Each time Rajon Rondo releases a jump shot, his extended hand can be seen tracing out the shape of a question mark. And it is that image -- that question -- that defines him as well as the Celtics' title hopes: Will Rondo be able to make jumpers when Boston needs them most in April, May and June?
The team with the league's best record has been soothed by Rondo's early-season numbers. Through Tuesday, the 6-foot-1 point guard was shooting 54.7 percent from the floor, which ranked 13th overall and first among starting guards.
That stat shows that efficiency and shot selection shouldn't worry anyone, yet doubts persist that Rondo can perform under pressure. Thus is it clear that shooting is the symptom of a larger concern. The questions around his shooting trace back to the central issue of whether the second-year player can earn the confidence to lead the Celtics with authority. He can't be expected to shoot with conviction until he is comfortable in his role as the quarterback overseeing Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen -- and yet it's premature to expect such overwhelming confidence from Rondo so early in the season.
"The toughest part for a point guard when they actually take a jump shot is feeling worthy,'' said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who played that role for 13 NBA seasons. "Even the good-shooting point guards, their first couple of years they struggle with their shot because even they're thinking, 'Am I supposed to be taking this shot?' It has to be a committed shot, and when Rajon does that he's a good shooter. It's when you see him shooting and thinking, 'Is Ray open? Is somebody open?' Those are bad shots.''
No point guard has a more intimidating assignment than the 21-year-old Rondo, who as the youngest player in the rotation is trying to govern a trio of All-Stars with a combined 32 years of NBA experience. But it's also fair to say that nobody has a better opportunity to accelerate his career than Rondo, who already ranks in the top 16 in steals (1.7 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.9). He has improved a long way in this short time even though he didn't arrive with the confidence of Tony Parker, who quarterbacked the Spurs to a championship in his second year after spending his rookie season ordering Tim Duncan and David Robinson around the floor.
"I don't think he's the same as Parker in that way,'' a longtime NBA advance scout said. "Parker had charisma in leading his team. Rondo is more a leader by example; he's going to work hard but you don't see him as a director. Rondo is a little quieter and not as flamboyant as Parker, who had that edge to him that he's as good as anybody and you'd better listen to me and I know how to run this team. I just don't see that in Rondo. What I see is Rondo starting to realize that I can play in this league, I'm not a late [first-round] pick, I'm a guy who belongs here."
The most impressive sign is that Rondo has embraced the challenge of managing Garnett, Pierce and Allen, who are trying to become the oldest championship trio in league history. No team has ever won a title with three leading scorers 30 or older, which is why in the big picture it's wrong to look at Rondo as the Celtics' weak link. In fact, he is their savior -- they might be too old to contend if their point guard was in his 30s too.
"We need his energy and quickness,'' Rivers agreed.
As one of the league's most athletic point guards, Rondo isn't afraid to sprint out ahead and attack the basket in transition against multiple defenders. But even in those situations, Rivers sees him occasionally deferring to his elders by kicking out to Allen or Pierce for a three-pointer.
"Every time that pass leads to a missed shot, I tell him, 'That's a turnover, because you turned down a layup for a three that didn't go in and now they get the ball back.' And I keep a list, I count that as a turnover and I tell him, 'You had three turnovers last night,' '' Rivers said. "There are times he didn't know he was open at the basket because he's going too quick. But we've showed him film of the layups he doesn't take, and he's been surprised on a lot of them: 'Wow, I didn't know I was at the basket.' ''
Garnett and the other Celtics make jokes when they see Rondo studying his touches on the mini video player he carries in his pocket.
"You laugh at it,'' Garnett said, "but at the same time, you're impressed. He's working.''
Rivers pays close attention to Rondo's leadership decisions on the floor.
"We had a thing in one of the games early in the year where we came out of a timeout and we wanted to execute one thing, and Rajon went another way because one of the guys told him he was 'feeling it,' '' Rivers said. "That was the wrong decision to make and Rajon knew it.
"So I've told him that you've got to be the king of 'no.' I told him that 'no' is a very positive word, and 'maybe' is a negative word. To the guy you're telling it to, 'maybe' means 'yes.' So you've got to be the king of 'no' and it's got to be a word you add to your vocabulary. And you don't actually have to say it, you just do it with your actions. You come out of a timeout and you have four guys -- Ray, Paul, Kevin and Eddie [House] -- telling you, 'Hey, I'm feeling it.' Just say, 'OK,' and then do what you think is good for the team and that's the only decision that you have to make.''
Rondo would be in a much more difficult state if Pierce, Allen and Garnett weren't so committed to sharing the ball in pursuit of a championship.
