Thursday, August 02, 2007

A Rondo Believer

I've become borderline obsessed with the Celtics ever since I first heard they were pulling the trigger on the KG deal. Maybe it is because I want to believe the NBA still matters after the big referee scandal or perhaps I just have some excess energy after finishing the old licensing exam. Whatever the reason, I'm determined to figure out whether this whole circus is actually going to turn Boston into a good team. I'm already on record that the C's are botching their post-KG opportunity to round out the roster and I believe they are priming themselves for a potential disaster. That said, I'm not ruling out a Finals run for this team as it is currently constructed.

Part of the reason I'm still bullish is because I seem to hold out more hope than most that Rajon Rondo can make a big leap forward and become a legit playoff point guard.

My instinct is that Rondo can do it. His athleticism is insane and he really impressed me last year with his defensive intensity and ball handling. Rondo's shot clearly sucks and his decision-making as a rookie was obviously questionable at best, but what rookie doesn't make questionable decisions with the ball? Particularly rookies given part-time roles in the offense.

The big question is whether such a rookie can turn the corner by his second year. Deron Williams accomplished the feat last year with ease and went from a shaky rookie PG to a damn near dominant lead guard in the postseason. I'm not suggesting that Rondo is going to make that kind of jump, but I couldn't help but wonder if the transition from backup rookie to full time starter is a natural one to make in a player's second year.

With that in mind, I decided to scour through every relevant point guard in the NBA in search of guys that got spotty minutes as a rookie, only to become "the guy" in their second year. The list of such players really isn't that long. I had to rule out all of the guys that got big minutes as starting point guards their rookie years (Mike Bibby, Tony Parker, Stephon Marbury, T.J. Ford, Jamaal Tinsley, Chauncey Billups, Kirk Hinrich, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Jason Williams, Raymond Felton, and Chris Paul) as well as all the guys who failed to get big minutes as a starter their second season (Steve Nash, Leandro Barbosa, Steve Blake, Shaun Livingston, Sam Cassell, Rafer Alston, Mo Williams, Jamal Crawford, Antonio Daniels, Earl Watson, Eric Snow, Smush Parker, Derek Fisher, Jose Calderon, and Jameer Nelson). And obviously, I can't research any other 06-07 rookies.

The Test Group

That left a list of eight guys that went from reserves/part time starters (with less than 30 mpg) as rookies to starters (50+ starts, 30+ mpg) in their second year. That list includes Deron Williams, Monta Ellis (if he counts as a PG), Jarrett Jack, Baron Davis, Andre Miller, Jason Terry, Gilbert Arenas, and Luke Ridnour. As Tony Kornheiser would say, "That's it, that's the list!"

The problem with such a small test group is that it doesn't really account for the myriad ways a rookie point guard can come to take over a team in year two. Rondo's situation is that he's a talented player who is in a "last man standing" scenario following a massive trade. Is there a situation like that represented by this group of players? I'm not sure there is. That said, this group of players came to starting roles in a variety of ways that range from overwhelming talent demanding playing time to "someone has to play" situations. I don't want to read too much into the uniqueness of the circumstances, but it also can't be ignored. More on this later.

General Trend

The initial bit of good news for Celtics fans? Nearly every guy on this list made huge strides from Year One to Year Two. Almost across the board, these players made big jumps in key statistical areas. And it wasn't just the kind of statistical improvement that comes from extra playing time either, because I focused the analysis on "Per 40 Minute" stats. Even eliminating minutes as a changing variable, almost every guy got better in almost every area.

One thing that stood out to me is that every player on the list lowered his fouls per 40 minutes, which indicates a much better feel for the pace of the game and an awareness of Tim Donaghy's presence on the court. Okay, cheap joke, but I really do think it speaks volumes about the way these guards adjusted to the NBA game.

In addition, all but one player on the list saw his turnovers per 40 go up. While that might seem like a bad stat, I suggest the opposite. I've always thought people get too carried away with turnovers, because a high number can indicate aggressiveness and a willingness to push the envelope in addition to just sloppy play. Steve Nash and Jason Kidd often have unbelievable games filled with turnovers. Like many basketball stats, turnovers only mean something if accompanied by context.

All told, the "per 40" numbers of these eight players showed a trend to improve scoring, improve playmaking, and - perhaps even more importantly - improve feel for the game and aggressiveness.

This is all good news for Rondo, but I felt that the list was still too general, mainly because Rondo is 21 and will turn 22 in February of the 2007-08 season. That puts him on the younger side of the ledger, which I believe is relevant because the younger guys typically made bigger strides and in fact all of them "improved" by any definition of the word. The results of the "23 and over" crowd were a bit more mixed, which is in keeping with the philosophy held by many that NBA teams should draft younger guys if they want to see dramatic improvement. The older you are, the closer you probably are to your ceiling, or something like that. Anyway, here are the two groups (four players in each group):

23 and Over

For the point guards that turned 23 or older during their second year (when they become the clear starter), the results are mostly positive. However, it appears that for the older players, the progress was more subtle and more in line with the skill set that has been on display ever since. Plus, the only guy that came anywhere near regression (Ridnour) is on this list.

