Doc Rivers says he loves Rajon Rondo's potential, but the second-year guard has to become a better defensive player and keep his man in front of him.
A TV reporter asked Rivers about Rondo's recent play, likely expecting to hear praise for his improved shooting (.575 for the season and 12/16 in his last two games) but instead got a pointed answer about the second year guard's deficiencies on the other end of the floor.
It's certainly nothing that Rondo hasn't already heard from his coach. But Rivers seemed to make a point about letting it be known in no uncertain terms: Rondo must improve on the defensive end.
"He's got to be a better defensive player. He's got to improve defensively," Rivers said. "If he improves defensively we're going to be fine. I love who he is, I love the potential, but for us to be a better team, Rajon Rondo has to keep working and improving on his defense. When he does that, then I'm going to be really excited about his game. And he's going to work on it, and he's going to do it."
Consider the gauntlet thrown down.
While Rondo came into the NBA with a reputation for being a great defender, and he is one of the better ball-stealers in the league, college defense and NBA defense are completely different, and Rondo's still adjusting. The pro game moves decidedly quicker and is incredibly physical in comparison, as Rondo is still finding out.
"Every night, it's a beating you take," Rondo said of defending the pick-and-roll, the NBA's staple play.
For a point guard, defending the play includes recognizing the personnel running the play (is the guard a shooter or a threat to penetrate? Will the big pop out or head for the hoop? Are we trapping the play?), trying to avoid the pick all together, and if that doesn't work, fighting over players who are typically twice his size. And depending on the game plan, the defensive strategy can change from night-to-night, and in some cases, minute-to-minute when the game's on the line.
But pick-and-roll defense is just a part of the equation, and for Rondo, improvement on the defensive end boils down to the basics: keeping his man in front of him and picking his spots when it comes to going for the steal. Rondo acknowledged as much, admitting that he probably gambles too much on defense because of his natural quickness.
"I think I stand up more often than I should on defense. I've got to be solid and continue to get better," Rondo admitted, noting the easier-said-than-done solution. "Stay between my man and the basket."
To be fair, Rondo's already had to defend some of the most difficult players in the league this season. T.J. Ford might be the fastest point guards in the league, while Allen Iverson is quick and crafty. Rondo's already had two helpings of New Jersey's Jason Kidd, and according to Rivers, Orlando's Jameer Nelson "drove, dribbled around and went wherever he wanted to."
The tests keep on coming. Wednesday night, Rondo will be matched up against Golden State's Baron Davis.
"He's got to play solid defense, keep the ball in front of him and not reach and grab and gamble. He's young and he's learning that," Rivers said. "In college, you can be a crafty defender and slick and get a steal here and there and get the fans excited and saying what a great defensive player you are. But the team and the coaching staff knows that the other 10 of those [gambles] are breaking down the defense."
As expected, Rondo is still learning the NBA game. It's just his second season. But if we've learned anything about him, it's that he constantly works at improving. Kevin Garnett told reporters Tuesday that Rondo and Kendrick Perkins are among the first to arrive at the practice facility in the morning, and Garnett himself has often stated that he thinks Rondo could be one of the best point guards in the league.
Rondo's not there yet, but in his coach's eyes, improving on defense would be a good place to start.