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Is Ricky Rubio in the Long-term Plan for Minnesota?

Eric Saar looks at the promising young core in Minnesota and how Ricky Rubio fits into their long-term plan.

Eric Saar

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The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t made the postseason since 2003-04 when Kevin Garnett was in his prime. Since then, they’ve peaked at 44 wins – in the following 2004-05 season. They couldn’t even sneak in with a franchise player like Kevin Love putting up monster numbers such as 26.2 points and 12.6 rebounds in his final season with the team in 2013-14. With him, they never even ended the season as a .500 team. However, the Love trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers and subsequent drafts have netted the Timberwolves a young core that looks to break that playoff drought in the next several years.

Part of that Kevin Love deal was Andrew Wiggins. Hyped beyond belief coming into college and into the NBA, it seemed impossible Wiggins could live up to the hype, but he is certainly turning into a very nice NBA player, still with the potential to be much more. The 20-year-old Canadian stands at 6’8 and has increased his offensive production from his rookie season last year. His points per game jumped from 16.9 to 20.9 in about one minute less per game and he remains a great perimeter defender. He still has a lot to work on as his rebounding and assist averages decreased and his three-point percentage got worse. He’s still figuring out his game and honing his skill. But by the time he hits his prime in about five years, he’ll probably be an All-Star. Wiggins is one part of the two-man tandem that will lead Minnesota to the playoffs.

The other part of that duo is Karl-Anthony Towns. The number one pick by the Timberwolves in this summer’s draft has certainly produced incredible numbers so far in his rookie season. Towns has led the team in rebounding 32 times this season, which also makes his 21 double-doubles unsurprising, yet nonetheless impressive. The seven-footer was awarded the Western Conference rookie of the month award for November and December (Wiggins won the award four times during his rookie year). Last month, Towns tallied five games with 25+ points and 10+ rebounds – the most in one calendar month for a rookie since future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan’s rookie campaign.

Along with fellow rookie Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks), Towns is in a select group of young players who had a player efficiency rating (average is 15) of more than 19 during their aged-20 season. PER is a metric used as an overall gauge of a player’s effectiveness on the court. The list includes Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Tracy McGrady, Elton Brand, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis—and now Porzingis and Towns.

The rest of the roster is comprised of mostly two different groups. The first are the three veterans that are as old as dirt compared to the rest of the league. That is 39-year-olds Kevin Garnett and Andre Miller along with 35-year-old Tayshaun Prince. The other group is a bunch of young role players who have some potential such as Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, Tyus Jones and Adreian Payne. Some other players in the middle, age-wise, are 30-year-old Nikola Pekovic, 32-year-old Kevin Martin and 27-year-old Nemanja Bjelica. The Timberwolves are in the beginning stages of a promising rebuild with a serious youth movement and strong mentorship of Garnett, Miller and Prince. They have two players that look to be superstars in the making in Wiggins and Towns, both of whom are 20.

The question then becomes, does the 25-year-old point guard phenom Ricky Rubio fit into those plans?

Rubio is a great playmaker. He was playing professionally in Spain back when he was a teenager, then eventually came over to the NBA. He was hyped up before he came to America and hasn’t quite lived up to those lofty expectations, but has certainly solidified himself as a solid NBA player for years to come.

The Spanish point guard has averaged 8.2 assists per game since he came over to the Timberwolves and has been one of the better playmakers in the NBA. In 2015-16, he is averaging 8.5, which is good for fifth-best in the league. He also averages 2.2 steals per game this season, which puts him third in the NBA.

The problem keeping Rubio from becoming a star has been a lack of scoring. Rubio has only averaged 10.1 points per game for his career, which is nowhere near good enough for a star in the league. His scoring issues stem from his release, causing sub-par percentages. For example, for his career he has shot 35.6 percent overall and 31.4 percent from the three-point line. That’s not going to cut it for a starting point guard in the NBA. Fortunately for himself and the team, he seems to have turned a corner. In January, Rubio is shooting 40 percent from both the three-point line and overall, which is much more respectable and helps keep the defense honest, instead of playing off him and clogging up the lane.

Looking at the on/off court splits for Rubio this season, the Timberwolves’ assist percentage plummets a significant 10.5 percent when the Spaniard goes to the bench. Additionally, their offensive rating is 1.2 percent higher with Rubio on the floor than when he sits.

Minnesota has Rubio locked up through the 2018-19 season at an annual salary that jumps incrementally from $12.7 million this season to $14.8 million by the end of the contract. The only real competition Rubio has at point guard is Zach LaVine, who Minnesota has tried out at that position in spurts with mixed results.

While Rubio will be hovering around 30 years old when the rest of the core (Towns, Wiggins, LaVine) is entering their prime, this new and improved version of Rubio will probably still be part of their plan and will stick around in Minnesota and along with the rest of the core lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs in a few years. For instance, in 2021, a lineup of Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, a shooter, a screen-setter and rebounder, and Karl-Anthony Towns with Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad coming off the bench will be pretty formidable.

Based in Arizona, Eric Saar is an analyst for Basketball Insiders. He has covered the league for several years. He loves to converse about the NBA on Twitter, so follow him at @Eric_Saar. Eric graduated with honors from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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