Nikola Mirotic didn’t need Rajon Rondo’s Instagram post last week to arrive at a conclusion he shared with the veteran point guard last month.
“Along with Pau (Gasol), he’s the best teammate I’ve ever had,” Mirotic said.
In an interview, Mirotic stresses that such a comment isn’t meant as a slight to his current or former teammates, all of whom he prides himself on working with well. It’s more a statement on Rondo, who doesn’t speak the Spanish that Gasol and Mirotic shared.
The former University of Kentucky point guard speaks in the universal language of positivity.
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“I feel so comfortable with him and I think all the young guys do,” Mirotic said. “He’s very honest. He’s talking all the time, supporting before the game, after the game, during the practice. He’s always positive. Even if something is not going well, he’s trying to help young players. It’s been great to have him here.”
Last week’s tumultuous events in which Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler criticized their teammates for not caring enough and Rondo fired back at their leadership tactics in his now-legendary Instagram bomb only served to shine a public spotlight on what had been privately happening since Rondo signed with the Chicago Bulls last July. His way of leading is to prop up the young players who are so critical to the Bulls’ long-term plans.
And if that flies in the face of Rondo’s reputation formed from previous prickly incidents with coaches, including a one-game suspension this season for throwing at towel at associate head coach Jim Boylen, so be it.
“Before he came here, I didn’t know him very well. I heard different stories. Like always, people said good things and people said bad things. But I never judge anyone before I meet them,” Mirotic said. “As soon as I met him, he was great to me. We had a positive connection with each other. For me, it’s a big pleasure to play with him, especially going through the tough times.”
This isn’t just Mirotic talking. Enter Jerian Grant, who is the second point guard to replace Rondo as a starter after Coach Fred Hoiberg soured on Michael Carter-Williams.
“He’s a great teammate,” Grant said. “He’s been through a lot of different things and been able to show us the wrong and right ways. That’s good for us. He’s been extremely helpful to me. I’ve been in the gym with him a lot, picked his brains a lot.”
This process began when Rondo voluntarily joined the Bulls at summer league, even practicing one day with a team that featured undrafted free agents that had no chance of making the regular-season roster. Rondo served as ringleader for informal workouts at the Advocate Center before training camp.
Once camp started, Rondo organized team dinners. And he drove to Milwaukee for an exhibition game the Bulls rested him in to work out training camp player Thomas Walkup before the game.
“He’s just a great teammate,” Taj Gibson said earlier this season. “He’s always inspiring. If you’re not feeling right, he’s always going to have your back no matter what. That’s the type of player I want to play with forever.”
Of course, the Bulls signed Rondo to play point guard, not psychologist. And beyond the fact he’s not a good fit alongside Wade and Butler, he hadn’t always played with the energy and defensive thrust that has defined his recent stretch.
Rondo accepted his demotion professionally. That’s why, along with his connection with the second unit and a contract that could serve as a valuable trade chip all the way into June because its cap number of $13.4 million only carries a $3 million guarantee, there are no current plans to buy him out, sources said.
“I know it’s different for him coming from the bench. He’s not used to it. But for us, the second unit, he’s huge,” Mirotic said. “Doug (McDermott), Paul (Zipser) and I are feeling so great playing with him. He’s basically saying to us, ‘We’re going to have a ball. Just run. Play free.’”
The Bulls haven’t been having much of a ball lately. But Rondo is keeping it real, the only way he knows how to be.