Rajon Rondo is now in his ninth NBA season. He has led the league in steals once and in assists twice. He is second among active players in triple-doubles. He has made the All-Defensive Team twice and the All-Defensive Second Team twice more. He is a four-time All-Star. And he has a championship ring from 2008 with the Boston Celtics.
And he still can’t shoot.
That’s the biggest gripe with Rondo, other than the fact that he can be more than a little standoffish at times when it comes to being an extension of the coach on the floor. His career shooting mark of .469 is highly misleading because 60 percent of his shots have come from inside 10 feet, according to Basketball Reference. Outside of that range, he is well below 40 percent, including just 26 percent from the 3-point arc with no seasons above 31 percent.
Free throws also are a problem for Rondo, whose .647 mark as a rookie is the best of his career. This season, he is an awful 21-of-65 from the line, a percentage that puts him behind such stone masons as DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond and Ian Mahinmi.
The reason why we point this out is because Orlando Magic rookie guard Elfrid Payton appears to be Rajon Rondo with training wheels.
Payton is having a pretty good rookie season. He won the starting job in training camp, was moved to the bench due to a lack of offense and reclaimed his starting spot because his defense and playmaking were too valuable (and because the Magic envision Victor Oladipo as more of a shooting guard).
Among rookies, Payton is second in total minutes and steals per game and fifth in total rebounds while averaging 8.5 points. He is first among rookies and 15th overall with 6.1 assists, which is better than Deron Williams, Mike Conley, Eric Bledsoe and even Kyrie Irving. This week, he notched his first career triple-double, ironically against the Dallas Mavericks and Rondo.
And like Rondo, Payton also can’t shoot.
The 20-year-old is at .421 for the season. But again, that is a misleading number because 75 percent of his shots come from within 10 feet. Payton shoots about 51 percent at the rim and no better than 36 percent from any other distance, including just 25 percent from the arc. From Jan. 3 to March 1 – a span of 25 games – he attempted just two 3-pointers, missing both.
Also like Rondo, Payton struggles mightily from the line. He is at .527 for the season and has seven games in which he has missed at least four free throws.
One of those games was last Friday at Boston, where the rest of Payton’s play was nothing short of spectacular. He had 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists. He made 7-of-16 shots including 2-of-3 from the arc, marking the first time this season he made more than one three in a game.
The Celtics couldn’t stop him, so they fouled him. It was not an intentional strategy by Boston coach Brad Stevens, but it might as well have been. Payton made just 4-of-15 free throws, an 11-point lead evaporated and Orlando was saddled with a 95-88 loss.
Two nights later vs. Cleveland, Payton came tantalizingly close to a triple-double with 13 points, 10 assists and nine boards. But he made just 2-of-6 free throws, and you have to wonder if that was in the back of his mind Wednesday at Dallas, when he settled for a midrange jump shot with Orlando trailing by one in the final minute.
It’s possible Payton was feeling good about his stroke. He had made a 3-pointer and two free throws in the final three minutes. But it’s also possible that Payton may have subconsciously wanted to avoid being at the stripe with the game on the line, which he denies.
“I’m just working, putting up shots, getting in the gym, working hard,” Payton told the Orlando Sentinel. “I think the confidence has always been there, but I know I’ve got the support of my teammates.”
“They gave him that shot, he pulled up, he shoots it with confidence, we live with it,” Borrego said. “And we trust him in that situation. This won’t be the last time he’s there.”
Borrego is right. Whether it faulty form or a phobia, Payton has to become a better shooter if he wants to reside among the top point guards in the league before his career is over and lift Orlando out of the lottery. Look at what happened to Dallas after acquiring Rondo. The Mavs had the most efficient offense in the league before his arrival. But opponents don’t respect his shooting and pack it in more, and as a result they have slipped in efficiency.
In Oladipo and Payton, the Magic have a backcourt that could be dominant for years to come. But to get there, Payton has to become a better shooter.
On to the rankings.
