WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) - Rajon Rondo wove his way down the Boston Celtics practice court, stopping to interrupt an interview with Brandon Bass and another with Avery Bradley.
Photographers hustled to take pictures, and reporters scrambled to get in position. After all, it's the first time they've seen him in uniform since January.
The Celtics point guard is not quite finished with his rehab from surgery to repair a knee ligament he tore in January. Rondo would not give a timetable for his return, saying only it would be in the 2013-14 season before adding that it would be in the winter - or perhaps the fall.
``I miss being out there on the court with my teammates and helping them win,'' he said, adding that he was working on his ball-handling and his shooting but could not take part in scrimmages or anything involving contact. ``The bike has become my friend.''
A four-time All-Star and the only remaining member of the Celtics' 2008 NBA championship team, Rondo is now the undisputed star and leader of a franchise in the middle of a sudden and dramatic rebuilding process. Coach Doc Rivers was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, and future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were sent to the Brooklyn Nets.
Starting a season without them ``is very hard,'' owner Steve Pagliuca said.
``We all grew up with those players,'' he said. ``I watched them play every day, got a chance to know them.''
Rivers was replaced by former Butler coach Brad Stevens, who had never before coached or played in the NBA. But replacing the two perennial All-Stars will be more difficult.
``This is a fresh start for us. I'm excited about this fresh start,'' said Rondo, who said with a smirk that he and Stevens were now ``best friends.'' ``This is his team. This is my team. I'm very supportive of him and he's very supportive of me.''
But first, Rondo must get back on the court. He has not played since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Jan. 25 - an injury that usually takes about a year to heal.
``When I'm mentally ready, I'll play,'' he said, adding that he has talked to Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker as well as ex-teammates Tony Allen and Kendrick Perkins. ``This injury isn't easy. It's more mental when you come back, and you get around 10-11 months, it's just feeling confident.
``You need that mental aspect to go up and jump and come down without thinking about your leg again. ... When I get there, I'll play.''
Although Pierce was noticeably shocked to be traded from the only team he'd ever played for, Rondo said he had no trouble adjusting to the roster overhaul. He is eager to take part in the rebuilding process, he said, even hosting a dinner at his house for players, the coaching staff and ownership.
``Everybody in that situation would be asking questions: `Where am I fitting into the whole plan?''' general manager Danny Ainge said. ``He wants to play with this group of guys.''
Although he's impressed with Rondo's progress, Ainge couldn't give a timetable for his return.
``He'll be back at some time, during the season,'' Ainge said coyly. ``He's doing most of the drills that he can do and staying away from contact.''
Until then, Stevens is trying to implement a new system without its most important piece. Rondo will have little trouble picking it up midseason, Stevens said, because it will be tailored to his strengths.
``He doesn't need to fit to how I've coached in the past,'' Stevens said. ``I need to fit to him.''
Without Rondo, the Celtics roster is filled with largely serviceable players who will have to prove that they deserve playing time when training camp opens in Newport, R.I. on Tuesday. Stevens' first job will be coming up with a rotation, and his second could be keeping everyone happy with his decision.
``He's got a tough job ahead of him,'' Ainge said. ``He has a lot of good players and no superstars, other than Rajon, who won't be ready for the start of the season. It's not a perfect roster.
``He's going to have to mix and match a lot of things and manage the egos.''