Rajon Rondo is an immensely talented basketball player—on that point there is no disagreement. But he does happen to be part of small subset of NBA players who are defined as much by their flaws as by their production.
A triple-double threat every night, he made the Boston Celtics his team long before the departures of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But his enormous and versatile statistical production always comes with a caveat—"imagine how good he could be if he could shoot...."
It's a line repeated so often that it feels like fundamental truth. It is, however, a myth. One that was dispelled just a few weeks ago by Kirk Goldsberry:
Rondo was actually one of the best elbow shooters in the league last season. Out of 141 NBA players who attempted at least 100 shots from the elbows, Rondo ranked fourth in field goal percentage in that zone — trailing only Jason Smith, Steve Nash, and Jose Calderon. Those are pretty good numbers for a guy who can’t shoot. Per Synergy Sports, he also earned a “very good” rating for shots off the dribble, and an “excellent” rating for long 2-point jumpers.
If you prefer visual evidence to the numeric sort, check out this compilation of Rondo's mid-range shooting from last year, courtesy of Bleacher Report's own Jared Wade.
Rondo has become a respectable shooter. His form is far from textbook but he's much more balanced than he used to be and he's fixed a hitch that often caused him to release the ball on his way down. But despite all the evidence to the contrary, this perception of Rondo as a flawed and inadequate shooter persists.
Part of this persistence is simple inertia. Once the public perception of a player is framed, it can often be difficult to shake that characterization.
Rondo was an indisputably poor shooter when he arrived in the league, making just 30.5 percent of his shots from outside of five feet as a rookie. But his march towards respectability actually started way before last season.
The graph below shows Rondo's field goal percentage on mid-range jump shots (any shot outside the paint, but inside the three-point line) for each season he's been in the league. The black line represents the league average over that time span, 39.4 percent.
It may come as shock to find that in six of his eight seasons in the NBA, Rondo has actually been an average or better shooter from mid-range. While his numbers for this season have come in a very small sample size, just 26 attempts, the 48.0 percent mark he posted last year was comparable to players like Dirk Nowitzki, Marc Gasol and David West.
This next graph shows the percentage of his total field goal attempts that have been mid-range jump shots in each of his NBA seasons. Again, the black line represents the league average.
While his shooting percentages from the mid-range have generally been above the league average, he takes far fewer shots from those areas than the average player. For comparison, while his shooting percentage from last year was similar to Nowtizki, Gasol and West, they took 60.0 percent, 37.4 percent and 39.5 percent of their shot attempts from the mid-range, respectively, compared to just 31.8 percent for Rondo.
Here is where Rondo is really swimming upstream in changing the perception of himself as a shooter. Even though his percentages have improved significantly, he still looks extremely reluctant to take those shots. His jump shot has improved to a significant degree, but he still often treats it like a weapon of last resort.
For most other teams a 48 percent mid-range shooter would be used as a tool to build around. Perhaps not as a primary offensive threat, but certainly as a way of distorting the defense. But teams know Rondo is reluctant to shoot from that range and that he will often only take those shots when left absurdly open or pushed up against the end of the shot clock.
As such they continue to defend him under the premise that mid-range jumpers by Rondo will either be passed up or missed.
“He made shots,” Stevens said. “They went under the ball screens and almost dared him to make shots, and he has to make those. He’s a very good pull-up shooter.”
But while Rondo now has the accuracy to take advantage of these opportunities opposing defenses afford him, he still hasn't shown the willingness to do it consistently. The reason so many people still think of Rondo as a poor shooter is that he still doesn't seem to believe that things have changed.
For many players, passing up an open mid-range jumper in search of a better scoring opportunity would be seen as shrewd recognition of the relatively poor value of those shots. But for Rondo, especially when teams are begging him to take it, every mid-range jumper he passes up seems like waving a white flag.
It's not just when teams are sagging eight feet off of him and he elects to drive rather than pull up. It's also the way he neglects to set up defenders for those kinds of shots off the pick-and-roll.
He doesn't seem to believe his jump shot is a potent weapon. So why should we? We don't fully trust the results, because he doesn't seem to trust them either.
Right now, the historical legacy of Rondo's jump shot is its erratic nature. Not just with regards to accuracy, but in how and when he uses it. The question no longer appears to be, "How good could Rondo be if he could shoot?"
It's, "How good could Rondo be if he believed he could shoot?"
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats