August 20, 2007
It was tempting to put Rajon Rondo on the floor last season because of his explosive speed, his penchant for picking off passes, his court vision, and his seemingly boundless energy, but during tight games he became an offensive liability. Teams merely doubled Jefferson and/or Pierce, leaving Rondo alone, daring him to knock down the 18-footer.
Too often, he didn't.
It is a rap that has dogged him throughout his career. Jerry West told me last season that if Rondo had been able to shoot even a little bit, he would have been a top-three pick. (He was taken at No.21.) In his first NBA season, Rondo shot 41.8 percent from the floor and was a nonfactor from behind the 3-point arc (6 for 29, 20.7 percent).
One day last spring, I was waiting to do a postpractice interview with Pierce, who was receiving treatment in the training room. There were only two players left in the gym: Rondo and Doc Rivers's eighth-grade son, Austin. Rondo, his shirt off, had assistant coach Kevin Eastman feed him the ball for 100 jumpers. With nobody guarding him, Rondo hit 52 of them. Minutes later, Doc's son duplicated the drill - only he knocked down 70.
Rondo, 21, is used to the ribbing about his wayward shots. He learned early last season to develop a thick skin.
"It doesn't bug me at all," Rondo insisted. "I do enough to overlook what I can't do. I get guys wide-open shots. I think that will work out pretty well with this team."
Shooting is all about two things: confidence and repetition. This summer, Rondo said, he has not allowed himself to quit for the day until he's buried 250-280 jumpers. He is playing a fair amount of pick-up games in the Bluegrass State with NBA veterans such as Nazr Mohammad and Scott Padgett, but he will not drive to the hole. In every situation - not just some situations - he's pulling up for the perimeter jumper. While this might be a mild annoyance to his pick-up teammates - who groan when Rondo blows past the defense, then pulls back for a 15-footer - he understands it is critical to his development.
"It is kind of funny," Rondo acknowledged. "Whether my team is up 10 or down 10, I'm settling for the jump shot."
The mechanics of that jump shot were broken down by Eastman, who worked with Rondo on catching the ball low and bringing it up high, and on developing "perfect feet," which means establishing a uniform way to set up for a shot instead of sometimes having the feet close together and other times farther apart. Eastman has emphasized the need for Rondo to bring the ball out from behind his head on the release, and to aim for over the top of the rim, instead of directly at the rim.
"Part of it is a mental adjustment, too," Eastman explained. "We want Rajon to have the same confidence he has in his game shot that he has in his practice shot.
"For instance, if we're on the road and he goes 0 for 5 in jump shots against Phoenix, we need him to come out the next night against LA and shoot those same shots. Too often last season, when he had a bad shooting night, he'd follow that by lowering his head and driving to the basket. That wasn't the best thing for him or us."
Eastman flew to Louisville last week to work with Rondo and check on his progress. He reported a marked improvement in Rondo's stroke.
"There's no doubt in my mind he can be a good shooter," Eastman said, "but it doesn't matter what's in my mind or Doc's mind or your mind. He's got to believe it himself. He's got to prove it on the floor, with his performance, his body language, everything."
With the spotlight squarely upon him, Rondo's mettle will be tested. To stay on the floor, the kid who prefers to pass first and shoot later has to be able to keep defenses honest.
In the whirlwind days since the Celtics underwent their overhaul, Rondo has not reached out to speak with his friend Jefferson, mostly because he's at a loss as to what to say.
"I figure I'll let things settle," Rondo explained. "Give it a couple of weeks."
No one has been immune to the uncertainty of the summer of 2007.
When the Celtics were angling to acquire Allen, Rondo's name surfaced in the trade talks. As soon as the trigger was pulled on that deal, a new round of rumors started, this time with Garnett as the centerpiece of the deal. Again, the Celtics refused to part with their point guard. Again, Rondo felt relieved but torn, since his friends went in his place.
Rondo returns to Boston next week to continue his training. He will study tapes of Allen and Garnett so he can learn exactly when and where they like to receive the ball. Although Rondo understands the magnitude of the acquisition of Garnett, he will not be starry-eyed when the future Hall of Famer shares a court with him for the first time.
"I never really followed basketball growing up," said Rondo. "I was too busy playing baseball and football. I wanted to go to the NFL."
And what position did he play?
"Quarterback," Rondo answered.