Superlatives have been thrown at Brad Stevens since he left the college game and signed a six-year deal to be the head coach of the Boston Celtics and although his first year wasn't exactly the picture of success, his team played hard and always competed. He's always been touted as one of the smart young minds of the game, and now, he's getting a reputation around the league as a players' coach.
Kris Humphries was unsure of his role last year when the Nets, a contender, shipped him to the rebuilding Celtics as part of a package to land Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Previous experience informed him franchises in rebuilding mode usually opted to play young players over veterans.
But Humphries was surprised to find playing time. The team was dismal, finishing with 57 losses, yet he used the year to improve under first-year head coach Brad Stevens.
"I talked to Brad all the time and it's just one of those things where, ‘Man, you got me a lot better,'" Humphries, 29, recalled in a conference call Wednesday afternoon. "Handling the ball, making plays, things like that. Shooting. I'm grateful for that. I'm grateful for the opportunity to keep playing in a lot of situations like the one I was in."
It's worth noting that Hump could have easily soured on his situation after last summer's trade, but under Stevens, he flourished. That effort landed him a nice three year deal with a rising team in Washington and he deserves all the credit, but it sounds like Stevens certainly helped with the transition.
My biggest takeaway from last season and specifically from Humphries' comments was that Stevens strayed away from his reputation as a student of analytics and instead challenged his players to work on things outside of their comfort zone. The narrow view on Humphries was that he was a banger, a double-double guy that you didn't run plays for and could rely on to do the dirty work.
Stevens, however, gave Humphries opportunities to make plays at the top of the key and shoot from outside of the paint. He showcased a different part of his game and that eventually made him a more attractive option on the FA market. If Stevens continues to show a consistent ability to get more from his players--specifically vets like Hump--Boston could eventually be an attractive destination for free agents.
And that brings us to Rajon Rondo. His rep around the NBA hasn't been as positive as Stevens', but to the guys that know him intimately, he's been a great teammate and mentor. First, here's former Celtic Keyon Dooling's recollection of his time with #9:
His reputation was that he was standoffish, super smart, and super emotional - but, I had to say, these are the characteristics of many great men. Most great men, they hate authority and they hate the system and they're very passionate about their beliefs, because they see a better way. Rondo was also a super-competitive guy: He wanted to win the drills, he wanted to win at playing checkers, heck, he even wanted to win at Connect Four. If you've ever seen the video of him taking down two ESPN guys in two separate games at once, you know what I'm talking about.
So here I was, on a mission to connect with this supposedly scary dude everyone's talking about. I didn't really have a choice, they even moved his locker next to mine to get the relationship going.
Result? A great friendship!
I found him to be the total opposite of scary. I think the timing had a lot to with it - he was at a place in life where he was open to my way of helping. There were a lot of misconceptions about him in the media and even in the league, and I wanted people to appreciate Ray (that's what I call him) for who he truly was.
And who is he? An amazing player and an amazing guy. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of NBA players that I seriously consider to be true friends that I can always depend on. Ray is one of them - a man of quality.
And then there's Nerlen Noel's testimonial of Rondo's support during his recovery from ACL surgery that forced him to miss his entire rookie season:
Is it important to you now that you've been through it to talk to other guys if they go down with that same injury?
Oh yeah, yeah. Definitely, definitely. With all the support and love, certain guys, especially Rajon Rondo -- he was definitely the biggest helper through this whole process, he actually gave me his phone number and told me I could hit him up whenever about it. Being from Boston, watching him growing up, and he went through it and he came back as strong as possible, actually before me, so it gave me a lot of confidence, having his good faith.
Is that kind of crazy, being a Celtics fan growing up, to get to know him on a personal level?
Yeah, definitely. That's definitely what made it even more of a thrill. Being able to interact with Rondo and get good advice from him, 'cause he's more of a veteran point guard now in this league, gone through so much with the Big 3, he's a world champion, he's a player who's very mature in this league now. So definitely, it was crazy. I took a lot from him.
Those are two glowing endorsements from a 13-year vet (a respectable elder statesman in his own right) and a 20-year-old looking to start his career. As Rondo enters a contract year and presumably next summer where he'll test free agency, this season is a tipping point for the Celtics captain. We bloggers were split on how he'll perform in 2014-2015, but what is not in doubt at least in my mind is how much of a leader he'll be on this young team. He'll embrace the idea of mentoring Marcus Smart just like he was mentored by Kevin Garnett and he'll make the game easier for tenured teammates Avery Bradley, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass. Why? Because despite everything you've supposedly heard, it's just noise. Just like Jeff, I'm predicting that he'll have a big year too, but I don't need ten reasons. To me, it's all about leadership. Rondo may be prickly with the media and might bump heads with his head coach, but he has always put team first and teammates over himself.