Rajon Rondo’s game is supported by blazing speed, uncanny vision and ingenious decisions made in the blink of an eye. Through the first 16 games of his eighth NBA season, he’s already exhibiting these traits on a nightly basis.
Aside from being in peak physical condition, as an All-Star caliber game-changer, he’s nearly back. And in a way, Rondo’s showing his best days may be ahead; that tearing his ACL was nothing more than a mid-career hiccup.
Statistics can help paint a picture, and positive ones will be used here to prove a point, but it should be noted that Rondo's sample size is not only small, it’s diluted.
He’s only played 16 games this season (nearly half of them on a strict minute restriction) and didn’t have a training camp or preseason to let his mind and body adjust to new teammates and the rigors of NBA basketball—a speed and intensity that can’t be simulated.
Rondo’s PER and true shooting percentage are both career lows right now. He’s shooting 40.3 percent on 183 total field-goal attempts, and Boston’s offense is virtually unchanged on a points per possession basis with him on the court, according to NBA.com/Stats (subscription required). These tidbits obviously aren’t great, but dig deeper and you’ll see there’s no reason anyone should hit the panic button.
Rondo’s first six contests came in January. He shot 27.9 percent from the floor and averaged 6.7 points per game. There were unsure jumpers, aimless drives to the basket and a steady feeling that his sole purpose was to build strength in his legs.
Things were rough.
A brand new weapon
The eight games he played in February were a completely different story. In nine more minutes per game, Rondo averaged 15.3 points, 9.9 assists and 5.1 rebounds, shooting 48.5 percent from the floor and 40 percent on 3.1 three-point attempts per game.
No, you did not hallucinate that last part. Rondo may in fact be turning into a legitimate threat from behind the arc. He’s stepping into shots with so much more confidence than ever before, launching balls off the catch, midway through the shot clock and daring opponents to step out and contest.
According to Basketball-Reference, 26.3 percent of Rondo’s field-goal attempts have been three-pointers this season. His career average? That’d be 7.6 percent. Last season it was 10.8 percent. His three-point rate is exploding
Not only has there been a three-point revelation, but Rondo’s continuing to make opponents pay in the mid-range, too. Just look at his shot chart.
Over one out of every five of Rondo’s field-goal attempts have been mid-range jumpers, and he’s bludgeoning that area to death. The sample size isn’t huge, but these numbers are further evidence that the past couple seasons weren’t a fluke; the “Rondo can’t shoot!” narrative can finally be taken off life support.
In this fantastic piece by the Boston Globe’s Baxter Holmes, Jared Sullinger, Brad Stevens and Celtics assistant coach Ron Adams talk about the improvement Rondo’s made in his jump shot, and how it’s positively affecting the team:
Celtics forward Jared Sullinger noted that on pick-and-rolls, opposing defenders used to go under the screen, allowing Rondo room to shoot.
“I see a lot of teams fighting over the top now because he will stop behind the 3-point line and shoot it,” Sullinger said. “He’s been hitting it this year and now teams are kind of worried.”
Coach Brad Stevens agreed and said he’s noticed that, in general, teams are defending Boston differently than they were at the beginning of the season.
Stevens also said it’s not a coincidence that their offense is better than it was two months ago “just because [Rondo is] getting more comfortable and he makes everybody else around him better.”
Finally in a groove, Rondo has logged at least 35 minutes in three straight games, including a 12-point, 11-assist, seven-rebound performance in 38 minutes against the Indiana Pacers last Saturday night.
He's already third in assist opportunities per game, behind only Ty Lawson and Chris Paul (two players who average nearly half a quarter more playing time than Rondo). To nobody's surprise, his passing ability hasn't gone anywhere.
Somewhat surprising: He's also been hellacious on the defensive end. Despite being named to the NBA’s All-Defensive team four times in his career, Rondo’s reputation as a gambler outweighs any notion that he can shut down opposing point guards.
So far he’s done just that.
(On the very first play after Rondo checked out, Curry curled off a pin-down screen and nailed a jumper, his first of the game. That play wasn’t even attempted with Rondo out there.)
When he had to switch onto David Lee, Rondo mutated into a bulldog/hummingbird monster. He either swiped the ball away or drew an offensive foul every time. His hands were lightning.
Aggressiveness at the rim
The most interesting part of Rondo’s game has always been his willingness to attack the rim. His floater can be softer than a roll of toilet paper, but due to weariness at the free-throw line, Rondo goes out of his way to avoid contact and make shots around the basket harder than they need to be.
Sometimes this doesn’t matter, and the ball gently rolls through the hoop anyway. But for the sake of consistency, having a point guard who isn’t afraid of mixing it up down low (and forcing the defense to collapse) is a very good thing.
As perhaps the best player in the league at finding angles to make the ball pirouette off the backboard, Rondo will spend some games knifing through the defense and owning the paint (against the Atlanta Hawks, for example).
But in others (against the Los Angeles Lakers), he’s content taking what the defense offers, passing up open looks and having Boston’s possessions end with a mid-range jumper by Kris Humphries or Brandon Bass.
Rondo isn't quite where he needs to be, but given a few turbulent circumstances (he's playing beside unfamiliar faces, under just his second NBA coach, with a huge brace on his knee) the overall product is more encouraging than any optimistic could've predicted, so far.
The three-point shot could betray him, but that isn't likely. Instead of looking at it with suspicion, Rondo now treats the shot like a long-lost friend.
He's already playing heavy minutes against elite teams, making passes nobody on the planet can pull off in their dreams and operating as the assumed leader of a team that sorely needs one.
The 28-year-old four-time All-Star is ready to win now. He just needs some help.