JONES: Rajon Rondo critical component to this team

No freshman, and some would argue no player, meant more to the Wildcats's success this season than its young point guard from Louisville, Rajon Rondo.

Going into this season Kentucky fans were focused on the two main storylines that would flow throughout the Wildcats' season. First was the senior campaign of Chuck Hayes, one of the most beloved players in Kentucky's long history, who was attempting to lead the Cats not only in victories but in perseverance and class. There is no doubt that the senior season of Hayes has to be qualified as a success, as he once again showcased the grit and determination that has made him the envy of college coaches and fans across the nation. While he finished his career without making it to a Final 4, he stood out as an example of the very best that college athletics can provide.

However the second storyline was much more uncertain, mainly how would the most heralded freshman class in recent Kentucky history perform. Many Kentucky fans expressed a certain degree of skepticism. While it was clear that Tubby Smith could get the most out of lesser-recruited players such as Gerald Fitch and Eric Daniels, his history with the most highly touted recruits had been mixed, ranging from disasters such as Marvin Stone and Rashad Carruth to Kentucky legends such as Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans. When Rajon Rondo, Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley slipped on their Kentucky practice gear for the first time at Midnight Madness, many saw it not only as a test of the players, but also of the coach that put together the best recruiting class of his tenure.

Now that the season has come to an end, it is clear that regardless of who we should be grading in our evaluations of the freshman class, they all would pass with flying colors. Thus going into one of the more important off-seasons in the area of player development in recent memory for Kentucky, I thought it would be a good idea to look back on the seasons of each member of the freshman class and determine whether the substance equaled the hype (it did). Beginning this feature, I will focus on the development of the freshman point guard, Rajon Rondo.

Rajon Rondo --- No freshman, and some would argue no player, meant more to the Wildcats's success this season than its young point guard from Louisville, Rajon Rondo. Rajon came to Kentucky with not only the accolade of being selected as a McDonald's All American, but also having been called by his high school coach, Steve Smith of legendary powerhouse Oak Hill, as the "best point guard he had ever coached." Considering the legacy of Oak Hill, this came as high praise, and many amongst the Kentucky fan base were salivating at having such a young star as the point guard of the future.

However the key word there was "future". While some of the other freshman were predicted to start immediately, most felt that Rondo would settle into a role backing up Junior Patrick Sparks, and would learn the position slowly, allowing others to run the team. Well no one told that to Rondo or Tubby Smith, who quickly gave Rondo the keys to the Kentucky machine, which he kept all season. Used to running a fast-break oriented offense in high school, it took Rondo a bit of time to get used to executing Tubby Smith's more patient attack. However as the season went along, it became clear that Rondo could excel no matter what the system, and he became a true floor leader for the team, a role rarely given to a freshman point guard.

Rondo's freshman year has to be considered almost an unequivocal success. He became the team's defensive floor leader, breaking the single-season Kentucky record for steals and providing a trap-door for opposing offenses as they attempted to attack the Kentucky pressure. He showed an uncanny ability to beat virtually any player off the dribble and by the end of the season, became a consistent finisher, perfecting the running bank shot off the break. Whenever television announcers took the time to stop yapping about the fact that he allegedly wanted to attend Louisville, they focused on the young freshman's amazing leadership qualities and his ability to see the floor as well as any freshman in recent memory. In some ways Rondo became the de facto star of the Wildcats, garnering mention in Sports Illustrated and ESPN: The Magazine along the way.

However as with every freshman, Rondo experienced some speed bumps along the way. He came into college with a reputation as a mediocre outside shooter, a reputation that may have even been a bit of an overstatement. While some improvement on his outside shot was seen as the season progressed, his inability to hit a consistent jumper has allowed teams to lie off of him and has hindered his ability to get to the basket. In addition, his free throw shooting developed into an issue, causing Tubby Smith to occasionally take Rondo out of the action at the end of games, thus losing his most potent defensive weapon and often leading to more stagnant offensive possessions. And finally, his last game of the season against Michigan State showcased some freshman jitters that we had not yet seen in the regular season. The two overtimes showcased a more timid Rondo, culminating in his ill-fated attempt to help the Cats get off a shot at the end of the first overtime.

However despites these minor difficulties, it cannot be said that the coaching staff and fans of Kentucky are anything but thrilled at Rondo's development. Billed as a backup point guard coming in, he came out as a leader of the team and one that may be the strongest weapon on the roster next season. While talking to a NBA scout at the SEC Tournament this season, I was told that the only NBA lock on the roster was Rajon Rondo. When asked why, he replied, "you don't often see his quickness combined with an intense knowledge of the game." Kentucky fans realized this early on, and with Rondo at the point for the next year (or two, or three), the Cats will be in even better hands than All State.

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