Before the season, the Celtics presented Rajon Rondo with 55 million reasons why they need him. Four years into an impressive NBA career, Rondo's haters are but a memory as he is locked in to be the Celtics' floor general through 2015.
From an age standpoint, Rondo is a kid among veterans on the Celtics, but this kid has grown up quickly.
Rondo has listened to the doubters ever since he was selected 21st overall in 2006. At the time, that was too high for the point guard.
The doubters followed him after he was drafted:
- "You can't shoot."
- "You're immature."
- "Your attitude problem will prevent you from becoming a leader."
The skeptics surrounded Rondo even on his own team. As recently as last offseason, Doc Rivers called Rondo "stubborn" and "impossible to coach," according to ESPN's Chad Ford.
Celtics GM Danny Ainge spent the early portion of last offseason trying not to disclose information of the possibility of trading Rondo.
Rondo was left wondering what more he had to prove.
Was finishing on the second All-Defensive team, improving his game to close to an all-star level in his third season, and averaging 16.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game in the playoffs not good enough?
But through it all, Rondo has exhibited only maturity in front of the media, showing nothing but a will to win. "Playing with such a veteran team, I'm just trying to keep maturing and growing as a man and seeing how it is supposed to be done."
The doubters should have been put to bed after last year's playoffs.
Following the announcement that Kevin Garnett would miss the rest of the season, somebody needed to step up. Rondo not only stepped up, but he helped his teammates do the same.
What Garnett provided was excellent team defense and rebounding. Without him, Kendrick Perkins was alienated in the post.
Luckily, Rondo went above and beyond, averaging nearly ten rebounds per game in the playoffs as a point guard. Rondo did that. Not Paul Pierce. Not Ray Allen. Not Glen Davis. The point guard.
Rondo also stepped up as the Celtics' best defender. Garnett was Defensive Player of the Year that previous season, but Rondo commendably filled his shoes.
Even this season, Rondo might be the best defensive player on the Celtics. When he is out of the game, the Celtics' defensive rating goes up five points. That's a 3.9 point improvement over last year's DPOY, Dwight Howard.
All year, Rondo has held the league's elite point guards below their usual standards. Tony Parker had a PER of -9, Deron Williams (with a PER of -21) held to 13 points and four assists, Chris Paul held to a negative PER.
Not even the Celtics expected that. The first time they expected anything from him was his second year, when he was made the starting point guard of a team with three superstars.
Even then, he was doubted. A backup point guard became a necessity for the Celtics, even before Rondo did anything wrong.
Sam Cassell was brought in midseason, which only made things worse. Cassell could never get into the rhythm of the Celtics' offense. He slowed it down. He looked for his own shot before looking for his teammates'.
Even last season, Stephon Marbury was brought in to be the "veteran point guard" for Rondo, who had already won a championship, something Marbury never did.
Rondo never said a thing. He simply outperformed Cassell and Marbury to the point where they were both obsolete and lost their playing time to him. Despite not one but two slaps in the face, Rondo kept fighting.
Distrust in the Celtics' young star has become routine, but Rondo remains humble. "I feel like I can be a lot better in every dimension of my game," he told Sporting News last week.
The article in which he is quoted is Sporting News' rankings of "The NBA's 50 Best Players." Rondo comes in 38th, but says he'll be ranked higher next year.
Only now is Rondo gaining the respect he deserves. Only now do his teammates trust him. Only now are his doubters silenced.
Allen and Rondo have sometimes had their differences when sharing a backcourt, Allen being the established potential hall of famer and Rondo being the 23 year old now in control.
But now even Allen is respecting Rondo's game. In that same article, Allen said, "His talent is untouched. He's still young and still figuring out what he can do and be." That's a pretty good improvement over the Celtics trying to ship them both to Detroit this past summer to get rid of the headache they created together.
Perhaps the problem was jealousy from the superstars who have spent over a decade establishing themselves as the league's elite, only to have a kid running the show.
But this year, the bats are out of Rondo's closet, and the future couldn't be brighter.
"I feel like I'm a leader now, but one day I will be a veteran leader," he said.
Rondo's $55 million extension alleviates the tensions that ended only this past offseason. Going forward, the immature point guard who was drafted too high at the 21st pick is leaving his doubters in the dust.
Soon enough, Allen, Garnett, and Pierce will be gone, but Rondo will still be there. With him he will bring the heart of a champion who has escaped the obstacles that held him back.
He's athletic but consistent. He creates the tempo and slows it down. He'll run past your star point guards and prevent them from running past him. He'll lead his team to victory and make your point guard look silly.
Boston Celtics, meet your new leader.