By A. Sherrod Blakely
Of all the surprises with Team USA's men's basketball team, few match the meteoric rise of Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo.
When training camp began, he was considered on the bubble for landing one of the coveted roster spots.
Today, he's all but a lock to make the 12-man squad that will compete in the world championships next week in Turkey.
"This is great for Rondo," Celtics coach Doc Rivers told ESPN 980 in Washington. "It's such a team event."
And that plays to one of Rondo's greatest strengths as a distributor.
But Rondo's role with Team USA isn't a complete carbon copy of what he's called upon to do for the Celtics.
In Boston, Rondo is a part of a vaunted Celtics defense with Kevin Garnett as its anchor.
With Team USA, Rondo is often viewed as the defensive catalyst with his on-the-ball pressure or his ability to play the passing lanes and ignite Team USA's transition game, in addition to providing leadership at both ends of the floor either vocally or through his actions.
"They're asking him to play different roles," Rivers acknowledged. "They're asking him to do different things than we would normally do. This is a great learning tool."
However, it also means Rondo won't finish playing until the middle of September, just a couple weeks prior to the start of training camp.
In an interview with CSNNE.com in New York earlier this month, Rondo explained that playing extended minutes for Team USA following the C's long playoff run was among the reasons he was hesitant at first about being part of Team USA.
"We expect to be going deep into the playoffs every year, so that was a concern of mine being part of Team USA," Rondo told CSNNE.com. "That's one of the reasons why I wasn't 100 percent committed to Team USA, because I didn't know if I would play 18 or 20 minutes a game. That's a good thing."
Said Rivers: "Overall, the pluses outweigh the minuses."
The same can be said for Rondo's game, which admittedly has its share of flaws (jump shot and free throw shooting immediately come to mind).
But it is his intelligence and mental toughness that seem to allow him to thrive despite his shortcomings.
"He's a stubborn kid," Rivers said. "If you play with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, you better be stubborn because every play they're open. I tell Rondo the most important word in your vocabulary will be no. To say 'no' because you got the ball and they will listen. The other thing about Rondo is he's the smartest player I've ever coached. His basketball IQ is off the charts. Now it gets him in trouble sometimes, but he has a great feel, he has huge hands, he can rebound . . . "
But probably the most impressive part of his game has been his ability to control the action without having a reliable jump shot.
"You think about how dominant he has been," Rivers said. "It's always been said you cannot win in the NBA with a non-shooting point guard. We're winning with a non-shooting point guard and we're winning because of his IQ."