Basketball

Rondo, NBA a perfect fit

Ten seasons of 21st century college basketball are in the books. So who is the best player to wear Kentucky Wildcats blue in the just-completed decade?

If you base it solely on his play at UK, my answer would be Keith Bogans.

The 6-foot-5 guard left Lexington as Kentucky's fourth all-time leading scorer (1,923 points). He was the signature player on the best UK team — the 2003 Cats that won 26 games in a row — of the period.

If you base it on both play at UK and what he has done so far in the NBA, the answer is clearly Tayshaun Prince.

Prince is eighth (1,775 points) on Kentucky's all-time scoring list and has been a starter on an elite-level Detroit Pistons team. His accumulated jewelry includes both an NBA championship ring (2004) and an Olympic gold medal (2008).

However, the day may be coming when the answer to the question best NBA player who played at Kentucky in the first decade of the 21st century becomes Rajon Rondo.

In case you've missed it — and my sense has always been that the majority of the commonwealth's basketball fans only check in on the NBA after the college season ends — the 23-year-old Rondo is having a boffo year in Boston.

The third-year point guard has improved his scoring (to 12.2 a game from 10.6) from a year ago. Rondo has upped his rebounding (to 5.2 from 4.2) from a year ago. His assist total (to 8.4 from 5.1) has gone up dramatically.

OK, his turnovers (to 2.7 from 1.9) are up, too.

No one's perfect.

Two weeks ago, while in Dayton, Ohio, for the NCAA Tournament, I ran across the venerable Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, long the oracle of all things Celtics.

Ryan was effusive on the subject of Rondo. He was amazed at a young point guard with the moxie to run a team with established mega-stars named Pierce, Allen and Garnett.

He marveled at how a 6-foot-1, 172-pounder like Rondo could do so much damage rebounding in the NBA and how effortlessly the Louisville native is able to drive the ball to the basket against NBA defenders.

Ryan even had a word that would describe Rondo should he ever develop a reliable jump shot — unguardable.

It is a stunning rise for Rondo who, just three years ago, was being widely second-guessed for the decision to turn pro following an uneven sophomore season at Kentucky.

The ex-Cat has every right to drop a series of "I told you sos" on a large group of former doubters.

"But he's not like that at all," said Doug Bibby, Rondo's former high school coach in Louisville and, even now, his personal confidant.

"You always have critics. It doesn't matter if you know what you can do. Rajon is showing people now what he and I always knew he could do."

Bibby, who is fresh off leading Central High School to a surprise run to the Kentucky boys' state tournament finals, said that Rondo just wasn't a good fit in former UK coach Tubby Smith's inside-oriented offense.

"It's a great system for somebody like Chuck Hayes," Bibby said of the former Cats forward. "And Tubby is a great coach. But if you are in a system that does not fit your style of play, it's hard to flourish."

Rondo does not harbor any hard feelings toward UK. In a classy gesture, he returned to Lexington to surprise his former classmates Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley on their 2008 Senior Day.

He was also in Commonwealth Stadium this past fall for Kentucky's football game with Western Kentucky.

"Rajon really likes UK," Bibby said.

Rondo figures to be in the klieg lights of national attention as the NBA playoffs unfold. Boston, of course, will be trying to defend the NBA championship.

But the Celtics will be doing it without home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference. They'll be doing it without clutch-shooting super-sub James Posey (who Celtics ownership allowed to leave as a free agent last summer rather than pay the NBA luxury tax).

And Boston may or may not be defending without a healthy Kevin Garnett, whose balky right knee the Celts are resting in hopes he will be close to 100 percent for the post-season.

With the playoff push coming, Rondo is intent on improving his foul shooting. At 65.3 percent, it needs to get better.

"With his slashing-type game, if he would hit, say 80 percent of his foul shots, he could score 20 on anybody every night," Bibby said. "As good as he is, he's still got a ton of upside."

Which is why, someday, the answer to best pro player who played at Kentucky in the first decade of the 21st century may well be ...

... Rajon Rondo.

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