Shrouding himself in mystery is a hobby for Rajon Rondo. He offers the fewest words possible in his answers to reporters. He wants his detractors to believe he is content with his All-Star status, but the perception that he is a below-average outside shooter visibly bothers him.
If he had a nickel for every time someone began a Twitter post, “If Rondo could shoot . . . ,” he might be able to match the $55 million the Celtics are paying him over five seasons. It’s one of the NBA’s biggest bargains for perhaps the league’s most versatile point guard, and it may be even more of a steal if Rondo continues an encouraging trend from the first seven games.
Rondo has canned 26 of his 53 jumpers this season, crumbling the perception that he had not worked on his outside shot or that he is tentative when open because of the potential embarrassment of a brick.
After shooting 44.8 percent from the field and canning just 10 3-pointers in the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12, Rondo has buried 52.8 percent of his shots and already canned three 3-pointers in 10 attempts. While he still isn’t considered a dangerous outside shooter, opposing defenses may have to hesitate before running under screens and leaving him open.
During Monday’s 101-95 victory over Chicago, Rondo exploited the Bulls’ defense for two alley-oops to Kevin Garnett in the final 2:35, drawing in the defense with the potential of penetrating or pulling up for a jumper and instead finding a streaking Garnett for an open dunk.
Rondo’s importance to the Boston offense is critical, not only because of his passing prowess, but if he becomes more of a perimeter threat, the floor will open for his teammates.
“He’s getting a lot more opportunities now that we don’t have Ray Allen out here in the starting lineup,” said Paul Pierce. “Usually a lot of those shots would go to [Allen], so Rondo has taken it upon himself to be more aggressive on the offensive end.
“The shot attempts are up, the scoring average is up, and we need it. He’s part of the Big Three now, so he’s taking the lead and he’s showing why he’s the leader of this ball club.
“He works hard at his craft. I feel like being around here I have been a part of that, just seeing his growth as a player, and it’s beautiful to watch him come into his own. I consider him the best point guard in the league, the things he’s able to do out there and he’s scoring the ball like that.
“You already know what he can do passing and rebounding. He’s just unstoppable.”
After each practice and shootaround, Rondo fishes out rookie Jared Sullinger for some extra work. The two work on a pick-and-roll drill that helps both of them. Rondo dribbles with Sullinger setting a shadow pick, and while Rondo shoots off the pick, Sullinger receives a pass from a coach and also shoots. When the two combine to hit 20 shots, the drill is over, and Rondo wants to go again.
Rondo doesn’t gush about his work ethic or offseason program. He doesn’t like to discuss the particulars of his game, but his shooting improvement is apparent.
“I just have to take them,” he said. “[Defenses] are pretty much playing me the same way.”
The synergy between Rondo and Garnett has been increasing over the past few years, and on Monday, Rondo’s aggression forced Chicago’s Joakim Noah to make a decision: stay with Garnett and allow Rondo to release one of his successful floaters or defend Rondo and leave Garnett open. He chased Rondo both times.
That likely doesn’t happen if Rondo doesn’t pose a shooting threat. In past years, teams invited him to shoot, and that will be slow to change because of the Celtics’ other offensive weapons. But if Rondo can make defenses hesitate even a moment, the Celtics’ bigs are going to benefit greatly.
“We’re feeling out the game, that’s not premeditated,” Garnett said of the alley-oops. “We expect Rondo to be aggressive in the fourth [quarter], obviously.
“Teams are trying to adjust to him, make him do different things now that he’s hitting the elbow jumper and the 15-footer. They’re making him try to drive. Sometimes I set the pick, he gets the layup.
“I am not going to go into it, but we have a chemistry and we work it pretty well along with myself and Paul. Yeah, I can attest to that.”Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe