends. Getting one of these guys is the key to being a legitimate contender, and there tend to only be a few of them playing at any given time. (Having a superstar is not sufficient to win a title; other ingredients are needed. But winning a title without a superstar is a rare occurrence.) The players who meet that standard in the NBA today are James, Bryant, Paul, Howard, Wade and possibly a few others like Yao, Duncan, and a healthy Garnett. Until this season, I assumed Rondo would peak out as a great number two guy on a champion, but not be great enough to be the best player on a champion. After his recent development that assessment is now under review. He may well become good enough to be The Man. If he is, we will know soon, certainly by next year at this time. Superstars do not take very long to make the presence known.

11. If he is, the Celtics future takes on a very different cast. The aging of the Big Three can be compensated for by Rondo?s ascension, and the team can remain in the running for a few more years. And when the Big Three move on the Cs can remain a contender. The future will be bright.

12. Like many Celtics fans, I first became aware of Rondo as an NBA prospect during the 2005-06 season when I subscribed to ESPN Insider and read Chad Ford?s periodic reports on the potential draft class. Ford invariably had Rondo listed as a non-lottery pick and hammered home his weaknesses: lack of a jumpshot, and stubbornness.  But on a few occasions Ford would cite one unnamed NBA executive who would refer to Rondo as the best point guard in the draft, perhaps the best player in the draft, and possibly a superstar. It stuck out like someone calling our current economy ?boom times.? For a variety of reasons, I thought at the time Danny Ainge might have been Ford?s source. Now I am convinced of it. If any other GM felt that way they certainly would have leapt to get Rondo before Danny made his move to pry him away from Phoenix with the 21st pick in round one on draft day. Whatever Ainge does in the future, his selection of Rajon Rondo now appears to rank as some of the most brilliant scouting and drafting is NBA history. That pick alone makes Ainge Red?s worthy heir.

 

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