New Dallas Mavericks point guard Rajon Rondo has always adjusted quickly to complex tasks.
He learned how to ride a bike at four.
Algebraic equations became easy in elementary school.
"He was like a Rubik's Cube, always asking why," said Will, his older brother of five years. "He can mimic things well."
Playing in the Louisville Invitational Tournament as a sophomore at Eastern High School, Rondo played all five positions in one game, replacing teammates who got into foul trouble—and he went on to lead his team to the championship.
"He knew how to play every position at that age," Will said.
Though 6'1", Rondo has a 6'9" wingspan and 9.5-inch-long hands, freakish assets that contribute to his near-triple-double stat line (entering Friday) of 8.6 points, a league-leading 10.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds—two more than his career average. And though he's shot 40 percent so far this season, some observers feel that doesn't represent his true offensive potential.
"It's just his mentality, as he's usually gripping the ball while dribbling in a way to make a quick pass," said NBA trainer and analytics guru Justin Zormelo, who worked with Rondo this past summer. "He also plays with his body mostly straight up to enhance his passing and reading over the defense."
Bleacher Report spent time recently with Rondo at the Boston Celtics' practice center, before his trade to Dallas last Thursday, to uncover the various strands of his unique hoops DNA. In addition to breaking down his top five most memorable passes, Rondo discussed his perspective on how he sees the game, presented here in his own words and edited for clarity and length.
A lot of times, I'm reacting off the personnel, knowing guys' tendencies and knowing what bigs show on pick-and-rolls. I don't practice or predetermine a lot of my passes. It's all off having a vision and reaction. Sometimes that's a gift and a curse, because if I see one of my teammates running the court and I make the pass in transition, it could be a turnover. But for the most part, you get chemistry, rhythm and try to limit your turnovers in practice.
I am a risk-taker. I average more than three turnovers, but you can't play the game in fear. I try to make my teammates feel comfortable out there playing with me. They know they're going to get the ball if they run the floor.
After a rebound, I'm yelling to my teammate for the ball, "Yo, hey!"—whatever comes to mind. I'm trying to get their attention as quick as possible. And I tell them to take off and run. It's a race. Whoever is the first guy down the floor, if they're open, I'm going to hit them. Many times it's the guards.
I'm watching the matchups in transition. If you have a big that can run the floor and can get the defense to suck in, it allows your shooters to open up on the wings. I always try to get to the middle of the floor, so I can make plays into certain angles and get guys in the best spots to make plays. The decision has to be made within a matter of seconds. If the play doesn't develop and he doesn't get the layup, I have to slow it down and it becomes a secondary break.
There are definitely angles on the court, putting pieces in the right place to guys' strengths. This comes with chemistry, this comes with spacing, the coach organizing where we need to be on the floor. When a guy drives, there needs to be a guy in the corner for an outlet and a guy at the top for an outlet. That's just how we're taught.
I'm a sore loser. Whatever I did, whether it was roller skating, cards, basketball, tennis, Connect Four—whatever it was—I always wanted to be the best at it. And if I lost, I would go back and get the work in, and try to find a way to win.
I beat myself up a lot. I'm my hardest critic. But I'm a great student of the game and I understand it. And I'm honest with myself. When I play bad, I know I played bad. When I played great, I'm still trying to find ways to play better. And that's just part of the game.
Still, I'm not defined by basketball because life is too short. It's just what I love to do and it's a blessing to play the game for a living and get paid for it. In this type of life, you play basketball for an average of 4.5 years, so hopefully I can play another five, six, seven more years. But after that, I have so much more of my life to live. I want to be great at what I do now, but it's just a game.
Sometimes after I make a pass to my teammate, I look to shield off his defender to give him extra space to shoot. I want to make my guys' shots as easy as possible, as if they're just like practice shots, where they don't have a defender contesting their shots. Two inches of space is good for a shooter. He wants rhythm, he wants space. So I try to get those guys as much distance from their defender as possible, and I give them the ball in the right spot at the right time.
It's all just instincts. The ball fake behind my back is a natural. One, I can palm the ball and two, the defense is always playing me to pass. Sometimes I'll pass fake and lay the ball up. Or when the opposing big man ices you or forces you to the baseline, instead of turning around and making a bounce pass or an overhead pass, I make a behind-the-back pass. It's harder for the bigs to recover back. I can also make reach-around-screen passes because of my length.
As for the long-range, one-arm bounce passes I make in transition, that is something you can't practice; they aren't plays I was making in high school and college.
The NBA is just different. I finish at the rim differently now because of the athletic ability you develop at this level. Now I shoot more floaters and layups from different angles, so you've got to make adjustments throughout your career.
I don't really model my game after anyone, but if I had to name anybody I would say Allen Iverson, really because he was so exciting. But in general, I try to come from my own mold. Even if I'm just watching a game on TV, I always try to see what play I would've made versus other point guards.
I learn about my teammates' tendencies through camaraderie, maybe going to dinner and talking a little bit about basketball, maybe after practice—locker-room talk. I find out where they like to catch it, like right foot, then left foot entering a shot or left, right. If a teammate is struggling in a game, I look to get him a fast-break point, two easy layups or to the free throw line. Now he's seeing the ball go in the rim, and the shots start to fall.
When you get that type of chemistry, things become second nature. I used to throw passes to Ray Allen in the corner and sometimes I wouldn't even be looking. It's just knowing guys will be in certain spots, even if it's a crazy pass.
There are three things you can't take for granted—timing, chemistry and years played together. Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and I played together for four, five years, and the mistakes you make in the first two years allow three and four to run like clockwork.
I've always had a knack for rebounding the ball—even in college. I have a great knack for reading the ball, how it spins, how it's being shot, where it's being shot from, the trajectory of how it comes off the rim. If you shoot from one wing, it will probably bounce on the opposite wing. Three-point shots usually miss to the perimeter, and I can chase down those rebounds.
I can get to those spots quickly or I jump at the right time when the ball is coming down. A lot of times, bigs jump when the ball is in the air, still going up. So when it's coming down, I try to get at the highest point possible and jump over the bigs and it kind of works for me. The bigs in Boston boxed out well, which helped me get more rebounds this season. I'm also wiry strong. But it's all in the mind. It's who wants it more.
My mindset with rebounding is to facilitate a fast break. It's quicker for me to get the rebound versus one of our bigs to get it. A lot of teams jam the outlet, so the outlet pass might not come out as quick as I would like it to, as if I had the ball myself. So I try to make it an emphasis to help our bigs crash the glass. Sometimes the bigs have to face box-out because their opponents are so big and strong. So I take care of the glass and don't give up offensive rebounds, because that can definitely hurt your team.
Sometimes, I get confused between shooting and passing. It's a mentality thing for me because I'm a pass-first point guard. I can get tied up in the moment; I can get caught up in the air and I may make the wrong decision. A lot of times, people talk about my shooting percentage, but I do what the team needs.
If I need to score, I can. I have a full routine I go through every day as far as shooting drills—even the night before a game at the team's practice center. It's about a two-hour workout, with help from Will, which we started together my rookie year. I want to be a stronger offensive player, but that doesn't mean I don't improve upon my defense and in other areas. My vision is getting better, being able to adapt to different personnel. Every day I work to improve my game in general.