NCAA underachiever, NBA success story is The Dagger's countdown of players who didn't live up to expectations in college yet are currently flourishing in the NBA. For an explanation of the criteria used in compiling this list, check out our introductory entry. Our choice for No. 1: Kentucky's Rajon Rondo.
If watching Boston's Rajon Rondo emerge as one of the NBA's best young point guards has been a tad bittersweet for Kentucky fans, it's probably because they can't help but wonder why he couldn't have found that spark a few years sooner.
They remember him arriving as one of the cornerstones of the nation's top-ranked recruiting class in 2004. They remember him pouting when his desire to freelance in the open floor did not mesh with coach Tubby Smith's choreographed, half-court system. And they remember him being benched in favor of seldom-used Brandon Stockton for six games late in his second and final collegiate season.
Rondo's quickness, athleticism and defensive prowess were always obvious even during the worst of times at Kentucky, but Smith's deliberate inside-out attack handcuffed some of his point guard's greatest improvisational skills. Even when Rondo averaged a solid 11.2 points and 4.9 assists as a sophomore, there was always a nagging sense that he could be producing so much more.
With the Wildcats in the midst of a three-game losing streak in February 2006 and in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament, Smith benched Rondo, Randolph Morris and Joe Crawford in favor of three reserves he hoped would play harder. The backups helped rally Kentucky for an NCAA tournament berth, but a disappointing 22-13 sophomore season hardly portended future NBA success for Rondo.
"I think coach Smith is a hell of a coach," Doug Bibby, Rondo's coach at Louisville Eastern High School, told ESPN.com last month. "Coach Smith and Rajon have a great relationship. They still talk. But coach Smith had his style of play. It's a great style of play, but it just wasn't the best style for Rajon."
There were too many unanswered questions about Rondo for anyone to take him early in the draft, but Boston liked him enough to trade for his rights in a pre-arranged deal after Phoenix selected him with the 21st pick. General manager Danny Ainge liked Rondo's skill set, yet the ex-Kentucky guard wasn't exactly the point guard of the future in Boston, considering the Celtics had just traded the No. 7 pick to acquire second-year pro Sebastian Telfair.
Although Rondo's headstrong nature made him difficult to coach and his complete lack of a jump shot hindered his progress, he nonetheless seized the Celtics' starting point guard job by the end of his rookie season.
By his second season, he was the starter on a championship team. By his third season he was showing signs of becoming a future all-star. Now, after averaging 13.7 points, 9.8 assists and 2.7 steals per game and leading Boston to its second NBA Finals appearance in three years, Rondo has positioned himself just behind the likes of Chris Paul and Deron Williams among the best point guards in the NBA.
"I'll tell you, man, he's growing up in front of us," Kevin Garnett told ESPN.com last month. "It's great to watch. I used to see him quiet, hiding in the corner; he didn't say two words. Sometimes I sorta miss that. But it's a good thing. I'm happy for him."
NCAA underachiever, NBA success story countdown:
No. 10: Jrue Holiday
No. 9: DeAndre Jordan
No. 8: Andre Iguodala
No. 7: John Salmons
No. 6: Trevor Ariza
No. 5: Ben Wallace
No. 4: Gerald Wallace
No. 3: Zach Randolph
No. 2: Corey Maggette
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