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November 1, 2010
Trend Watch
Rondo Assists, Cousins Fouls, Rockets Pace

by Kevin Pelton

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Trending player No. 1: Rajon Rondo, PG, Boston Celtics

Rondo stole some headlines away from the Miami Heat's blowout win over the Orlando Magic with his stat line on Friday night. Rondo finished with a triple-double that included a career-high 24 assists. According to the Elias Sports Bureau and ESPN Stats & Information, Rondo's total of 50 assists thus far has him tied with John Stockton for the most ever in the season's first three games.

What explains this surge in assists by Rondo, who finished fourth in the league last year with 9.8 per game but never had more than 44 in any three-game span? One theory is favorable scorekeeping. The home scorers at the TD Garden did appear to expand their definition of an assist during the final period to pad Rondo's total. He was credited twice for assists on plays where teammates created opportunities with multiple dribbles before shooting. A couple of other assists stretched the league's official definition, but even taking those away, Rondo's total still would have been the best of his career. Besides, he's not the first point guard to benefit from some friends at the scorer's table.

Rondo's assist totals cannot be traced to hot shooting by his Boston Celtics teammates, either. The Celtics' effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of 3-point shots) of .509 is down slightly from last year's .522 total.

The biggest difference appears to be how the Celtics are using Rondo. In the early going, he has spent more time with the ball in his hands, focusing on setting up teammates instead of creating his own shot. (Rondo scored just 10 points in the triple-double, attempting 12 field goals.) That has translated into more turnovers--Rondo has coughed the ball up on 27.7 percent of his plays, an increase from last year's 19.3 percent mark, and turned the ball over seven times Friday against the New York Knicks. However, Boston will happily accept Rondo's occasional miscues if they come with more 20-assist outings.

Trending player No. 2: DeMarcus Cousins, C, Sacramento Kings

During his first week in the NBA, Cousins has lived up to expectations that had him in the race for rookie of the year honors. The Kings center has been solid, recording his first career double-double in Saturday's win in Cleveland and even handing out five assists in his professional debut.

Cousins' play has also been as advertised in a more problematic area: foul trouble. Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE projection system suggested, based on his translated college stats, that Cousins would have the laughable average of 5.7 fouls per game during his rookie season. Through two games, Cousins was coming close. Five fouls limited his playing time during the season opener against Minnesota, and he fouled out Friday in New Jersey after just 21 minutes. Even during the preseason, Cousins fouled out twice and had five fouls in two other games.

FOULS PER GAME LEADERS (through 10/30)

Player              Tm   FPG    MPG
-----------------------------------
Darrell Arthur     MEM   5.3   29.7
Andris Biedrins    GSW   5.0   21.5
Hedo Turkoglu      PHX   5.0   26.7
Taj Gibson         CHI   5.0   26.0
DeMarcus Cousins   SAC   4.7   25.3
Kevin Garnett      BOS   4.7   31.0

Saturday's game showed improvement for Cousins, who collected just three fouls and was able to play a career-high 28 minutes. And two of those three fouls came on the offensive end, whereas all of his fouls in the first two games were committed either on defense or in loose-ball situations.

Not being able to give a foul is a bit of an adjustment for Cousins, who played an unusually low number of minutes (23.5 per game) for a top prospect in college. Kentucky's depth in the frontcourt gave Cousins the luxury of playing aggressively and fearlessly, which makes a difference in terms of offensive rebounding, where fouls are common. A devastating force on the offensive glass against NCAA opponents, Cousins has four offensive rebounds through his first three NBA games and two fouls trying to secure position.

Trending team: Houston Rockets

A fast-paced start to the season has two NBA teams averaging at least 100 possessions per game, a mark last reached over a full season by the Charlotte Hornets and Golden State Warriors in 1991-92. That the Minnesota Timberwolves lead the league in pace cannot be considered entirely surprising, since they have pushed the tempo under Kurt Rambis and were third in the NBA last season. That the Houston Rockets rank second, however, is more unexpected.

Yes, the Rockets played at the league's sixth-fastest pace in 2009-10, but that was out of character for a team that had been below average in possessions per game throughout the Yao Ming era. With Yao returning after missing all of last season, the notion was that Houston's second unit would speed things up while the starters focused on getting the ball to the big man in half-court sets. Instead, the Rockets have been constantly on the attack. Houston's transition game has been dangerous so far, averaging 18.7 fast-break points per game. That's a dramatic increase over last year's average of 14.6 fast-break points and would have put the Rockets third in the league during 2009-10.

This early in the season, opponents can make a major difference in pace of play, and Houston has played the Warriors and the Denver Nuggets, another team traditionally among the league's fastest. However, the Rockets' 132-128 shootout loss at Golden State, in which Yao did not play, was actually slower than the pace of their season opener against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Houston might slow down when the team adds Erick Dampier to the roster. Adding Dampier would mean bigger lineups for Houston when Yao is on the bench, which should be often considering his minutes restriction and inability to play back-to-backs. The Rockets could use the size to help a defense that is allowing more points per possession than any other in the NBA.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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