A quick look at teach player in the 23 and Over group:

Jarrett Jack, 23 - Jack went from 4 games started to 77 and saw his minutes increase 13 per game to 33.4 in his second year with the Blazers. He became a pretty competent point guard and saw slight increases in points and assists per 40 as well as a big bump in eFG%. His boards dropped, which is actually pretty common. Not sure why, although it could be that as point guards they learn how to get back on D and get in position for outlet passes to start the offense. Or maybe they get lazy. I don't really know. In addition to improving offensively, Jack really came along as a defensive player last season. I feel like Jack represents Rondo's floor next season, which isn't bad, considering the former Yellow Jacket was better than anyone running the point for Cleveland, Orlando, Miami (Wade doesn't count), Washington (without Arenas), Houston, or the Lakers in last year's postseason.

Andre Miller, 25 - To me, Miller really represents the difference between the older and younger guards. While he definitely improved from year one to year two, most of that was just the natural byproduct of more minutes (from 25.5 to 34.7). He had a slight bump in points and assists and - like pretty much all of these guys - committed fewer fouls, all based on per 40 minute numbers. However, Miller was pretty much Miller, even as a rookie getting spot minutes. But again, he was already 25 years old when he became a starting point guard in his second year. The important takeaway here is that Miller's per 40 numbers held up when he became a starter, which is important because - like Rondo - he can't hit the broadside of a barn with his jumper. I think a lot of people are worried that Rondo will struggle to remain effective as a full time player if he's more heavily scouted and can't keep defenses honest. Miller faced similar issues and wasn't effected in the least.

Jason Terry, 23 - Perhaps it was because he came off the bench for Arizona's national title team, but for some reason the Hawks coaching staff couldn't get used to the idea of Jason Terry starting as a rookie. He only logged 27 starts (very similar to Rondo's 25) as a rookie (even though his competition was Bimbo Coles) and then jumped up to 77 in his second year. Terry actually saw a drop in assists per 40, but only because he took a massive leap in scoring. He also enjoyed a big bump in eFG%. Like Miller, Terry's second year was less about improving (although he certainly did improve) and more about establishing what type of player he would be - namely, a scoring lead guard.

Luke Ridnour, 24 - Ridnour is the most suspect player on this list. You probably already could have guessed that, because he lost his job to Earl Watson last year. But know that the numbers tell the same story. Ridnour went from 6 starts to 82 and from 16.1 minutes to 31.4 in his second year, but saw only a bump in his assists per 40 minutes, with his eFG% staying the same and his points and boards dropping. Part of Ridnour's problem is that he was so horrific on defense that he played shorter rotations than any other guard on this list, which made it harder to find a groove on offense. That shouldn't be a problem for Rondo.

Under 23

This is the group that Rondo would belong to, which bodes very well for Boston. Each guy on this list made serious progress during his second year and three of the four went from bench players to legit studs (while the other, Ellis, was named the league's Most Improved Player. Two (Baron and Deron Williams) were drafted higher than Rondo and two (Arenas and Ellis) went in the second round. One (Williams) played better than Rondo in his rookie minutes, the other three were probably slightly outperformed by the Celtic point guard. So while it seems a little crazy and maybe even irresponsible to compare Rajon Rondo to guys like Baron Davis and Gilbert Arenas, there isn't a compelling statistical reason not to compare him to those players. Here are the "under 23" players, individually:

Deron Williams, 22 - The Kingpin of this whole list and the guy that every emerging second year point guard is going to want to be. He started 47 games at 28.8 mpg as a rookie and made the jump to 80 starts and 37 mpg in year two. With his new found responsibility and the maturation of his game, Williams made a nice jump in points per 40, a huge leap in assists (almost unfathomable, actually, from 6.2 to 10.1), and a slight bump in eFG% (effective field goal percentage, which takes into account threes). As mentioned above, like everyone on the list, his fouls went down and his turnovers went up, indicating a much better presence and feel on the court. Overall, a massive improvement.

Gilbert Arenas, 21 - Arenas made 30 starts and played 24.6 minutes per game as a rookie and impressed enough to warrant 82 starts and 35 minutes a night the next season. His eFG% dropped (and has been dropping ever since), but everything else went way up - points, boards, assists, you name it. Arenas showed flashes as a rookie, but nobody saw him stepping up like he did in his second season. They should have.

