The Maturation of Rajon Rondo

1209133456The first thing you notice about Rajon Rondo is his calmness. He is 22 years old, in his first full season as a starting point guard in the NBA for the league’s best team, and he is the guy identified by the opposition as the one they most want to shoot. He plays alongside three perennial All-Stars, in a position that demands that he take control. He can’t just blend in, like say, Kendrick Perkins. He also has a backup in Sam Cassell who has a highlight DVD full of big shots taken, and made, in his long and storied career.

Rondo has been the best, and most consistent player, on the Celtics in their first-round series against the Hawks, and he will have to be this good, if not better, if they are to keep playing late into June. He knows this. The Celtics know it, and the rest of the league knows it too.

None of this, however, seems to cause him one ounce of consternation.

“Rondo has made shots, which is good,” Doc Rivers was saying the other day. “He’s going to have to keep making them. They’re going to make him make plays, and I’m comfortable with that.”

Think back to last September. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are here. Eddie House and James Posey have been brought in to fill out the bench. But what about Rondo? Most observers thought the Celtics were playing with fire; handing over the offense to an untested second-year player who most certainly did not possess a reliable jump shot.

Not Doc. “I felt Rondo was the guy,” he said.

For the last two weeks of the season, all anyone wanted to know, and all anyone wanted to ask, was how would Rondo respond in the playoffs. And, for those last two weeks, everyone around the Celtics expressed confidence and wondered what the fuss was all about. Hadn’t he proven himself during the regular season? Hadn’t he crossed over Steve Nash? Wasn’t he the guy that dunked on Jason Maxiell?

Rondo would have been well within his rights to look at one of his questioner’s cross-eyed and pull a Cassell: Man, what do you think? Complete with eye-roll. But he never did.

About an hour and a half before every home game, the Celtics locker room is open to the press. Most players prefer to avoid the whole thing, preferring the calm of the off-limits-to-the-media back rooms. Garnett made a surprise walk-through before Game 2, but he was wearing a, “Don’t even think about talking to me” look, and no one did.

But there was Rondo, standing at his locker, patiently answering the same questions that have been asked a dozen different ways. Questions about his readiness, his preparedness, and his confidence. Someone asked if his Game 1 performance had made him more relaxed for Game 2, “I was relaxed last game,” Rondo said. “I’ve been this way my whole life.” One would think that constantly having to defend one’s own ability could have the opposite effect. All those interrogators aren’t asking Paul Pierce about his confidence.

But, it turns out there are reasons for Rondo’s detached cool. For one thing he watches film like Tom Brady. Unlike his NFL brethren, film-watching is mostly a player’s choice in the NBA, and it goes without saying that it is usually the province of the older generation who are wise enough to know that if they can find even the slightest edge, it will help keep them employed for a few more years. But Rondo goes even further.

“Rondo and Kevin would have to be the top two as far as watching on their own,” Doc said. “He already had a high basketball IQ. We were running through things, and he was calling out (Atlanta’s) plays. Kevin does it. Rondo does it.” Someone asked if that was unique, on account of Rondo’s young age. “It’s just unusual,” Doc replied. “It doesn’t have to be because of his age. It’s like preparing for a test. If you studied, you know the answers and you’re calm.”

Mike Bibby, his mentor, is merely the mid-term for Rondo. The final exam will have to wait for Chauncey Billups and the Pistons in that dream conference finals matchup that everyone wants to see, and then it will multiply against any of the Western Conference point guards if they get that far. He will be tested, poked, probed, and prodded. He knows all this, and it just doesn’t seem to bother him.