Rajon Rondo(notes) knew his jump shot needed a lot of work last summer. But his maturity? His leadership? Yes, Rondo needed to grow in those areas, too, Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge publicly declared.
So Rondo wondered about his future with the Celtics during the offseason. Would he be traded? Would the Celtics not extend his contract?
He also took Ainge’s words to heart, and some six months later the answers are in. The Celtics gave Rondo a new deal and don’t appear to have any interest in trading him. Not only is Rondo playing like an All-Star this season, the 23-year-old point guard also just might be the Celtics’ most valuable player.
“He’s been dominant, he’s been amazing,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s had an unbelievable year so far. He’s been a leader. He’s been the best defender at times. He’s done everything for us.
“He does so many things that I don’t know how you can lose what he does with our team. He sets the table every night. He’s been absolutely perfect.”
The Celtics weren’t singing such praise about Rondo during the summer. Though Rondo had a breakout performance in Boston’s first-round victory over the Chicago Bulls, he struggled with his jump shot against the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals. In a radio interview, Ainge questioned Rondo’s attitude and disclosed the Celtics’ point guard had a tardiness issue during the playoffs. He also said Rondo wasn’t deserving of a maximum contract.
“I don’t think there is a doubt that we loved him and wanted him,” Ainge said. “But just like every young player, there is a growth process. Sometimes when you make a true statement about a weakness that they’ve had, it’s considered a criticism. … Every player has weaknesses. They have to work hard to maximize their potential.”
Still, that did little to quell speculation the Celtics would trade Rondo if the right offer came along. There was also a report that Rondo did not see eye-to-eye with coach Doc Rivers and was difficult to coach.
Rondo heard and read everything. Frustrated and confused, he sat down with Ainge at the Celtics’ practice facility to clear the air.
“I didn’t know what to believe,” Rondo said. “I guess it’s part of the business. I didn’t get too emotionally attached.
“I go out there every day and play as hard as I can. That’s all I can do. I’m not coachable? I’m not a team player? Whatever they might say, I feel like I’m going to have a job in this league for a long time.”
From Rondo’s arrival at training camp, the Celtics spoke positively about how well he was playing and how his maturity had improved. They then showed their support by giving him a five-year, $55 million extension the day before the deadline. The security relaxed Rondo and kept him from fretting about his future during the season.
“I’m definitely glad it’s over now,” Rondo said. “I’m getting sleep. You don’t have to play with [the stress]. If I play bad, I get a bad contract? If I play good, I get a good contract? There are so many ups and downs and you can think about the contract throughout the season. Now, I can just play.”
Said Ainge: “It also shows that there is no question that we love him and he’s a vital part of our team and our future. Whatever the reason may be, his consistency has been off the charts.”
Rondo showed that on Sunday when he had his first triple-double of the season, totaling 22 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds. He is averaging 9.7 assists, tops in the Eastern Conference, and an NBA-best 2.6 steals. He also has shown the ability to score when needed, evidenced by his 30-point, 15-assist performance against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 28 when Paul Pierce(notes) was sidelined.
“I’ve yet to see anyone like him,” Kevin Garnett(notes) said. “I’m a huge Rondo fan and I stay on his ass and I tell him real stuff and things that most people push and probably shy away from. But that’s the trust he has in me and me being a vet.
“It’s good to watch his growth and see how he’s influenced not only his peers and some of the guys he played, but even the younger guys. He’s definitely gained our respect and I tell him he has to be in love with the game better. He’s embraced that. It’s good to see.”
About the only major knock on Rondo right now is his 60 percent free-throw shooting, and even that has shown some recent improvement. After missing a pair of crucial free throws in the closing moments of a Dec. 27 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, he has made 21 of 26 attempts in the six games since.
Whatever is working for Rondo, he’ll likely try to stick with it. He comes from a superstitious family: His mother, Amber, text messages him with either a Bible scripture or other words of wisdom before every game; and his brother, William, does not wear Rondo’s No. 9 Celtics jersey on game days – or any kind of green – because he says it brings bad luck. Rondo has his own routine: He must take the exact same route down one of Boston’s less-popular freeways to the arena and he listens to the same R&B music before each game.
The Rondos’ superstitions also carry over to his All-Star candidacy.
"We don't talk about it,” William Rondo said. “It's the elephant in the room. We could jinx him. If you talk about it and it doesn't happen, you will be let down. But if you don't talk about it and it happens, it's meant to be.”
If Rondo continues to play the way he has, he’ll likely be in Dallas for his first All-Star Game. Dwyane Wade(notes) and Allen Iverson(notes) lead the voting among East guards, but Iverson said he might not play if he’s selected. And Rondo certainly ranks among the top candidates at the position when the East coaches vote for the reserves.
“Do I feel I’m deserving? Yeah,” Rondo said. “I don’t really compare myself to guys around the league. I think we can be the best team in the East. I feel like I’m the best player. That’s how I play. I try to play like that every night.”
Rondo’s confidence only continues to grow. He’s hit his midrange shot more consistently. His leadership and maturity have improved. Few guards are better, defensively.
Ainge, however, wants more.
“He’s playing well, but he still has a lot of growth,” Ainge said. “He still can be a lot better.”
So far, Rondo has shown he’s up for the challenge.