Monta Ellis, 21 - Deja vu, anyone? Like Arenas, Ellis turned 21 during his second season in Oakland, when he went from 3 starts to 53 and from 18.1 minutes per to 34.3 mpg. And of course his numbers went up - doubling someone's minutes tends to do that. More importantly, Ellis' points per 40 went way up, his eFG% went way up, and he saw a significant increase in his assists per 40. Only his boards dropped. The only bad news here for Rondo fans is that Ellis really regressed in the playoffs. However, even that can be explained. Because unlike every other guy on this list, Ellis was still not supposed to be the starting point guard of his team. He was inserted into the role when Baron got hurt, so he didn't prepare the previous summer to be the starting point guard, nor did he feel the same sense of ownership and responsibility once Baron and Richardson returned. Ellis' postseason slump is more about reverting back to his rookie mindset than his rookie game. Unless the C's plan on bringing in a stud veteran point guard to unseat Rondo just before the playoffs, this shouldn't be a big fear.

Baron Davis, 22 - Speaking of Baron, he didn't get a single start during his rookie year and logged just 18 minutes a night, but started every game at a whopping 39 minutes per during his second year. Like Jason Terry, Baron both improved and also settled into his game, as his assists per 40 actually dropped, but he grabbed more boards and scored far more often. The odd thing about Baron is that while his fouls went way down (as expected), he actually committed fewer turnovers per 40. This tells me that he was both plenty aggressive and plenty sloppy as a rookie.

What It All Means

My overwhelming gut reaction after looking over this list is to run out and purchase stock in Rajon Rondo. The eight point guards that shared nearly identical circumstances all saw their numbers translate as a starter - and that is a bare minimum standard that really only pertains to Luke Ridnour. The other seven guys all improved, almost across the board. They perfected skills (scorers or playmakers), became more aggressive, and got comfortable with the pace and physicality of NBA games. Not only that, but the younger the player, the more extreme the improvement. Since he turns just 22 this year, Rondo seems to be primed for a huge breakout season. All of which means that should be more than serviceable as the pilot of Boston's title quest.

However, all of that optimism has to be tempered just a bit given the unique aspects of Rondo's situation. For starters, I'm not sure there is a guy on this list, with the possible exception of Andre Miller, that has a jump shot as mangled as Rondo's. Additionally, half of these players took over the reigns for losing teams, where expectations were low - just as the Celtics youngster was set to do before all the trading. On the flip side, Rondo is probably a superior defensive player to every guard on this list, so that helps negate the shooting concerns. And its not as if none of the aforementioned second-year point guards played for playoff teams - Baron's Hornets won a playoff series, Monta Ellis and the Warriors upset the Mavs (although, as mentioned above, he didn't really do much to aid that result), Luke Ridnour and the Sonics won the Northwest division, and Deron Williams led the Jazz to the Western Conference Finals. So it can be done.

When you add it all up, it seems that Rondo's chances for stunning success greatly outweigh the odds of colossal failure. At the very least, based on his per 40 numbers from last year, he should show improved comfort with the speed of the game, limit his foul trouble, and provide solid stats along the lines of 12 points, 7 assists, and 5 boards a game. His shooting percentage should improve either slightly or greatly (even if his form doesn't) and he will likely continue to play terrific pressure defense on the ball and in passing lanes.

I have to say, I'm down with Rondo. The C's no doubt still need a capable backup, but they can cease their search for a starter. I'd argue they've already got the guy they need to win the whole thing.


King said...

Good stuff. I was high on Rondo already (he won my fantasy league for me last year with some monster steals games) and this only adds to my excitement. I know his huge hands have been over-reported, but have you seen those things? By the All-Star weekend, Rondo is going to be dominating the rookie-soph game just like D-Will and everyone is going to be saying "I knew it." But really they are doubters. Nice to see one true believer.

Anonymous said...

You aren't alone in liking Rondo. Dave Berri over at the Wages of Wins thinks he was the most productive rookie in the NBA last year overall, although he rates Balkman as being better than him on a per minute basis. Also, he had a recent post on the Celtics that might interest you.

~ nellenelle said...

Rondo, April 2007

Games - 10; 36.9 mpg; 13.0 ppg; 5.8 rpg; 5.5 apg; 2.5 spg.

Sullivan said...

and have you seen the size of his hands...

one of rondo's most peculiarly spectacular skills is his unbelievable nack for rebounding - he grabbed 14 against SA last year and had 19 in a college game. He also led Kentucky in rebounds as a sophomore. Yes, a 6'1" PG led one of the nation's most celebrated basketball programs in boards as a 19 year old.

the rondo love fest rages on!!!

Anonymous said...

J.Jack was in a last man standing role last year. The expectations weren't high but they did trade seabass and Blake. Rajon is a player though. He's got like the best name in the nba.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that Perk is a beast!!!