Rajon Rondo gets his turn in spotlight

Even in a season in which he inked a long-term contract extension and was selected for his first All-Star Game, the same question still follows Boston's Rajon Rondo: Where does he rank among the league's elite point guards?

This weekend could go a long way toward answering that query.

The NBA All-Star Game, as much of a circus as it has become, remains the league's marquee moment. From Saturday's skills competitions to Sunday's game, every moment is a chance for a player to elevate his status or cement his place in NBA lore.

This isn't Rondo's first All-Star visit, but in many ways it is. He tagged along with Boston's Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen for the 2008 game in New Orleans and made a quiet appearance in the rookie-sophomore game, helping the second-year players emerge with a 136-109 victory.

But this season he's where he's long believed he'd end up: out of the coming attractions and in the spotlight of Sunday's featured film.

"It was OK, it was an honor to be a sophomore," Rondo said of his 2008 cameo at All-Star Weekend. "But it's a whole different stage being an All-Star."

Two seasons ago, he was what he's always been: the guy who plays with the Big Three. There's long been the mentality that much of Rondo's success has been dictated by the play of the three Hall of Fame-bound teammates around him in Boston.

But in a season in which the Big Three have endured their personal struggles, it may be Garnett and Pierce who are tagging along with Rondo this time around.

Rondo is averaging 14.3 points, 9.7 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and an NBA-best 2.5 steals per game this season, maintaining the upward trajectory of his four-year career.

With fan-voted starter Allen Iverson withdrawing from the festivities Thursday, there's a chance that Rondo will be elevated to the Eastern Conference starting lineup, and get to play alongside Garnett, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, and Dwyane Wade.

How appropriate would that be, too? Dogged by questions about where he ranks among elite point guards, Rondo could find himself replacing "The Answer."

Imagine the possibilities. We've all seen what Rondo is capable of doing when surrounded by All-Star talent, but in a glorified exhibition that showcases offense and rewards creativity, it's a chance for Rondo to really distinguish himself as one of the league's top guards.

You can practically see him lobbing a no-look pass to Howard for a thunderous alley-oop. Or maybe Rondo finds himself in transition and utilizes that fake behind-the-back pass for a layup over the likes of Amare Stoudemire.

Even before Sunday's game, Rondo has a chance to make a name for both himself and the recently added H-O-R-S-E competition. Yet again, it's a chance for him to show he's one of the most creative players in the league by unveiling a rash of trick shots that kids on playgrounds will be emulating by Sunday morning.

For his part, Rondo is taking a wait-and-see approach to the weekend. Asked multiple times recently about what he expects, he simply smiles and says, "I don't know, I've never been."

But clearly this is a moment Rondo has been waiting for his whole life. And that says something for a player who does not always seem interested in the extracurricular.

Earlier this week, Rondo was not among the 27 players selected for the 2010-12 USA men's basketball training program, and director Jerry Colangelo suggested during a conference call with the media that Rondo was among a handful of players who were "not responsive" to an invite.

Rondo seems to put a premium on his free time and utilizing that to make himself the best player he can be for the Boston Celtics. It's likely he envisions that free time in the summer can be better spent developing his jumper, or working on the few weaknesses in his game.

All-Star Weekend is a three-day commitment, but a chance to define a career.

"I always thought I was an [All-Star-caliber] guard, but for the coaches to think so, it's an honor," Rondo said. "I try to play with that spirit, that tenacity each night. But having three future Hall of Famers in front of me, showing me how to do it, helped out a lot."

To be sure, Rondo enjoys the company on this trip. On the day he and Pierce were announced as All-Star reserves, he made Pierce stand next to him and answer questions in the Boston locker room before a game against the Magic, even as Boston's captain attempted to slide away, which would have left Rondo in the spotlight.

With Pierce and Garnett still hobbled by injuries and likely to have their playing time limited this weekend, Rondo may have no choice but to stand alone in the spotlight.

That would be appropriate, because even earlier than expected, the Celtics are becoming Rondo's team. As the Big Three battle the difficulties of aging, Rondo is being tossed the keys to the car when most assumed he'd still be driving on a learner's permit.

A few weeks ago, Boston's captain was asked if Rondo was the next Pierce. He chuckled and noted, "Not really, he's going to be the next Rondo. He's grown up right before our eyes and pretty soon he's going to be here, the face of the franchise when we're all gone in our rocking chairs. He's doing a great job, just maturing this year, doing everything [coach] Doc [Rivers] and [president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] are asking him to do. It's fun watching him grow and become a complete player."

Pierce might have a front-row seat as Rondo ascends to another level this weekend.

Regardless of how the weekend plays out, simply being at the All-Star Game is a defining moment for Rondo. His coaches and teammates were downright elated for his selection.

"I'm very happy for Rajon, it's just great for him," said Rivers. "Obviously for Paul and Kevin, it's old hat for them. For Rajon, it's phenomenal. He's put in the time, he's been great.

"If you think about the summer, [Rondo was] flying up to Atlanta on the weekend to meet with a shooting coach. Or coming down to Orlando to coach in the summer league, just to learn about leadership and what coaches go through coaching players. He's done a lot of the little things to help become a better player and he's been rewarded by making the All-Star Game."

And even if Rondo answers the question that's followed his career, he promises it won't change him.

"I'm definitely [still hungry]," said Rondo, who signed a 5-year, $55 million extension earlier this season. "I won't settle. I'm sure people thought I'd settle after signing the contract. I'm going to keep trying to get better. It doesn't matter how many All-Star appearances or [contracts]."

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.