Rajon Rondo serves as coach on floor for 'Baby Lakers'

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The morning after breaking his right hand, Rajon Rondo was at the Los Angeles Lakers' practice facility barking out insights and instructions to his teammates.

As usual.

"He was talking. Surprise, surprise," Lakers coach Luke Walton said with a smile. "He was talking a lot."

With his hand swelling through its splint, Rondo directed Brandon Ingram and players on the second-unit through sets in preparation for their next game at the Orlando Magic.

Rondo lobbied Walton again to be a part of the team's upcoming three-game road trip and then he was gone, off to Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute to have Dr. Steven S. Shin repair the third metacarpal in his right hand.

"Oh yeah," Walton said of Rondo traveling once cleared by team doctors. "We want him around as much as possible."

LeBron James' voice is without question the most important and influential in the Lakers' locker room; but several of the younger players view Rondo's leadership as second, if not on par, to that of James.

While some coaches and execs told ESPN over the summer that Rondo could be a pain for the Lakers, the point guard has been a coach on the floor and mentor to the young core for Walton.

Given the freedom to be himself, Rajon Rondo has been ... Rajon Rondo. The Lakers have seen the acclaimed basketball IQ. They've also seen his unpredictability, his fire manifesting in a flurry of punches in his first game in Staples, resulting in a three-game suspension after the NBA ruled he had spit at Chris Paul.

But his biggest -- and now primary -- impact will be on the development of the "Baby Lakers." Rondo has been trying to influence Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart by example and instruction. And with the sidelining of the veteran point guard for at least four weeks, that balance will tilt entirely toward instruction.

"My whole life I ain't never played with someone like him, or LeBron," Ball said. "It's new to me to just try and follow in their footsteps in a way, just because you can see them get the most out of everybody and the practices are way better than they were last year because they are always challenging people.

"I mean, he's the best leader that I've ever played with -- between him and LeBron."

Sept. 20 was supposed to mark one of the last pickup games before training camp commenced.

But Kuzma remembered it feeling unlike any other offseason run they had. While LeBron and Rondo had both been in the training facility at various times throughout the summer, the two hadn't shared the court in a pickup game until that day.

"It was very intense," Kuzma recalled. "The gym had probably the biggest buzz it had all summer from the standpoint of having two guys that just don't shut up on the court."

The voices of Rondo and James reverberated throughout the building.

"He's out there calling [plays] like, 'Floppy!'" Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said of Rondo.

The two floor generals orchestrated pick-and-rolls and directed defensive coverage on the backside as staff observed Rondo's infamous competitiveness -- he wasn't backing down an inch to James.

It was what Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson had hoped for. He wanted to surround his young core with vets who fixated on basketball to the point of compulsion. In Rondo, Johnson had added the physical embodiment of basketball obsession.

"I can't turn it off," Rondo said when describing the constant chirping and cataloging of thoughts, his mind racing through every possession, every decision.

It's an innate quality, but one that was enhanced a decade ago playing alongside one of the NBA's most cerebral thinkers and talkers in Kevin Garnett.

"I am always replaying the game back ... I talk on my voice memos," Rondo explained. "So I will be like, 'OK. 3:18. First quarter. I liked this out-of-timeout play,' while watching film."

Doc Rivers, who coached Rondo for seven seasons with the Boston Celtics, has never seen a player watch more film than Rondo.

The LA Clippers coach and Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau, an assistant under Rivers in Boston, were recently laughing over dinner as they recounted tales about how the point guard would pounce on any scouting error at practice or shootaround.

"I think most players watch one game and think they are prepared," Rivers said. "Rondo watched 10 games and was as prepared as a coach. That made him different."

Consider Rondo's typical postgame routine:

  • Regardless of outcome, Rondo will ruminate about the game over a late dinner.

  • He'll cue up some Bob Marley and ease into a film session, reviewing the preceding events.

  • This regimen begins around midnight and can stretch to as late as 3 a.m.

"I set up the ambience," Rondo said. "I get the mood right where I need to be mentally."

"... Anything I do ... cards, Connect Four, driving to school [and knowing the best route]. My life is pretty calculated," Rondo added. "I go home, I have to sleep [pregame for] 2½ hours. I eat at certain times. I got to leave the house at certain times. I shower at certain times before the game."

