Full (and perhaps slightly conceited) disclosure: I consider myself a knowledgeable basketball fan. A lot of people I know call themselves “students of the game,” but I—at least in my opinion—fit the bill.
I don’t just watch basketball; I study it. I re-watch games and I dissect what went right and what went wrong, what plays worked and what plays didn’t, or even such minutiae like “why does Paul Pierce’s stepback jumper free him from his defender every single time?” I read every article I can about basketball. I try to smell the game’s aroma through my nose, breathe its life into my lungs and then type whatever bits I can discover into my computer to publish on my website. Even when I’m wrong, my opinions (and I have opinions about mostly everything) are at least educated.
But there are times when I understand there are limits to my basketball knowledge. There are things I will never quite comprehend, partially due to personal shortcomings, but also because I have limited access to NBA players and coaches. I can see what happens on the court. I can see when Paul Pierce makes a sharp cut to the hoop for an easy layup. But I cannot hear if Rajon Rondo whispers into Pierce’s ear, “He’s over-playing you, Paul. Cut backdoor.” I can see what plays Doc Rivers calls, and I can determine which ones succeed and which ones don’t. But I cannot hear if Rondo says in the huddle, “Doc, I think we should run a pick-and-roll with me and Paul because the Bulls are switching ball screens.” Sometimes, on lucky days, a player will offer me a window to the inside, will tell the media a story about the secrets that occur between the baselines, the stuff TVs can’t portray and microphones can’t pick up.
Yesterday, Brian Scalabrine christened Rondo the smartest player he has ever played with. Being Scal’s smartest teammate is no small feat. Scal played with Jason Kidd, one of the best lead guards ever, when Kidd was the NBA’s best point guard. He played with Derrick Rose when Rose won the MVP. He played with Kevin Garnett, who quarterbacks defenses and never stops teaching his teammates. He played with Paul Pierce, one of the craftiest scorers of his era. Yet even when compared to Scal’s other elite teammates, Rondo stands out.
“Rondo is conceptually smarter than both of those guys,” Scal told Comcast, referring to Kidd and Rose. “He thinks the game like a coach. He thinks of the different types of offense that [he] can use early, that he won’t use late. He’s just on—intellectually, he’s just on a totally different level than any player I’ve ever seen.
“When he was young and he was doing that, he was deemed uncoachable. As this thing’s going along and he gets older and we see how it all plays out, now people are starting to think, like, ‘Maybe he was just right.’ In his rookie year, his second year, he was making adjustments on the fly, and he was telling guys, like, ‘This is what we need to do to win.’ And this guy’s a second-year point guard, and it—it works.
“And that’s the thing you have to understand. He’s one of the smartest—I’m just gonna go out there: he’s the smartest basketball player I’ve ever played with, as far as understanding what he needs to do to run that position and what he needs to do for us to score in the fourth quarter. He’s not thinking about the second, he’s not thinking about the first. He’s thinking … ‘Down the stretch, where am I going to go, what am I going to pull out of my back pocket that I know I can go to to win a game?”
Scal’s opinion is exactly why we cherish secondary access to athletes and coaches, why we yearn for their thoughts. Sure, I can watch Rondo nightly, observe his masterful no-look passes, marvel at the way he runs a team, and thank the basketball gods that the Celtics chose him with the 21st pick in the 2006 NBA Draft. But without Scal, I would not possibly be able to compare his intelligence to Jason Kidd’s. Of course, I could have compared Rondo’s IQ to Tony Allen’s IQ without enlisting Scal’s help; those two players’ intelligence are distant enough for Stevie Wonder to see the difference.
But for me to rate Rondo’s intelligence against Kidd’s would have been ludicrous; they’re too close in basketball IQ for somebody like me—armed with an admittedly limited scope of information—to accurately determine which player is smarter. Kidd is one of the all-time greats, a savant who used smarts (and elite skill, and great athleticsm) to dominate during his youth and now uses his guile to adapt, to fill a role, and to counteract the aging process. Watching Rondo play, I can easily notice comparisons to Kidd—specifically, their court vision, ability to excel without a jump shot (before he became an above-average standstill shooter, remember, Jason Kidd was known as Ason Kidd), rebounding acumen, and gift for making teammates better. But I would never have, could never have, compared their intelligence.
Without listening to Doc Rivers, Scal and other Celtics rave about Rondo’s basketball brain, I could never understand the full extent of it. Hell, even after listening to their opinions, I only get an occasional inside look into the Celtics—I will still never fully understand Rondo’s basketball mind. But after Scal’s words, I can imagine Rondo dictating plays to Rivers in the huddle. I can envision him whispering to Pierce about where and when he should cut. I can picture him interrupting a scouting report to argue it, and actually being right. I can see him studying film and tendencies and pouring over stats.
Today, I know a little more about Rajon Rondo than I did yesterday. While my knowledge remains imperfect and always will: thank you, Scal.