The summer Los Angeles Lakers’ fans had anxiously waited and anticipated for several years is nearing it’s wild conclusion.
And despite what could be chalked up as an emphatic win by the organization in reeling in the crown jewel of this summer’s free agent market in LeBron James, the team’s corresponding moves left several analysts and fans scratching their respective heads.
The swiftness of each signing caught the masses off guard not only for the names that were announced and the money attached, but more distinctly the general befuddlement over how they would actually fit next to James.
But what the signings ultimately represented was the front office’s choice to prioritize playmaking, versatility and toughness over the typical “shooting specialists” that James is accustomed to, and to do so, the team filled out the roster with a who’s who of LeBron’s former rouges’ gallery.
Among those new signees expected to assist James and company in bringing the Lakers back into playoff contention included no other than former Lakers’ NBA finals/Celtics foe—Rajon Rondo.
Rondo, who is entering his 13th season of NBA service, signed a one-year deal worth reportedly $9 million a mere minutes after the news broke that the Lakers had renounced the rights to talented young big man, Julius Randle.
Although not directly tied into the team's reasoning for parting ways with Randle, the timing could not have been worse for crestfallen fans seeing the former lottery selection’s sudden exit coupled with the lingering sour remnants of Rondo’s playing career and reputation.
In terms of on the court, fans were critical of another move that did not directly address the Lakers’ recent shooting woes (Rondo notoriously being a career 30.9 percent 3-point shooter) and almost more so for what the veteran guard’s arrival meant for the team’s potential point guard of the future — Lonzo Ball.
The front office’s mantra of “every position with the obvious exception of LeBron’s is up for grabs” and Rondo’s initial sentiment of wanting to come in and start did not directly alleviate those concerns, but he has since helped subdue the narrative and made it clear he will gladly aid in Ball’s development this season.
“Every point I can help him (Lonzo Ball) with on or off the court, I’m happy to help him as well,” Rondo said on Spectrum Sportsnet shortly after signing his contract.
And it is ultimately there, in mentoring and helping push Lonzo Ball from a rookie guard to a potential starter of playoff games, where Rondo could leave a lasting impact in what is most likely a temporary role.
There can definitely be an argument to be had that the Lakers could have addressed and given this mentorship role to a more productive, and possibly even less inexpensive veteran, but Rondo potentially could be the closest person in the NBA to not only model Ball’s unique play style, but perfect it on the grandest of stages.
Despite the positional size disparity and obvious differences in shot profiles/frequencies, both players are extremely intelligent, low-usage, defensive-minded point guards (Rondo more so in his younger years) who are profound positional rebounders and high tempo/pass first guards who completely change the personalities of every team they are on.
The similarities are even more eerily apparent when comparing Rondo and Ball’s rookie seasons in the league (positional percentiles in bold):
Both Rondo and Ball notably struggled shooting and scoring the ball in their rookie seasons as seen in their dire points per shot attempt metrics, but made up for it with stellar assist, rebounding, and defensive rates.
And even though he never truly became an effective shooter, Rondo has still found a way to utilize his unique skill-set in the NBA at it’s fullest capacity by amplifying his team around him and fulfilling almost every other team need.
Despite his offensive and physical limitations, Rondo’s early years in particular could have laid out a blueprint that Ball can both learn from and try to build upon as he is about to enter a similar key stage of his career.
Drafted 21st overall in the first round by the Boston Celtics in 2006, Rondo did not enter the league with the same fanfare and expectations Ball did, but he did show the aforementioned similar defensive and passing acumen to breathe life into what was a then stale state of a historic franchise who won just 24 games that year.
The next season, Rondo was no longer simply on a team with lottery aspirations and content in rebuilding, as in one summer the organization quickly constructed one of the most memorable teams in recent history: The Big Three Era Celtics, headlined by Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
In what was only his sophomore season in the league, Rondo started 77 games and masterfully orchestrated an offense with three hall of famers surrounding him, and ultimately won an NBA championship the team’s first year together.
Rondo’s selflessness, and attention to defense and rebounding, provided a solid foundation for a team filled with potential volatile egos. Those attributes in which he demonstrated an astute ability are also the ones most commonly associated with Ball.
