WALTHAM, Mass. — Dionte Christmas, a 26-year-old rookie
hoping to make the Celtics' roster out of training camp, walked past Jason
Collins on his way off the practice court and gave the 33-year-old center a
"That's 'The Vet,'" Christmas said to a bystander,
drawing a chuckle from Collins, who is preparing to begin his 12th NBA season.
Collins was not always a seasoned pro, of course. The
7-footer out of Stanford joined the New Jersey Nets as a 22-year-old rookie in
2001 and came into a championship-focused environment that accelerated his
curriculum in becoming an NBA player, but at the same time magnified every
mistake he made.
Making Collins' job infinitely easier was the presence of
Jason Kidd, then an eighth-year pro in his first year with the Nets and playing
probably the finest basketball of his career. Kidd came in second in the voting
for the Most Valuable Player award that season, leading the league in steals
and coming in second to Andre Miller for the assists title as the Nets made the
first of two straight trips to the NBA Finals.
"When you're playing with a Hall of Fame point guard,
they make you look a lot better than you are," said Collins, who grew up in
Northridge, Calif., following Kidd's exploits at Saint Joseph of Notre Dame
High School in Alameda. "I've told J-Kidd that. He's done wonders for my
career. He's a great teammate and his court awareness is incredible on both
ends of the court. He's one of those players who, when he's on the court, he
makes everyone better."
Collins was a minor player on the 2001-02 team, but his role
expanded the following year. The defensive specialist started 66 regular-season
games and all 20 playoff games before the Nets fell to the Spurs in six games
in the NBA Finals. Collins ultimately played 6 1/2 seasons with Kidd in New
Jersey before he was traded to the Grizzlies for Stromile Swift halfway through
the 2007-08 season, by which time he had developed considerable respect for the
savvy point guard.
Collins now catches passed from Rajon Rondo, who is not one
to heap praise on opposing point guards. But on media day Rondo singled out
Kidd as the only active player who has been able to perform at a high level for
as long as Kevin Garnett. Kidd came into the league in 1994-95, one year ahead
of the Big Ticket, and is embarking on his 19th pro campaign.
At first glance, Rondo and Kidd are markedly different. Rondo
is three inches shorter, 30 pounds lighter and, at this stage, incomparably
quicker. Kidd, who signed a three-year deal with the Knicks this summer, has
averaged 7.2 assists per game over the last two seasons while Rondo has averaged
a gaudy 11.4.
Collins sees similarities between the two, though, both at
present and in their primes.
"Just being a floor general, being a guy who has great
command of the offense," Collins said. "When he has the ball in his
hands and he's driving to the basket, everybody's cutting to find an open spot
because even though he might have a wide-open layup, he's so unselfish that
he'll still look to make that extra pass. He's capable of doing so many
different things on the court."
Like Kidd, Rondo is a solid rebounder, although Rondo may
never average seven or eight boards per game as Kidd once did. Each has a knack
for reading passing lanes on defense, a skill Kidd has utilized more as age has
robbed him of his quickness. And like Kidd, who had a jump shot that scared
nobody when he entered the league and is now third in NBA history in 3-point
field goals, Rondo has shown an improved shooting stroke.
"That's a great role model for him, because in the NBA
you're going up against great defenses," Collins said. "They're going
to take away your strengths — or at least try to — and make you work on your
weaknesses. J-Kidd, similar to Rondo, has tremendous quickness and strength
once he gets in the lane, so the defense will go under screens and make him
shoot jumpers to keep him out of the lane. I've seen J-Kidd work hard in
practice on being able to knock down the open three and that's something I
think Rondo is working on. Rondo also has that little pocket, that 15- to
17-foot area around the elbows, that he really works on, too."
In the four years since they parted ways, Collins and Kidd
have not kept in close contact. The last time they talked was several years
ago, when Collins spotted Kidd on a golf course in Los Angeles and convinced
his former teammate to come talk to young players at the summer camp Collins
runs with his twin brother, Jarron, at their old high school in North Hollywood.
They could meet up Saturday, when Collins and the Celtics
face Kidd and the Knicks for a preseason game at the XL Center in Hartford,
Conn. Although the game will not count, it will be an opportunity to compare
the player who was once the undisputed best point guard in the NBA, and the
player who now intends to claim that title for his own.
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