The rise and demise of Ricky Rubio

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Ricky Rubio’s good and all, but could he be better? Oh yeah.

Just a quick note before you read on, Ricky Rubio went 2-12 with six points in last night’s loss to the Celtics. He even lost significant playing time to the hands of JJ Barea and Alexey Shved down the stretch. This is the story of the rise and demise of Ricky Rubio and his offensive charm.

In 2009, former President of Basketball Operations David Kahn was in a prime position to turn the Timberwolves’ misfortunes around in a big, big way. Armed with two draft picks in the first seven slots in what seemed to be a pretty solid draft talent-wise, Wolves fans were more than excited to get off the hump and in a hurry.

Well, four years later, we know how that scenario turned out. Most notably, Kahn chose Syracuse point guard Johnny Flynn over the country’s college basketball sweetheart in Stephen Curry. Flynn is currently playing (pro?) basketball in China, although rumor has it he left the team already, while Curry is becoming the superstar some thought him to be right out of college. Despite dealing with a myriad of injuries in his short career, he’s still the face of the Golden State Warriors, averaging 24.1 points and 8.9 assists per game, leading them to a modest 13-12 record this season.

Meanwhile, the other storyline of that draft was Sir Ricky Rubio. The mystical point guard out of Spain was all the rage from that draft because of how mysterious he was. At just 19 years of age and a big question mark regarding his contractual eligibility, Rubio was a hot commodity but it was like having a really big, shiny box and not exactly knowing what’s inside until you open it.

Thanks to a trade with the Wizards, the Wolves were lucky enough to open that box. And even though they had to wait with it under the tree for two years, what was inside was just as shiny and exciting as the box itself. Rubio, alongside Love’s emergence as one of the NBA’s top players, finally rejuvenated a desperate fan base and even instilled some hope for a brighter future in Minnesota. Better late than never, amiright?

But now that we’re in Rubio’s third season, that glitter and shine we all fell in love with is starting to dull and it needs a major rebuffering. The youngster with boyish charm off the court and flashy game on is now struggling to regain that favor with the fans, or at least this critic.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too hard on the guy. After all, on the surface, Rubio could very well turn out to be the best Timberwolves point guard of all time. The competition isn’t all that fierce from Pooh Richardson to Terrell Brandon to Stephon Marbury. If he stays long enough, he could and most likely will break records for assists and steals in Wolves history. Through 122 games played over his three year career, he’s averaging 7.8 assists per game, giving him 950 on his career, which puts him just outside of the top 10 in Wolves history but on pace to break Kevin Garnett’s record of 4,146 in just about six more seasons. Not easy but definitely possible if he remains a Wolf. He’s clearly a magician when it comes to distributing the basketball. And although we haven’t seen as much flash this season like we have in the past from Rubio, he’s still posting consistent numbers and finding players for open shots. He’s ultimately what keeps the offense moving and he’s any coach’s dream point guard from that standpoint.

Then you have the defensive side, where Rubio may just be one of the best on-ball defenders at the point guard position. At 6’4″ with long, swaying arms, Rubio wreaks havoc at the top of the key. He’s got quick feet to stay along with even some of the quickest, more athletic guards in the league. At first, he struggled with those guys because of just how explosive they are. But after a few years of getting used to the speed of the NBA game, he’s figured out how to better position his body to stop the head-on drives to the basket. Perhaps the best part of his defensive game, though, is his mental makeup to gamble and take risks. And, boy, has it paid off. We’ve gotten used to Corey Brewer’s cat-and-mouse defense, where he lunges at offline passes to get a finger on them, but Rubio is more particular about it. That special Spidey sense has equalled 2.4 steals per game, which already leads the Timberwolves all-time, although he’s still a long ways off of Garnett’s 1,282 total steals. It’s still clear that Rubio’s killer instincts on defense are potentially more valuable than his offensive prowess, and I really mean that.

Part of my reasoning about his defensive skills being more important is because he seems more mature than he did when he first started on that end, whereas on offense, Rubio still has a lot of room to grow. Specifically, we’re singling out Rubio’s poor shooting numbers.

Typically, by a player’s third season, they start to solidify habits in their game. By that third year, a player’s maturation has just about blossomed and the things they’re doing on the court now are likely what you’ll see for the rest of their career. That doesn’t bode well for Rubio’s shooting habits. As of right now, Rubio is a career 36 percent shooter, 33 percent from deep. Those current numbers make him the poorest shooting point guard in the NBA in the last three seasons. Ouch.

Let’s have a look-see at what Rubio’s shot chart looks like this season:

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A little bit too much red on that chart, if you ask me. But as you can see, he’s actually improved on his three point shot, which is good. But there are two areas that really strike a nerve, given Adelman’s offense and Rubio’s strength running the pick and roll. The mid-range jumper is key to being a pesky pick and roll guard. Think about your options when big Pek comes and sets that screen. For one, you can go right over the top and shoot the jumper from deep. But that’s not a very high percentage shot. So another option is to use the screen and go around, giving you either a clear shot to the basket or an open area to hit the pull-up jumper. That’s what makes Chris Paul such a dangerous option because he can hit that shot with ease. And then your third option is to attack the basket and look for a layup before the help defense collapses down on top of you.

Now, that second option of taking that pull-up jumper is not Rubio’s strength. We’ve seen him hit it before but the problem is that he comes so sharply into that shot at such a steep angle that, once he actually rises to take the shot, he’s moving forward so much that the shot is almost always too deep. And that’s a real problem considering Rubio’s jumper is on a low-arcing curve, naturally, which leaves very little room for any touch. And then you have that third option of attacking the rim. But the problem is Rubio is not very good at absorbing contact, especially with the body, so he shies away from contact quite often. When he draws the foul, that’s a good thing because he can hit free throws at a decent clip. Otherwise he finds himself in trouble in the paint and around the rim, as proven by his paltry 29-72 clip in that area. For most players, that should be close to the easiest shot in basketball but for a sly, slinky guard like Rubio, who masters finesse over speed and power, he can get beat up pretty good down there.

For being a pick and roll artist, you have to be able to expand your game. In his first three seasons, Rubio has not been able to do that. And for someone who appreciates elite talent for what they do (i.e. Chris Paul) it’s hard to look past Rubio’s glaring blinding¬†weaknesses on the offensive end. The flash is fine. The charm is exciting. The defense is wonderful. But Rubio still has a long ways to go before the Wolves go and consider giving a player a big, or a potential max contract, to someone who can’t even crack the “below average” category in terms of shooting percentage. The name of the game is to put the ball in the hoop, and Rubio’s not even average at that.¬†C’mon, man!

So whenever you go back to that 2009 draft and debate with your buddies, everyone always dwells on the “What if we took Curry over Flynn.” But isn’t it fair to evaluate, with over three years now in the league, if taking Rubio over Curry was the right choice? It’s too late to dwell on any past decision but it’s time to start thinking about whether or not Rubio was and is the right choice for the long-term future of the franchise.