In the first 10 games since returning from a catastrophic knee injury, Rajon Rondo has looked more and more like his all-world self for the Boston Celtics. He’s averaging 9.8 points, 7.1 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game, numbers that don’t look all that impressive, but are still unique—he's the only player in the league hitting all those marks.
Rondo's first six games were mostly dreadful. He didn't shoot above 50 percent from the floor in any game, and (understandably) failed to find any sort of rhythm on the offensive end, especially in the half court. He was up against minute restrictions while adjusting to the night and day difference between a monitored scrimmage and live NBA competition.
But Rondo's been phenomenal in his last four games, shooting an unconscious 65.8 percent from the floor and 50 percent on a respectable four attempts per game from behind the three-point line.
His 14.5 points, 9.3 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game over that span resemble more of the All-Star player Boston's familiar with. Even though a 10-game sample size is tiny (believe it or not, four games is even smaller!), there are still several hints in Rondo's game, bad and good, that can clue us in on how he'll do the for rest of the year.
Under Brad Stevens, only the second head coach Rondo's played for in the past decade, some of the things he's doing now were rarely seen during the first seven years of his career. The way defenses have guarded Rondo in the past was borderline demoralizing. Once he passed half court his defender would sag far off him, daring an open jumper by muddling up Boston’s spacing. Rondo's mid-range gradually improved over the past few seasons, but the general opposition still doesn’t feel the need to contest every shot he takes.
Since the point guard's return, Stevens has used Rondo in a more interesting and effective way, treating him as a weapon off the ball more than usual. Here are a few examples where Rondo begins off the ball, takes a handoff around the elbow and is immediately in position to attack.
What makes Rondo so special is his ability to slice through a defense in ways that go against what they're forcing him to do. Giving Rondo breathing room on the perimeter is meant to invite a jumper, but often he takes something else. Here he shows what can happen when granted a few feet of space.
Where Does Rondo Still Struggle?
Nearly a third of Rondo's shot attempts have come in the restricted area, but he's much more aggressive with jumpers on the perimeter. He's gone out of his way to make shots in the paint harder than they need to be, avoiding contact and doing the defense a favor. Six of his 36 shots at the rim have been blocked.
He’s averaging less than one free-throw attempt per 36 minutes, low even for his standards. It’s tough to be too hard on a player who didn’t have training camp or a preseason to slowly prepare himself for the NBA's lightning-fast game speed. But these are issues that have plagued Rondo since he ascended to the top of the league.
That specific shortcoming will probably last throughout his career, and that’s fine. Those criticisms will have to wait for another day; he’s showing improvement in other spots that are just as vital for him to become a more well-rounded threat, if not more so.
A Shocking Development
In Boston’s last game before the All-Star break, against the San Antonio Spurs, Rondo made four three-pointers, two more than he's ever made in one regular-season game in his entire career. He's never looked more confident getting the shots up and taking advantage of all the space San Antonio gave him, so much so that after he hit his first two, Gregg Popovich instructed his guards to go above the screen instead of below it (pretty much unheard of against Rondo) in pick-and-roll situations.
Here are the before and after screen shots.
Rondo’s PER is at 16.7 and climbing. What we've seen from him so far is some expected struggling, standard brilliance as a passer and eye-opening aggressiveness with his jump shot. If this keeps up, the next few years of Rondo's career could wind up being even better than the remarkable three in which he led the league in assists, was named to four straight All-Star games and quarterbacked one of basketball's most formidable kinships.
With only one year left on his contract, does the possibility of a new and improved Rondo have any bearing on his future with the Celtics? As Boston.com's Gary Dzen recently wrote, Boston should be excited to have Rondo, both now and in the future.
Rondo isn't perfect (see: outside shooting), but the extent to which he is polarizing has always flummoxed me. At his best Rondo is the best passer in the league, capable of putting 44 points on Miami in a playoff game, At his worst, he's a walking double-double who can run a team. And yet in a recent Boston.com poll of more than 3,700 readers, 69 percent wanted the Celtics to keep Rondo. Here's a question for the 31 percent of you who would have him go: Why are you so eager to see him leave?
Based on what we've seen so far, it's not hard to see why the Celtics should hold onto Rondo as long as they can. He's played like a complete force of nature since his minute restrictions were lifted, affecting various areas of the game and bringing some new skills to the table that make it even harder for defenses to throw a blanket on him.
He's doing it all with little help around, too. Despite playing only 27.5 minutes per game, Rondo's averaging 14.5 assist opportunities a night, per NBA.com, a remarkable number. (For reference, John Wall's 17.5 assist opportunities per game are third-highest in the league, and he's at 37.2 minutes a night.)
Rondo will be even more dangerous once the Celtics acquire some more talent—which, either through the draft, a trade or free agency—they're sure to do sooner or later.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.