It didn't take very long for the Celtics to understand why there had been a number of red flags surrounding Rajon Rondo. He wasn't uncoachable. But he wasn't exactly a sponge either. He was joining a bad team and, in his mind, he was the one to lead it out of the wilderness.
But the Celtics had traded away the seventh pick in the 2006 draft for Sebastian Telfair and Rondo was only a rookie. There also was Delonte West, who already had two years under his belt as a Celtic and had established himself as a fearless, if occasionally clueless, point guard.
To make things tougher on the rookie Rondo, his coach, Doc Rivers, had played point guard in his NBA career. Point guard coaches are notoriously tough on their point guard players; Larry Brown treats his point guards a shade better than indentured servants. Rivers had been charged with developing talent in hopes that one day that talent might be used to acquire real NBA players.
It was into this combustible mix that a 20-year-old Rondo entered in the fall of 2006. He established himself as a rotation regular immediately, playing 23 minutes in the Celtics' opener. But in the Celtics' fourth game of the season, he also found himself with the unfortunate and unflattering designation next to his name in a box score: DNP-Coach's Decision in an overtime home win against Charlotte.
The next game, he had 13 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals and led a comeback against a good Utah team which came up short. Rivers liked how the rookie had responded to the first not-so-subtle benching of his career. But there would be three more DNP-CDs on his resume -- all in the first 23 games -- and when he did play, his time as a reserve fluctuated wildly, from a 20-second cameo against the Bucks on Nov. 25 to a 36-minute stint against the Hawks on Jan. 15.
At one point, Rivers took Rondo aside and told him, "you know your teammates hate playing with you?"
It was a rude awakening for Rondo. The team wasn't winning. He wasn't playing as much as he thought he would be playing. "I went through a lot of adversity that year,'' he recalled. "Maybe it would have been different if I had had some veterans around me. It was tough. When you lose so many times, it can affect your focus and your confidence."
But as the season continued, it was apparent to Rivers (and a lot of others) that Telfair was not the answer. West, while feisty and competitive, was hurt a lot. So, with the Celtics headed again to the lottery -- they would endure an 18-game losing streak during the season -- Rivers rolled the dice with his rookie.
Rondo made the first start of his NBA career Feb. 2 against the Los Angeles Clippers. He responded with 23 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals in a 100-89 home loss, setting a franchise record for consecutive defeats (14.) The 23 points, which led the team, would be his high for the season. He started the next three games, returned to the bench, then reclaimed the starting job pretty much for good March 9, starting 22 of the last 23 games.
"I didn't know what to think when he got here,'' Rivers said. "But I saw a player with a high IQ who was willing to put in the work."
Rondo appeared in 78 games as a rookie. Needless to say, there have been no more DNP-CDs. He had three double-doubles and showed enough versatility and ability that the Celtics came to regard him as their point guard of the future. Telfair would be traded to Minnesota after a gun incident shortly after the end of the season. And West would be sent to Seattle that summer as well.
Those were two indications that the Celtics were willing to commit to Rondo. But he had no idea how much of a commitment the team was prepared to make after seeing him for only one season.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com