Ball’s low maintenance play style and pass first nature is why he potentially could serve as a similar unifying force on the floor with a star studded team.
Therein lies the potential great value of having a veteran like Rondo who does not only share a similar game as Ball, but has succeeded with it in the same locker room. The managing of egos, the vocalization, the demeanor, all could be invaluable skills that Lonzo can soak in and utilize in future seasons and playoff campaigns ahead of him, and Rondo has already proven adept at teaching young players such things, as Nikola Mirotic told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
“I feel so comfortable with him (Rondo) and I think all the young guys do, he’s very honest. He’s always positive. Even if something is not going well, he’s trying to help young players. It’s been great to have him here,” Mirotic said.
Rondo, although not the player he once was, could also still immediately assist Lonzo on the court, and in one specific area of weakness, his in-between game.
Ball was notoriously poor scoring the ball as a rookie. And although many point directly to his shooting mechanics and inefficiency from the perimeter as is the chief reason, arguably his greatest struggle was finishing in the area between the rim and the three point line.
As the season progressed many teams simply began chasing the former UCLA bruin off the comfort zone that was the three point line (51 percent of his attempts) and forced him to drive. Whether it was through defenders going over on screens or closing out hard, Ball was often pushed towards the paint, which usually did not create the results he — and the Lakers — would’ve hoped.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Ball scored in only the 6th percentile with shots at the rim, and was in the 34th percentile in his attempts in the short mid area (shots inside of 14 feet). These inefficiencies were mostly due his lack of deceleration and his overall technique.
Let’s look at this attempt from opening night. First, Ball correctly gets the step on Lou Williams and drives it in off Brook Lopez’s brush screen. With both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan waiting in the paint, Ball makes the right decision to choose to use his floater.
The issue on this attempt comes at Ball’s feet. He never composes himself as he attacks downhill and nearly travels/shuffles his feet as he goes up. This, coupled with him actually lifting off both feet over the traditional one-foot motion, causes him to throw up an imbalanced attempt.
Despite his warts, this is an area where Rondo was actually among the elite last season. In 66 short mid attempts, Rondo scored in the 94th percentile last season. His 50 percent conversion rate on those looks was easily the best posting of his career.
As seen in the clip, Rondo does a few things different in a similar scenario to the one faced by Ball above. Rondo smartly recognizes Davis bending over and delays his dribble before using his brush screen for space to get his floater off.
Notice Rondo’s composure and pace in this instance, as there is not hurried motion or frantic release point. He does a solid job in using an additional burst of speed off the screen to add that necessary distance from his trailing defender before coming off one foot and softly scoring.
Here is a broken play off a Randle kick out in where Lonzo once again makes the right decision in attacking Jamal Murray’s clumsy close out, but yet again the execution is a bit of a miss.
Ball again has a hard time collecting his feet on his gather, as this time he leaps off of the wrong foot, and his off-balance momentum causes him to miss long. A possible extra dribble or hesitation could have created more separation away from the waiting Nikola Jokic, but instead the end result is a hurried attempt.
Compare it to this similar type situation where Rondo freezes Al Horford by using an extra inside out dribble to create the angle to go off glass.
Rondo obviously has a decade’s worth of extra pick and roll scoring situations under his belt to be able to execute these types of opportunities regularly, so comparing the two players is not completely fair, but visually seeing the stark differences is telling of where the reps need to be had in Ball’s development.
Having a player with this source of experience is something Ball has simply never had, and is one of the probable prime reasons why Rondo was signed. Ball’s basketball upbringing is one of the most bizarre in recent memory, and as good as he was in various aspects last season, there is still a significant amount of rawness that needs to be seasoned.
Every young player simply needs that one mentor in their careers to change everything.
Whether or not Rondo proves to be that for Ball is still to be seen, but he could at the very least instill some of the valuable knowledge he has garnered through the years, like where a player like Kevin Garnett likes receiving the post entry, how to use the glass properly with a floater, or even simply how to bring a team together during a rough patch.
If Rondo can do those things, then this one-year deal could prove to be invaluable for molding Ball into the player the Lakers need.
Statistics provided by: CleaningtheGlass.com | basketball-reference.com.
Video via NBA.com.