Chapter 4: Eye of the beholder
Coming out of college, Rondo was getting mixed reviews as an NBA prospect
It was May 27, 2006, just days after the draft lottery. Rajon Rondo was in Chicago, working out at the Attack Athletics gym with Tim Grover, the renowned trainer of Michael Jordan and other elite players. And Rondo had something to prove.
Rondo was a superior talent -- I knew that much. After a strong high school career, he had shown his pro potential by starring in the summer of 2005 for Team USA's under-21 squad.
When I put him in the top five overall on my draft board, and No. 1 among point guards, I thought I was on solid ground because Rondo had made a strong impression on NBA talent evaluators I trust. Still, eyebrows were raised, for at least three reasons: His performance at the University of Kentucky had been mixed, he hadn't developed a reliable jumper and there were doubts about how coachable he was.
Along with the other issues, no one was quite sure if he was a true NBA point guard. His up-and-down Kentucky career under coach Tubby Smith had left a lot of questions about Rondo's personality and ability to run a team. While Smith preferred a methodical half-court game, Rondo was a prototypical speedster who thrived in the open court. The poor fit for Rondo meant that his leadership skills were in question.
TABLE OF CONTENTS: LEGEND OF RONDO
• Chapter 1: Diamond in the rough
• Chapter 2: Not in the Cards
• Chapter 3: Like roller coasters?
• Chapter 4: Eye of the beholder
• Chapter 5: The Green beginning
• Chapter 6: Rookie's rude awakening
• Chapter 7: The untouchable
• Chapter 8: The Rondo trade rumors
• Chapter 9: Rondo runs it
• Bonus Chapter: Cousy to Rondo
But Rondo was ready to show his stuff. To demonstrate Rondo's floor game, Grover and Rondo's agent, Kevin Bradbury, arranged a 5-on-5 game that included draft prospects Mustafa Shakur, Denham Brown and Brad Newley for a small audience.
And after a season in which he had been kept under wraps, Rondo blossomed before our eyes. He flew around the court, pushing the ball and dropping pinpoint dimes. He was the quickest player on the floor, changing directions at will and picking off passes for fast-break buckets. His defense, athleticism and command of the game made it clear, right then and there in Chicago, that he was an NBA point guard.
And he showed off something that's now familiar to NBA fans: his freakish hand size and ballhandling ability. The guys in the gym jokingly called him "E.T." because of his long fingers. At just 6-foot-2 (in shoes), Rondo demonstrated he could palm a basketball off the dribble, which is almost unheard of.
But even if he could prove his point guard prowess and get past concerns about his personality, another problem hung over Rondo and seriously marred his draft stock: He couldn't shoot. In the game I watched, he didn't take a single jump shot. In shooting drills, while he made more 3-pointers than he missed, it was clear that he didn't have a dependable stroke. What's worse, he struggled even more at the free throw line than he did on his jumper -- clearly this would be a problem for a penetrating point guard.
That weekend I wrote, "Rondo's a conundrum for NBA talent evaluators. Some NBA guys love him. Some hate him. ... Based on what I saw on Saturday, I think he's the best point guard prospect in the draft. ... Put him on the right team and let him run and he's going to be a great point guard in the pros."
When I sat down with Rondo after the workout, he said the decision to go pro was easy, in part because of his struggles at Kentucky.
"Coach [Smith] agreed that the style we were playing probably wasn't the best fit for me," Rondo said. "I knew after this summer that I could play with everyone, but I'd do best in a Phoenix Suns style where the point guard is really allowed to push the ball and create."
Despite the glimmer of greatness he showed that day and in other workouts around the NBA, Rondo remained an acquired taste in the final month before the draft. While some saw his potential, most teams pegged him as a late first-round pick. There were just too many unanswered questions.
But where most teams saw risk, one team in particular saw opportunity. And the team that had an eye on Rondo and a scout in the gym that day? The Boston Celtics.
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Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN.com.