CHICAGO -- Rajon Rondo has long been regarded as one of the most cerebral players in the NBA, but his ability to coexist with various coaches and teammates has been called into question at every stop during his professional journey. As the veteran point guard gears up for his 11th year in the league, this time as a member of the Chicago Bulls, the early returns have been surprising, given his track record.
Bulls players, coaches and front-office personnel are singing his praises at every turn.
"The biggest thing that I've been most impressed with with Rajon is, the minute he stepped on this floor, when he got back here in August, is he pulled everybody together," Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg said after Tuesday's practice. "His voice -- he's got the best voice on the team.
"When you have your point guard out there that can get you into something and talk the way he does, that sets the tone for everybody. If you got a guy not only offensively getting you into something, but defensively making sure guys are pointing and talking and getting back and getting matched up in transition, that's where it starts. He's been here. He's been great. He's a guy that [you] can watch film with -- in September before we got rolling here in camp. He's been great, and today he got us off to a great start."
It remains to be seen whether Rondo can maintain that level of both communication and production throughout the entire season, but Hoiberg's words have been echoed for weeks by front-office personnel who have watched the impact the 30-year-old has had since signing with the Bulls in July. Rondo has set a tone for his teammates day after day in pre-training camp workouts that the young group is following. Rondo said during Monday's media day that he spent three hours talking to Hoiberg before signing with the Bulls, noting that Hoiberg was "really intelligent." The plaudits being tossed Rondo's way have come from all corners of an organization in desperate need of a stabilizing point guard presence after dealing with Derrick Rose's injury woes for years.
"He's super smart," Bulls All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler said. "I think he really sees things before they even develop out there on the basketball floor, so it makes everybody's job a lot easier. And not only is he leading the team on offense, but he's constantly talking on defense, so he's letting everybody know where they have to be. And then [free-agent signing Dwyane] Wade's the same way, so he makes everybody's job easier as well, and you learn from that, so you just follow suit for the most part."
When the Bulls signed Rondo, the front office highlighted the fact that he was coming off a season in which he shot a career-high 36.5 percent on 3-pointers, but it is Rondo's ability to see the floor and get his teammates involved that the Bulls are banking on. He averaged 11.7 assists per game a year ago, tying a career high, and sounds confident he will set up the Bulls' offense the way Hoiberg wants.
"I think if you followed me in my career, that's what I do best," Rondo said. "It's making guys' jobs a lot easier. That's what I do. It's not a concern if I will be able to do that. It's just a matter of us buying into the system, continuing to run the floor and getting stops defensively."
Butler has been struck so much by Rondo's passing acumen that he has already offered up an apology for events that haven't even transpired on the floor yet.
"I'll tell you right now, I'll apologize to Rajon early," Butler said. "He's going to fake me out with one of them damn passes. He's going to do something crazy, and I'm going to take off getting back on defense and the ball's going to be coming to me in the corner. It's just incredible, because he sees everything. 'Oh, the defender took a wrong step this way,' and I'm like, 'Welp, he's going to shoot a layup, but he wants you to get a basket, man. And that's an incredible feeling. So I'm sorry, Rajon, because you're going to definitely get a turnover from me one game.'"
The Bulls were criticized throughout many corners of the league for signing Rondo over the summer, in large part due to his reputation for not being able to fit in well at times in various locker rooms. But Butler and the rest of his teammates don't sound concerned that Rondo will fracture the foundation the group is trying to build in Hoiberg's second season. Butler, who struggled to gain footing in the Bulls' locker room last season as the unquestioned leader of the team, is outwardly welcoming of the possibility of Rondo challenging him on certain issues.
"I'm good with that," Butler said. "I better challenge him right back if I see something he's not doing correctly. I want him to hold me accountable, me to hold him accountable. Everybody holding everybody accountable. Because then everybody's going to learn from their mistakes, they're not going to do it again. But if you don't speak up on it and tell somebody what they're doing, they don't know they're doing anything wrong, so they'll just keep doing it."
Ultimately, whether Rondo's signing is a success or failure depends on the bottom line of wins and losses -- as is the case with any transaction in professional sports. But in order to do that, Rondo has to prove his critics wrong and show that he can help fit in with star players -- and big egos, like those of Wade and Butler -- and mesh with younger players in the process. Hoiberg admitted that some of the Bulls' young core has already started gravitating toward Rondo over the first few weeks of the new year. What will be more interesting to watch as the season progresses is whether Rondo -- and Wade -- can impart some of their championship wisdom toward Butler as the 27-year-old tries to elevate his status as a star player.
Both Butler and the Bulls organization are trying to focus on how Rondo can help them in the present and future, not on any mistakes he might have made in the past.
"When you put good basketball players out there on the floor, you just go," Butler said. "Everything falls into place, falls into line. You don't have to worry about too much of anything. And with him, he's an incredible leader, and he just wants everybody to be successful and he's going to put you in a position for you to do just that."