By Jessica Camerato
HARTFORD -- On one side of the locker room, Shaquille O'Neal repeatedly tossed a Celtics strength-and-conditioning coach in the air. On another side, teammates joked loudly with one another.
Rajon Rondo quietly sat in the middle of it all, hands rested in his lap and eyes glued to game film. Tip-off was less than two hours away and it was his job to reign in all these personalities on the court.
Rondo, however, does not find his task as difficult as it may seem.
"This has been the easiest year, really, so far," he told CSNNE.com. "I know we haven't played a game yet or been through adversity, but right now I think we have a good group of guys."
Rondo attributes this to a "trickle-down effect" of unselfishness that he believes starts with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. His teammates, on the other hand, give credit to Rondo himself.
Three years ago Rondo was assigned the duty of leading a newly assembled Celtics team as the starting point guard. It was only his second season in the NBA, and at 21 years old he was one of the youngest players on a veteran squad.
There were bumps along the way as Rondo tried to establish his role on the team. He was the floor general, yet at the same time the Celtics already had so many experienced leaders. Naturally, there was a learning curve.
But after being at the helm for an NBA Championship and a trip to the NBA Finals two years later, his teammates notice a difference in their point guard. Rondo, now 24, has grown up.
"A lot has to do with maturity," Pierce explained to CSNNE.com. "He's been around the block a few times now. He understands the coaching staff, he understands the players around him, whereas before he probably bumped heads with a few people or reacted a certain way. But now he understands who he is, he understands the system, he understands everything around him and what's needed for him."
Allen echoed Pierce's sentiments.
"He's more settled in," he said. "I've noticed a maturity in him this year that I haven't seen. It's things that he says during games. During the preseason, he's focused on his help defense, he's zoned in more, and he knows that a lot of what's going on starts with him. It's been great encouragement for me to see him because a lot of things that I would say, he's saying them now. So I believe that it's mostly brought on through him because those are things that he wants. He's setting that tone."
As Rondo enters his fifth season with the Celtics, he has a longer tenure with the team than all but two players, Pierce and Kendrick Perkins. He has seen teammates come and go, all the while learning how to incorporate each one of them into the system.
This season he has to do the same with a handful of newcomers -- some who have already made their mark, like Shaquille and Jermaine O'Neal, and others who are just getting acclimated to the pros, like Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody. Then there are players like Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels, who didn't play a complete season with the Celtics last year due to injuries and trades.
Once they hit the court, Rondo has to corral everyone together.
"It's almost just like having a whole bunch of toys that you can play with," said Allen. "You bring friends over and say, 'That's the fire truck -- the ladder extends this high. This over here is my Batman toy -- he has a belt on.' When you understand what you're doing and what you're working with, it's like you have an opportunity to show everybody.
"He's gotten me the ball where I need the ball. He makes sure to do that on Kevin's plays and Paul's where he needs to be, so hes definitely got himself in a great position and hes shown great signs of leadership."
Rondo may not be the loudest person in a locker room filled with boisterous personalities, but there is no question whose voice is heard during the games. The jokesters, the story-tellers, the singers, and the dancers all turn to him.
"He's like the driver," said Pierce. "He's the point guard. He's already earned the respect of the veterans. He's taking it all in stride. It's not Rondo saying, 'Hey, you need to do this or that.' But you see him a little more vocal each and every year because it goes with his confidence."
Doc Rivers has been pleased with the maturity of Rondo's leadership, which includes a team-first attitude shared by everyone on the squad.
"It's been good," said Rivers. "It's preseason, so his leadership will come later. All of them will. But I think every guy on our team has made an amazing effort thus far to make sure that our team is together. So we've just got to keep going."
Rondo did not prepare for his role any differently this season than in past years. He didn't change his approach with certain players or adjust his demeanor. Instead, he says being a leader comes naturally to him.
And being a successful leader on the Celtics means involving the entire team.
"It's just a part of how we play Celtic basketball, really," Rondo said. "No one person can win the game for us and we know that. Night in, night out, it's going to be different guys being leading scorers. If we continue to have that mentality and all we care about is winning, it's very easy for me."
Jessica Camerato is on Twitter at http:twitter.comJCameratoNBA.