A Pair of 9s: The Parallel Paths of Rajon Rondo and Tony Parker
As a nineteen year-old Frenchman with no college experience, Tony Parker was not a highly touted prospect in the 2001 draft. At little more than 6 feet, 175 pounds, he was short, skinny, and a poor shooter, nearly falling into the second round before San Antonio snagged him with the 28th pick.
After an up-and-down rookie year, many considered Parker to be the Spurs' weak link the next season, but he silenced the doubters with electric play on the way too his first NBA championship. 4 years later, Rajon Rondo would go through a similar trial by fire when experts said Doc Rivers' Big 3 couldn't win without a "legitimate point guard." In the closeout game 6 of the 2008 Finals, Rondo exploded for 21 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, and 6 steals, showing the world just how legit he could be.
While Rondo grew to dominate the spotlight with awe-inspiring plays, Parker never seemed to be included in "Who's the best point guard" debates - first it was all about CP3, Steve Nash, or D-Wil, and lately Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and Rajon Rondo seemed to each take the crown before being dethroned by injuries. Parker has been the most consistent of all these players, and after a superstar playoff run, the basketball world is starting to appreciate just how good he really is.
As Rajon Rondo rehabs his knee, he can learn a lot by studying Parker's game. TP shot 67% from the line as a rookie and continued to struggle for 5 seasons before making real improvement. This year, the San Antonio star shattered his season records with an excellent 84.5% mark. Not only has Rondo's foul shooting been his biggest blemish, but it has also made him less aggressive late in games when he worries about missing free throws. And please, don't give me that "his hands are too big" argument, Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki seem to be doing just fine.
Rondo showed signs of improved mid-range shooting before tearing his ACL, and if he continues to work on his form, he'll be a much bigger pick and roll threat in the clutch. Parker used to be mainly a drive-floater type of guy, but his improved shooting has made him a deadly all-around scorer, particularly late in games.
For all his shooting improvements, the most impressive part of Parker's game is his consistency. Much like Rondo, the guy runs hard all night without tiring, constantly coming around screens and leading the break. However, Parker is also very good at maintaining his poise throughout the game whereas all too often, Rondo zones out on defense, takes offensive possessions off, and loses his cool with the referees. No one can realistically expect Rondo to do what he does in the playoffs throughout the regular season, but even when he's conserving his energy, he still has to focus on giving the Celtics a chance to win.
As much as we like to say that seeding doesn't matter, just imagine how much better Boston's playoff runs could have been if they'd won 4 more games to take on Brooklyn in the first round or played Game 7 at home against the Heat last year (After losing 17 of their first 32, the C's still only finished 7 games back from Miami!) Rondo's lackadaisical stinkers have been one of the biggest reasons for Celtic slumps over the years - he scored 8 points or fewer in 11 of 38 games this season (in which Boston went 5 and 6), not to mention the numerous times when he let the opposing PG run wild.
Even if Rondo doesn't come back with fully renewed athleticism, his length, strength, and creativity are more than enough to become the complete player we've been waiting for. He is already a bona fide star with more memorable playoff performances than any of his rival point guards, but if he takes a few pages from the other #9's book, he'll take a mighty step towards cementing his legacy.