"Point guards have to be the ruler, and once they see you're going to do the right thing, they leave you alone,'' said Rivers, launching into a story about when he was the Hawks' starting point guard in 1988-89 for coach Mike Fratello.
"I told Rajon I had the one year with Moses [Malone], Reggie Theus, Dominique [Wilkins] and [Cliff Levingston]. Those were the four guys in my starting lineup. Every possession all four of those guys were 'hot.' In one game -- me and Mike Fratello were just laughing about this recently -- I had all four of them during the two free throw shots either voice to me or get my attention that they wanted the ball. All four of them. So I brought it up and I jacked a three from like five feet behind the line -- I mean I was a terrible shooter. It didn't go in and now Mike's pissed off, he doesn't know what's going on. And next time we got the ball I called a timeout on my own, and we went to the huddle and I just let them all have it. I said, 'You [expletives], I won't pass to any of you [expletives].'
"Fortunately for Rajon, he doesn't have to deal with that.''
Rondo is learning to scold the All-Stars in his own quiet way.
"Doc does most of the yelling,'' Rondo said. "But from time to time, they may mess up a play and then I may have to say, 'Come on, get it together.' I don't really yell at them, but I tell them they messed up, and they know I know they messed up. I don't try to get down on them. I just let them know next time they've got to get the play right.''
Rondo's poor jump shot held him back to No. 21 in the 2006 draft, enabling the Celtics to acquire him in a draft-night trade with Phoenix. But many teams saw his potential, including the Sonics, who rated Rondo as the top collegian in the draft in terms of the positive impact he made on his teams at Kentucky.
"I don't know if we had him statistically rated No. 1, but he was in the top 4-5 statistically,'' Celtics director of basketball operations Danny Ainge said. "I'm a fan of Tubby Smith [who coached Rondo at Kentucky], and I could understand why they didn't get along really well, because they moved him to the '2' guard in a passing-game offense.'' That role emphasized Rondo's deficiencies as a shooter.
"But one stat that was coming out with Rajon was that he gets every loose ball, he gets his hands on everything, he's rebounding and he's doing things that are a little bit unusual for the guard position, and those things traditionally translate into good NBA players," Ainge said.
"Then you have people who say, 'How many players have ever been good in the NBA that shot 58 percent from the free throw line in college?' But you can come up with a long list of guys like Gary Payton and Baron Davis, because if you think about the guys that don't shoot the free throws good but are being considered to be drafted high, they must have some special skill or they must be so athletically gifted that they do so many things to compensate for that poor shooting. Those are guys who find ways to make it in our league.''
Rondo has made two big changes in his shooting. He has renounced three-pointers as if they were saturated fats; he hasn't attempted a single three after going a senseless 6-for-29 (20.7 percent) from beyond the arc last year. He has also focused on elevating for his jump shot even though many of his attempts are uncontested as the defenses focus on Boston's three stars. Rondo tries to jump to the same height to develop consistency.
But another NBA scout notes that Rondo tends to aim his jumper in the fourth quarter after appearing to shoot with confidence in the opening periods. He is converting only 48.5 percent from the free throw line, which also speaks to his confidence under pressure.
It all comes back to the original point. He can't be expected to have confidence in his shooting -- in his decisions to shoot -- until he is comfortable as the young leader of an elderly team. As rapidly as he is improving, he can't be expected to feel comfortable 19 games into the season. The real question is whether he can earn sufficient confidence over the next four months heading into the playoffs.
"Rajon is going to be the guy that gets the knocks all year, him and [starting center Kendrick Perkins], because you're not going to knock the other three,'' Rivers said. "And so we've talked about that, that it's never going to stop. And that's fine. I told Rajon, 'Hey listen, there's nothing wrong with proving yourself. They're not going to give it to you, and you don't want it that way anyway.' And during the playoffs the defense will key on him more, and we know that too, and he'll be more prepared for it by the end of the year.''
The questions and pressures will help Rondo's confidence as he continues to succeed despite them. With no true point guard backing him up and no other player capable of replicating the easy baskets he creates in transition, he may be the second-most-valuable Celtic after Garnett.
"No excuse,'' Garnett said of Rondo's age. "You're thrown in that position for a reason, and if Doc didn't believe in him or thought he was too young to have it, he wouldn't be put in that position. He earned it. He busted his ass and worked for it, and I have to remind him of that, that this was wasn't given to you. You worked for this, so embrace it. You're going to make mistakes, but try to better yourself. And Rondo's done all of that, man.''