In a high school JV game I coached on Monday, one of my worst shooters (we’ll call him Joe for the purposes of this post) drilled a three-pointer.
Normally, that would be cause for celebration. It was a miracle the shot went in. It was meant to shatter the backboard, or miss everything completely, but it actually fell through the nets. An unexpected three points, indeed. On the surprise scale, Joe’s made three-pointer was on par with this hypothetical headline: “Andrea Bargnani earns Defensive Player of the Year honors.”
But our reaction on the bench was far from a celebration. The head coach looked at me and said, “Shit. That might have been the worst thing that ever could have happened to our team. The last thing we want is Joe shooting more than once a generation.”
Which brings me to Rajon Rondo. He’s made a lot of jumpers in the past two games, especially down the stretch. He seems to be growing confidence in his jumper, and Doc Rivers is encouraging his point guard to let outside shots fly. But part of me still thinks, “The last thing we want is Rondo shooting more than once a generation.”
I guess that’s a little harsh. Rondo’s shooting 44% on long two-pointers, according to HoopData. That number means he’s currently shooting better from that range than Carmelo Anthony, Steph Curry, Eric Gordon, Manu Ginobili, and Jameer Nelson, among many others. Of course, teams actually defend the players I mentioned, while Rondo’s normally left open while teams beg him to shoot. Still, 44% isn’t “worst shooter ever” eligible, nor is it anywhere close to that fictional title. Rondo’s actually shooting halfway decent this season, if not anywhere close to elite.
Furthermore, shooting open jumpers will keep defenses honest. Remember the Lakers’ sagging defense in June? What if Rondo had been able to make a few mid-range jumpers then? Would there have been so much help on Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, if Rondo was shooting well? It’s a semi-rhetorical question, but — in case you’re wondering — the answer is no.
Rivers, who used to talk about the suspect nature of Rondo’s jumper, now wants him to shoot more.
“Rondo can make those shots,” Rivers said. “We just have to get him to make them after a miss, and take another one.”
Yet — and I can’t be the only one, can I? — the thought of Rondo shooting more jumpers, at this point in time, makes me entirely uncomfortable. (Even if he spent the past two fourth-quarters looking like a pure shooter.) There are so many other aspects of the game he can affect, without catering to his biggest weakness. He’s the world’s best passer right now, and I can say that without any hint of hyperbole or homerism. He’s the lead guard of all lead guards, and he’s at his best when finding his Hall-of-Fame teammates for easy looks.
I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “Man, I wish Rondo would work on his jumper. Then, he’d be completely unguardable.” But I forgot about the intermediate stage, when Rondo’s jumper would be improved yet still below-average, and he would need to shoot more jumpers to gain confidence.
This will seem somewhat unrelated, but I’m now going to discuss the Lakers. In 2009, Trevor Ariza shot 31.9% from three-point range. Nothing to brag about, to be sure, yet Ariza kept on chucking and Phil Jackson allowed him to. The playoffs rolled around, and Ariza stunningly shot 47.6% from the arc. People attributed the postseason success to Ariza’s brick-loaded regular season, which was spent (presumably) growing confidence in his jumper. The thinking went: he made shots in the postseason because he took so many during the regular season.
More likely, that postseason was a fluke. You seen Ariza’s stats lately? He’s shooting 25.7% from the arc, an abysmal showing from the player who became a flame-thrower for one postseason. But one cannot discount confidence in shooting.
As a shooter myself, I can remember times when I lost confidence. Suddenly, I couldn’t hit the broad side of Popeye Jones’ ears. It was all mental, and my brain was exposed as an obviously fickle thing. When I didn’t play many minutes, I almost inevitably struggled to shoot, as I knew my coach would pull me for the smallest mistake (including my first missed shot).
For Rondo, of course, his confidence problems stem from other reasons. He’ll play as many minutes as his body can handle, no matter how many jumpers he misses. But Rondo has never been a shooter his entire life, and now — as his shot grows — must learn to adopt a shooter’s mentality. That’s where Doc’s “we just have to get him to make them after a miss” comment came from. When Ray Allen misses a jumper, he knows he’s done this before and always thinks the next one’s going in. When Rajon Rondo misses a jumper, he remembers, “Shit, I’m Rajon Rondo. That means I’m a miserable shooter.”
Rondo’s supposedly not a miserable shooter anymore. According to Tommy Heinsohn, who may or may not be trustworthy in situations such as these, Rondo looks like one of the world’s best shooters during practice sessions. Doc’s confidence in Rondo’s shot has grown exponentially, and Marquis Daniels agreed. “It’s just repetition, that’s all,” Daniels told CSNNE. “We don’t worry about Rondo shooting the ball.”
But now comes the tough part, when Rondo must lift his confidence by taking shots during game situations. All the practice makes in the world mean very little, especially when you don’t have faith in your jumper come game-time. With every crunch-time make, I assume, Rondo’s willingness to shoot open jumpers will grow.
Even if he starts making shots more and more often, part of me wonders if that’s a good thing.