EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 19, 2006

Where's Rondo? Celtics fans can't miss him

On Pro Basketball

BOSTON - In these October days of the Patriots' yawn-inducing consistency and Red Sox offseason over-analysis, a surprise guest has emerged on the local sports scene.

For at least the time being, a 20-year-old Louisville, Ky., native named Rajon Rondo has become all the rage.

But how exactly did the man of the moment sneak up on the Boston sports world, giving New England basketball fans instant optimism without nary a warning?

"I don't know," said Danny Ainge, Celtics executive director of basketball operations, referring to how Rondo managed to arrive at his immediate celebrity status when few expected such an introduction. "The only thing I know is how we evaluate him. I don't know how everybody else does."

No question the main reason for Rondo arriving without the fanfare befitting most first-round picks revolves around two up-and-down seasons at the University of Kentucky. After a sophomore year of butting heads with Wildcats coach Tubby Smith, the 6-foot-1 point guard's luster had dimmed enough for him to last until the 21st pick of last June's draft.

A few folks, however, were aware of what the vast majority of NBA observers have come to realize through the first half of Boston's preseason schedule - Rondo has been the real deal for some time.

"I had one of Boston's personnel people call me and say, 'Danny (Ainge) wants a reason to pick Rajon over Marcus (Williams, who was ultimately selected by New Jersey with the 22nd pick)," said Rondo's high school coach at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, Steve Smith, who also coached Williams the season before Rondo arrived.

"I said that I didn't want to say anything bad about Marcus, but I also said after both had played for me that Rajon was the best guard who ever played here."

To get an idea about what kind of lofty evaluation Smith heaped upon Rondo, one has to understand the talent that has filtered through Oak Hill. NBA players Ron Mercer, Steve Blake, Jerry Stackhouse, Stephen Jackson and Carmelo Anthony have all been part of the legendary prep school program.

But perhaps most the significant part of the coach's analysis was that Josh Smith, a player who was drafted straight out of high school as the No. 17 pick in the 2004 draft, played on the same Oak Hill team as Rondo. Yet it was the current Celtic - the kid with a perceived mediocre jumpshot and not enough size to warrant a lottery selection - who stood out the most.

"We played 40-something games here and abroad and never got scared by anybody, and the main reason was Rajon," said Steve Smith, whose 2003-04 undefeated team traveled as far away as Barcelona, Spain, to find worthy competition.

"He went from a borderline top 100 player when he was in high school in Louisville, to coming here and becoming a McDonald's All-American. They were talking about him being better than (current Celtic and former New York City high school legend Sebastian) Telfair. Then came the practices at the McDonald's game and all the pro scouts - who I had gotten to know after coming to see Josh - would say to a man that my best player was Rajon Rondo ... and Josh Smith was a first-round pick."

During his junior year of high school, Rondo turned down an initial opportunity to join Rick Pitino's Louisville team, committing instead to Kentucky after Pitino signed Telfair the following year. Unfortunately, while in Lexington, Rondo somehow stepped out of the limelight and into the shadows.

First came Kentucky's quest to change Rondo's jumper, then there was a fractured relationship with coach Tubby Smith.

"He didn't have a good thing with Tubby last year, so I think people were a little wary of that," said Celtics executive Leo Papile. "He didn't have the greatest of times at Kentucky, but I think most people thought coming out of high school that in a few years he would be in the league. He was well thought of, but it was a little too early for him."

But, as was evidenced again in Boston's 94-90 home preseason win over New Jersey last night, the time is finally right for Rondo, who put up 10 points with six assists. It's a moment some - but certainly not all - knew was on the horizon.

"I know Rajon is going to be a really, really good player," said Steve Smith, who has received a Father's Day greeting from Rondo ever since the player's graduation from Oak Hill. "He's so talented. Here he just ran the game. He knew when to go, when not to go, when to get his shots and who to get the ball to. He can play, not shoot, and still be good."

Or, as the soft-spoken point guard pointed out before his most recent display, "Everything happens for a reason."

In the eyes of Celtics fans, so far it is a pretty good reason.