"... It's like having answers to the test," Rondo later said of being prepared and calculated. "That is how I look at life, how I look at on the court. If I am out there and I got the answer to the test, I am going to do a better job on my test."

The Lakers have been trying to unlock Ball's fire for over a year now.

Ball has admitted to having difficulty getting engaged at times -- and Rondo has been tasked with unsealing the former No. 2 pick's potential. He has been in Ball's ear to rebound, push the ball in transition and post up smaller defenders.

"Yeah, he'll try to get into me," Ball said. "Just stuff to try to get me going. He talks a bunch of trash in practice all the time, which makes me pretty mad."

"I told him, my whole life I [respond to] getting yelled at [by the coach] so that is how I respond ... if you see stuff, just yell at me. I tune into it. That is how he tries to help me out."

On at least three occasions this season, Rondo has called an impromptu players-only film session.

"He pretty much leads the whole thing," Ball said. "He just calls it randomly before practice and he got the clicker and he goes through everything, from guards to bigs. I think that helps me the most."

In a session with Ball over the summer, Rondo played footage from the Lakers' March 22 game against the New Orleans Pelicans last season. Sitting with Johnson, Pelinka and Ball, Rondo -- who played opposite Ball in that March match -- showed footage of the Lakers losing what should have been an insurmountable 11-point lead in the fourth quarter.

"The Lakers were up and we were making a run, but it seemed like they were down," Rondo said. "You got to point out a couple of guys on the team that looked like they had s---ty body language."

"...as the point guard, you need to make sure everyone understands that."

There's 15.9 seconds left on a Saturday night at the San Antonio Spurs and Rondo has a path to an uncontested layup. In the previous timeout, Walton had instructed the team to take a quick basket and foul if James did not have an immediate 3-point opportunity.

Instead, Rondo pulls the ball back out to try to catch the Spurs off guard for a potential tying 3. The Lakers miss a 3, and Rondo explains that the Lakers had no timeouts left.

But Walton has given the point guard the freedom to make on-the-fly decisions because he trusts Rondo's judgment. He talked with other coaches and assistants who had success employing the same sentiment. Alvin Gentry, who coached the guard in New Orleans, told Walton how much the Pelicans players loved Rondo.

"[Gentry] said, 'I absolutely love coaching Rondo,' and I agree," Walton said. "I've had zero issues with him as a player. He's been great. The only thing I ever have to tell him is like, sometimes I need him to be less vocal when we are trying to get teaching done. But he's never a problem. Everything I've ever asked him to do, he's done."

During his second season in Boston, a young Rondo would walk into the Celtics coaches' office and brainstorm game plans with Rivers and his staff. It's something Rivers welcomed but the coach later admitted he and Rondo didn't always see eye-to-eye during their time together.

"We would have drag-out arguments," Rivers said. " ... We had our ups and downs but mostly as far as people we always liked each other. That doesn't mean we got along all the time."

"... He wants to be heard and wants a voice. Maybe I am lucky but I have always viewed that as a positive thing."

The young Lakers have noticed Rondo's attention to detail. Hart says the Lakers sometimes walk out of a huddle and Rondo identifies the opposing play just by the positioning of the players on the court.

Ball said Rondo once pointed out that a player had his shoes untied during a film session in the midst of all the other things he saw on tape. Kuzma says he's seen how Rondo constantly looks at his Apple watch during practice.

"I don't know what he does with that watch but seems like he is pretty calculated with everything," Kuzma said.

Rondo, who says he monitors his heart rate and steps with his watch during practice, admits he is deliberate with everything he does on and off the court.

"He keeps it super genuine, super real," Ingram said. "He is in vocal mode at all times. He is always telling me to attack. He always says, 'You want to become an All-Star, right?' Then he goes on and on how I can become that, how I can get easy baskets, how I can be a better defender."

With Rondo sidelined for at least a month, James will have to rely on newly acquired Tyson Chandler to maintain the vocal intensity on the court. But that won't stop Rondo from making his thoughts known, even from the bench.

"Rondo's a natural leader," James said. "I think he just was brought into this world to lead."