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Bob Ryan

Double dose of talent and flair

Rondo and Ellsbury are two of a kind

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 28, 2009
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When Jacoby Ellsbury stole home against the Yankees in the fifth inning of Sunday night's game . . .

Tell me you couldn't imagine Rajon Rondo doing the same thing.

Are these two electrifying young players not bookends? Doesn't each bring a certain panache to his game? Does anyone in the NBA go about his business with quite the specific flair Rondo brings to the point guard position? Are there many other baseball players scoring from second on a wild pitch as Ellsbury did in his rookie season or on a stolen base/passed ball, as he did last Friday night?

The only current difference is that Rondo is on the way to fulfilling his promise, while Ellsbury remains a colossal tease. If he could keep doing what he did against the Yankees this weekend for an entire season, he'd be the Rajon Rondo of baseball.

Come on, now. Close your eyes. Can't you see Rajon Rondo as an Ozzie Smith with gap power?

"Not only can I visualize it, I have seen it," says Danny Ainge, the only man in town who won two NBA championship rings as a player and once knocked in the tying run and scored the go-ahead run in Yankee Stadium. "When we drafted him, we brought him into Boston and we had a company softball game. You cannot believe how far he hit the softball with those long arms and that great leverage. And in center field, he had a gun.

"There is no question he'd be a great center fielder, or a shortstop, for that matter. I mean, he had a cannon for an arm."

Meanwhile, wouldn't Ellsbury be legit point guard material? He was a very good high school basketball player, and he is undeniably athletic, as the Red Sox discovered during a private workout prior to the 2007 baseball draft. According to Sports Illustrated, "Rain forced them into a gym. Ellsbury saw a basketball on the floor, grabbed it and took off, leaping from near the free throw line and throwing down a vicious dunk. The scouts looked at each other in amazement . . . 'Guess my basketball game helped me get drafted,' Ellsbury says."

Once you get by LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo has been the single biggest individual story of the NBA playoffs. People are fascinated by the 6-foot-1-inch point guard who enters tonight's Game 5 against the Bulls having averaged 23.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 10 assists a game in the series. Magic Johnson used to do stuff like this. Larry Bird used to do stuff like this. LeBron currently does stuff like this. Each is at least 7 inches taller and 30-80 pounds heavier (LeBron's got to be 270).

Throw in the 14 steals and the 7 turnovers in 203 minutes. Then factor in that he remains far more of a driver/penetrator/open-floor player than a standard jump shooter, and the simple truth is that, style-wise, there is no one like him now and probably never has been. Rajon Rondo is utterly sui generis.

But that's not the whole story.

His extraordinary physical gifts are evident. But for this package of skills to be properly utilized, it must be accompanied by an equally extraordinary inner drive. No matter how gifted, no matter how long the arms, no matter how quick the feet, no one should be able to do what he does, the way he does it, as consistently as he does it. But he does.

"I really believe he wills things to happen," Ainge says. "He wills in some of those shots."

Oh, if only Jacoby Ellsbury could will himself on base.

There's the difference. No one can keep the ball out of Rajon Rondo's hands. He brings it up, quite often after rebounding it himself, and sometimes after stealing it. He has the ability to initiate the action, with or without the ball.

But Jacoby Ellsbury can't do his thing until he gets on base. And he just doesn't get on base often enough - yet.

When Jacoby Ellsbury gets on base, he has a good chance to score. Make that a very, very good chance. Think back to the beginning of the Yankee series. Friday night, bottom of the first. Ellsbury singles to right. A distracted Joba Chamberlain balks him to second. Ellsbury takes off for third, and when the pitch goes between catcher Jose Molina's legs, Ellsbury never stops running until he has slid home with the game's first run.

It brought to mind that electrifying moment in 2007 when he scored from second on a wild pitch. These are not things we are accustomed to seeing from Red Sox players.

Ellsbury reached base via hit or walk 196 times last season. He scored 98 runs, only 20 fewer than league leader Dustin Pedroia, who reached base 263 times via hit or walk.

Wow.

We all see what happens when Jacoby Ellsbury gets on base. He reached base six times in the weekend Yankee series and he scored five runs, one of them via a solo homer. It was a scintillating display.

The problem is, he doesn't get there enough. His on-base percentage last year was a disappointing .336. After last night's win in Cleveland, it is .318. He either has to hit better, walk more or, preferably, both.

It didn't appear we would be having this discussion in the autumn of 2007.

He personally jump-started the Red Sox in the playoffs that year, when he had a .429 on-base percentage and scored eight runs in just 12 times on base. He looked as if he would be an ideal leadoff man, one with a discerning eye and pop in the bat.

Some (OK, me), foresaw a .340 average with 60 stolen bases.

Obviously, the American League pitchers have had something to say about that.

Ainge has had his eye on Ellsbury from the beginning. Fellow Oregonian, you know.

"He's very exciting," Ainge says. "He had that great start two years ago, and people expected a lot from him. But there was all that confusion last year with him splitting the time in center.

"Now he has the job. He's like a lot of young players. He needs to get consistent. But he is a special talent, and players like that are hard to find."

Rondo has figured it out. Now it's Ellsbury's turn. Raw talent like that is a terrible thing to waste.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and the host of Globe 10.0 on boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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