Rondo persuades coach to let the Wildcats run
LEXINGTON - Rajon Rondo wanted the same thing as his Kentucky teammates - to play a more up-tempo style of basketball. The question was, who was brave enough to approach coach Tubby Smith with such a request?
As the starting point guard, Rondo figured that job fell to him. So this summer, the 6-foot-1 inch sophomore from Louisville sidled up to Smith and broached the subject.
“Me and coach, we're starting to be a duo,” Rondo said. “I understand him, and he understands me.”
So much so, apparently, that Rondo's proposal fell on sympathetic ears. Smith said he listened - and adapted - for practical reasons: to take advantage of the Wildcats' depth at the guard positions, the chemistry between Rondo and fellow starting guard Patrick Sparks and Rondo's speed.
“We have a more experienced team this year that should allow us to extend our defense more,” Smith said. “We should be able to push the ball more with Rajon Rondo at the point. With wing players like (Ramel) Bradley and (Joe) Crawford we feel we can create more turnovers and get more possessions.”
That, in turn, will hopefully lead to more points, Smith said.
His teammates saw Rondo's willingness to boldly approach Smith as an indication that Rondo - a first-team preseason All-Southeastern Conference selection - has become a willing and vocal team leader, a role filled in recent seasons by the now-graduated Chuck Hayes.
A year ago, Rondo wouldn't have been ready to assume that responsibility. But he said his time this summer with USA Basketball's under-21 World Championship Team in Argentina - playing with stars like Rudy Gay and Marcus Williams of Connecticut, Taj Gray of Oklahoma, J.J. Redick of Duke, Glen Davis of Louisiana State and Justin Gray of Wake Forest - prepared him for such a task.
“I think the trip overseas definitely helped his confidence,” Bradley said of Rondo. “He seems a lot more confident after playing with those guys.”
Rondo said the experience forced him to mature as a player.
“It was a completely different style of play,” Rondo said. “I had to adjust my game and step up. I had to speed up and be more vocal to keep up with the other players.”
Back in the SEC, other players have had trouble keeping up with Rondo. He set a single-season Kentucky school record as a freshman with 87 steals.
“He's probably the quickest player I've played against,” Crawford said.
Rondo's speed might be exceptional, but it didn't always translate to offensive output during his freshman season. He averaged 8.1 points per game and shot a respectable 51 percent from the field, but made only 30.3 percent of his 3-point attempts (10 of 33) and 58.3 percent of his free throws (60 of 103).
Rondo said he worked on his perimeter shooting during the summer, with a goal to make 300 to 400 jumpers per day. Did it help?
“People will just have to come and see,” he said. “I've been working on putting the ball in the same spot over and over. I've been shooting better in practice and I don't have any concern about it this year.”
If Rondo's perimeter shooting improves, this could be his last season at Kentucky, as a jump to the NBA is possible. Rondo said he's not thinking about that possibility and is solely focused on the coming campaign.
In the meantime, he and his teammates are looking forward to playing the style of basketball they prefer.
“We're a deep team and we have one of the quickest backcourts in the country,” forward Bobby Perry said. “Our guards will lead the break and we just have to be ready to run with them.”
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