The Boston Celtics edged the Chicago Bulls in one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history Saturday, advancing to face the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
One of the keys to the reigning world champions' continued success has been Rajon Rondo, Boston's controversial third-year point guard. While the Louisville, Ky., native's physical play has garned the majority of the attention, there is no doubting his affect on his team. He averaged 19.4 points, 11.6 assists and 9.3 rebounds per game in the series with Chicago.
Although his college career at the University of Kentucky didn't quite foreshadow his current NBA success, his senior season at famed Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) painted a better picture.
"I didn't know how good he was when we got him, but I did after he got onto the court," said Oak Hill coach Steve Smith, who mentored NBA guards Cory Alexander, William Avery, Steve Blake and Jeff McInnis and North Carolina's top-flight pro prospect Ty Lawson.
After transferring to the well-known boarding school from Eastern High School in Louisville, where he was a Student Sports (now ESPN RISE) Underclass All-American in 2003, Rondo left his mark as the floor general for what is arguably the best team in Oak Hill history.
Rondo teamed with Josh Smith (now with the Atlanta Hawks) to lead a Warriors club that went wire to wire as the No. 1-ranked team in the FAB 50 national rankings and finished the 2003-04 season with a 38-0 record. Against a stacked schedule that included six victories over teams ranked in the top 25 of that season's final FAB 50, Rondo broke McInnis' single-season school record of 303 assists, averaging 12 assists per game and 20 points. Included were two efforts of 27 assists and a single-game school record of 31.
"He got better every game," Smith said, "and was an underrated player at the start of the season. He saved his best for last."
Rondo wanted to stay close to home for college, and despite his individual accolades and Oak Hill's team success, the McDonald's All-American was overlooked as a recruit.
His hometown Louisville Cardinals had their eyes on a player who was considered the crown jewel among guards in the class of 2004, New York City phenom Sebastian Telfair. By the time Telfair decided to skip college and enter the 2004 NBA draft, Rondo had accepted a scholarship at Kentucky, Louisville's in-state rival.
"I never have to call coaches to recruit our players, but in Rajon's case, I started to call some of them," Smith said. "He wanted to stay close to home for college, and the only college in that area who offered him was Kentucky in January of his senior season. Of course, after his play in the McDonald's game, others were interested."
Similar to his college recruiting experience, Rondo again was slighted in favor of more high-profile players when it came time to test the waters of the NBA draft in 2006 -- but not for the same reasons.
He didn't flourish in Tubby Smith's defensive-oriented, half-court style of play, which UK fans dubbed "Tubbyball." With his long wingspan and rebounding ability to start the fast break, Rondo was (and still is) more suited to an up-tempo system. Kentucky's style of play under Smith magnified the fact that Rondo was a below-average shooter at the time.
"I felt he was going to be a good player after he left us, but I didn't know he would be this good this quick," Steve Smith said. "I think he felt somewhat stifled playing in college, but the NBA style of play fits his game. He's come into his own now and is in demand [from teams] around the league."
As a rookie with the Celtics, Rondo shared the backcourt with Telfair, who was traded following the 2006-07 season. The next season, Rondo came into his own and hasn't looked back.
It's been quite a ride for the former 21st pick of the NBA draft, from overlooked high school All-American to one of the most talked-about players in the 2009 NBA playoffs. It's an unfinished basketball story that proves even talented players from well-known hoops schools can be overlooked and misjudged by scouts.
"Rajon wasn't listed in any top-100 national recruiting lists," Smith said. "It seems that some of those lists tout a player early in their freshman or sophomore season and their positioning never changes through their final year. He's as good as any guard I've ever coached."
Ronnie Flores is a senior editor of ESPNRISE.com. Doug Huff contributed to this report.