Before the game this past Sunday, the scene around the TD Garden was one of excitement and hysteria over the first appearance of the NBA's newest sensation, Harvard graduate Jeremy Lin. By the end of the game though, the only thing anyone wanted to talk about was the performance of Rajon Rondo.
Rondo put forth a performance so rare that only a handful of players in NBA history have ever accomplished it. His 18 points, 17 rebounds, and 20 assists was something that only players simply known as Wilt or Magic have ever done. That's not terrible company to be in if you're the Boston Celtics point guard. His effort in the overtime win over the rival Knicks served notice that, despite his attitude and his, at times, immature behavior, he is among the league's elite players at a position that has a great number of players at it already. The fact that it came against a player in Lin, who had been crowned as the greatest thing since sliced bread without having to play a meaningful game yet, is not coincidence.
Rondo has that, let's call it "Michael Jordan Syndrome". Jordan used to invent challenges just to keep the games interesting for him. Even a perceived slight against his ability or an unjust comparison of a young and up and coming player to his own talents would set MJ off and set the stage for some of his greatest performances. Rondo is very similar in that he takes challenges very personally, even if they're imagined.
Like all of us, he watched the 'round the clock coverage on ESPN of every basket, assist, rebound, and game winning shot that Lin made over the previous few weeks, and undoubtedly noticed that as his own team floundered in recent weeks, he was being pushed aside in the discussion for the title of "best point guard in the NBA". So, when the opportunity to prove himself and meet his own created challenge arrived, Rondo delivered on one of the leagues biggest stages.
The truth is, there never really should have been any doubt about whether or not Rondo was among the best players at his position in the league. People were in such a rush to crown Jeremy Lin as one of the best players in the NBA that nobody bothered to really look at the fact that his body of work has largely been against mediocre competition, particularly at Lin's own position. In addition, the circulation of the dreaded advanced scouting report had already begun to limit the impact that he's had in some games.
After lighting up the rotting corpse of Derek Fisher for 38 big points back on February 10, Lin's shooting percentage began to come way down while his rate of turnovers climbed ever higher. He's averaged just 42% from the field while shooting a team high 15 shots a game over his last 10 games. That's not awful, but when the guy taking the most shots on the team is shooting below 45%, you're probably going to struggle. In addition, Lin's turnover rate is astounding. Over the past 10 games, he's averaged nearly six turnovers a game while dishing out a solid nine assists a game. While the nine assists per game is a good number for a point guard handling the ball as much as Lin, the number of turnovers is atrocious. Most upper tier point guards in the NBA are averaging approximately two assists for every one turnover, where Lin is averaging just 1.5.
So, to summarize, the league's newest sensation is shooting below average, turning the ball over at an almost impossible rate, and has led his team to victory over exactly two teams with winning records thus far this season. Call me a cynic, but let's not start engraving his plaque in Springfield just yet.
This is not to say that Lin doesn't have great potential. He's got great quickness, is a serviceable jumpshooter, and has outstanding vision in the open court. He just needs time to develop his game. In the society that we live in today, with twitter, text messaging, and instant updates, we're so quick to crown a player like Lin who has a couple of nice games as the next great thing in the sport that we never give it an opportunity to see if it has staying power.
Celtics fans might remember a certain guy named Brandon Hunter who wowed everyone during that magical 2003-2004 season (okay, so maybe it wasn't that magical) by using every inch of his undersized frame to pull down rebounds and get second chance opportunities for a couple of weeks. Tommy Heinsohn, in his predictably cool and rational demeanor, declared him to be the equivalent of Robert Parish and that he would be in the NBA for years and years. Most C's fans felt the same way. Hunter quickly faded, and after a brief stint with the Orlando Magic the following season, was never heard from again in the United States. Last seen, Hunter was playing decent minutes for a mid-tier team in Italy.
Ultimately, whether Lin becomes a great player or not, what we shouldn't lose sight of is the fact that he's still in the very early stages of his career. And, as if we needed to be reminded, Rondo has been there and done that. He's been a part of a championship team and been among the league's elite at his position for several years now. On Sunday afternoon in front of a national television audience, we saw the difference between a potential flash in the pan media fascination, and an established card carrying member of the league's very exclusive elite point guard club.