Rajon Rondo has always been a tough player to fully pin down, his value and ability hard to quantify through just the numbers you see on the stat sheet. Sure, he puts up some ridiculous lines (his 18-point, 17-rebound, 20-assist performance against the Knicks two postseasons ago comes immediately to mind), but there is so much more to Rondo’s game, and specifically his passing ability, than gaudy assist totals.
Since returning from injury on January 17, Rondo has been inconsistent, which was certainly to be expected. The Celtics are carefully managing his minutes, and it will take a little while before Rondo works his way (and knee) back into game shape.
In the six games that Rondo has played this season, the Celtics are actually performing better on offense without him on the court. Boston’s offensive rating spikes from 94.5 to 101.1 with their captain on the bench, and the team’s field goal percentage also improves.
But before you start rolling your eyes thinking this is one of those "the Celtics are better without Rondo" arguments, let me say this: Rondo remains the team’s most vital and important player. In fact, despite some initial bumps in the road, the 27-year-old’s passing ability is still among the NBA’s elite.
With Rondo on the court, Boston’s assist rate jumps nearly 12 percentage points, from 53.9% when he is on the bench to 65.7% when he plays. On a per-36 minute basis, Rondo is averaging 8.4 assists, best on the team.
Additionally, data from SportVu, NBA.com’s new player tracking system, shows that Rondo is clearly the best passer on the Celtics, even though he has played just six games this season. According to NBA.com/stats, Rondo already leads the team in passes per game despite averaging just 24.6 minutes a night since his return.
The eight-year veteran is also tops on the Celtics in potential assists (passes by a player to a teammate in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would result in an assist) with 12.7 per game. In years past, armed with more talented shot-makers around him, many of these passes would result in an assist on the stat sheet, something that only further demonstrates Rondo’s continued passing prowess.
Even still, Rondo leads Boston with 13.3 points created by assist per game—a total more than double that of any other Celtic. So despite playing only 24.6 minutes a night and being at anything but 100% in terms of fitness, Rondo’s passing skills have already shone through in his first six games back.
But I’d be selling Rondo’s passing ability short if I just stuck with the statistics. The Celtics captain has every possible pass in his arsenal. He can pass with both hands off the dribble (and often at full speed), excels in the pick and roll, and has a heightened awareness of how his own movement can affect the opposition’s rotations and open up passing lanes for his teammates.
Since his return, these skills have been on full display, beginning in that first game against the Lakers when Rondo had four assists in 19 minutes, including an incredible pass to Kris Humphries in transition (at the 3:05 mark of that video).
That’s a perfect bounce pass made even more impressive by the fact Rondo is moving at full speed on the dribble. To snap that off so quickly with one hand and slip it in between two defenders takes some serious skill.
Rondo has always been adept in the pick and roll. His awareness of defensive rotations and where both he and his opponents are on the court has always stood out. He has tremendous patience, often using misdirection and an extra dribble to draw defenders and open up angles for his teammates to find space to make plays.
Again we see Rondo’s spatial awareness, patience, and ability to manipulate the defense with his own dribble. His knack for anticipating how a defense will react to his movement—and what spaces this will open up on the court—has always separated him from other point guards.
Although he has yet to fully work himself back into game shape, Rondo's passing skills still stand out. For basketball purists and Celtics fans everywhere, Rondo is a joy to watch, and just seeing No. 9 back out on the court, threading passes in between defenders to open teammates, brings hope for the future.
Alex Skillin is a regular contributor to CelticsBlog. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.