1. ANDREW WIGGINS, F, MINNESOTA: Is Wiggins a disciple of SheridanHoops? Some time ago, we mentioned that the Rookie of the Year was his award to lose. But he appears to be cruising to the finish line while others below him have stepped up their games. His 20 points – on 4-of-17 shooting – in Thursday’s win over New York marked his first 20-point game in over two weeks. He needs to pick it up. LAST WEEK: 1
2. NIKOLA MIROTIC, F, CHICAGO: Check out this from Pacers coach Frank Vogel, whose team was lit up for 25 points and nine boards by Mirotic on Wednesday: “He is a threat at the 3-point line, he is great off the bounce and he is great at his cutting game. He is a heck of a weapon off the bench.” He has been awesome in March, averaging 20.8 points – with just one game below 15 – and 8.2 rebounds. LAST WEEK: 3
3. NERLENS NOEL, F-C, PHILADELPHIA: He suffered a bruised foot in Wednesday’s win over Detroit, which could mean he is out for the season with the way Sixers GM Sam Hinkie treats injuries to his cornerstones. We hope not, because Noel also has found another gear. He is averaging 12.6 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 1.9 blocks in March with four double-doubles, running his season total to 12. LAST WEEK: 2
4. ELFRID PAYTON, G, ORLANDO: Another guy ignoring the length of the season and having a fantastic March. Excluding a 13-minute donut on March 1, Payton is averaging 13.8 points, 8.7 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals in nine games. He even is shooting a respectable 45 percent from the floor, which would match his best month this season. Now, about that free-throw shooting. LAST WEEK: 5
5. MARCUS SMART, G, BOSTON: He is also putting together a solid finish to the season, and unlike Noel and Payton, his team still has something to play for. With all eyes on Russell Westbrook, Smart erupted for a season-high 25 points in Wednesday’s loss at Oklahoma City that included a startling seven 3-pointers with nine rebounds. This month, he is shooting better outside the arc than inside it. LAST WEEK: 4
6. JORDAN CLARKSON, G, LA LAKERS: When defensively diligent Utah held him to eight points Thursday, it marked the first time in 12 games since Feb. 22 that Clarkson failed to score double figures. During that stretch, the point guard averaged 15.2 points, 5.3 assists and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 47 percent. If Wiggins remains on cruise control, Clarkson could steal West Rookie of the Month. LAST WEEK: 6
7. LANGSTON GALLOWAY, G, NEW YORK: He had a strong finish to the week, going for 22 points on 10-of-18 shooting in the stunning win over the Spurs and 21 on 9-of-20 in the loss to the Timberwolves for his first consecutive 20-point games. There is the perception that Galloway has tapered off since his out-of-nowhere start recalled Linsanity, but if you look at the numbers, that’s not the case. LAST WEEK: 7
8. ZACH LAVINE, G, MINNESOTA: This is the first time we’ve heard from LaVine since he won the Slam Dunk Contest. As he did earlier this season, he was forced into duty by an injury to Ricky Rubio and made the most of his minutes. In a busy five-game week, he averaged 14.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists while shooting 50 percent, including 9-of-18 from the arc. Turnovers (4.2) were an issue. LAST WEEK: NR
9. BOJAN BOGDANOVIC, G, BROOKLYN: He started the week with just two points vs. Philadelphia but quickly regained his touch with 21 at Minnesota and 12 at Cleveland, making a combined 15-of-24 shots. March has been Bogdanovic’s best month since he burst on the scene in November, averaging 10.8 points on 53 percent shooting (13-of-29 threes) and reaching double figures six times in nine games. LAST WEEK: NR
10. MITCH MCGARY, F, OKLAHOMA CITY: He has had some nice games, like the 12 points and 13 boards he registered in Monday’s loss at Dallas. And he has had some disappearing acts, like the threat of a 9 trillion in Sunday’s win over Chicago. McGary is in a tough spot as a rookie, because the Thunder need his production with Kevin Durant still out and Serge Ibaka gone for four weeks. LAST WEEK: NR
DROPOUTS: Rodney Hood, G, Utah (8); Adriean Payne, F, Minnesota (9); Dante Exum, G, Utah (10).
FIVE TO WATCH: Tarik Black, C, LA Lakers; Tyler Ennis, G, Milwaukee; Jerami Grant, F, Philadelphia; Doug McDermott, F, Chicago; Jusuf Nurkic, C, Denver.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Mondays, and his Rookie Rankings on Fridays. Follow him on Twitter.