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NBA Saturday: What to Make of Ricky Rubio?

Despite lingering doubts, Ricky Rubio is one of better overall point guards in the NBA.

Jesse Blancarte

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Almost seven years since being picked fifth overall in the 2009 NBA Draft, there is still no consensus opinion on Ricky Rubio, the gifted point guard from Spain.

Part of the reason the verdict is still out on Rubio is time lost to injuries. On March 9, 2012, in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Rubio tore his ACL and lateral collateral ligament. Then, less than two weeks after signing a four-year, $56 million contract extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves in October of 2014, it was announced that Rubio would be out indefinitely after he severely sprained his ankle. He would return to the court roughly three months later, but ended up undergoing surgery on that same ankle in April of 2015.

Another issue for Rubio is his inconsistent shooting. For his career, Rubio is shooting 36.8 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from distance. In a league saturated with point guards who can run an offense, score in bunches and knock down three-pointers, Rubio’s shooting is problematic. However, Rubio’s shooting shouldn’t overshadow the other things he does extremely well, which arguably negate his inconsistent jumper.

When healthy, Rubio has proven himself to be one of the league’s best defensive point guards. At 6’4, Rubio has the length and mobility to force a lot of turnovers, guard the league’s best point guards and the size to effectively switch onto bigger players when necessary. That may not seem like a big deal, but when you are facing a dominant point guard seemingly every night, having a good defender at this position matters. Also, as great as it is to watch someone like Damian Lillard or Kemba Walker put up 25 or more points on any given night, too often these guards (and several others) are giving several of those points back by giving up easy points on the defensive end. That’s not the case with Rubio.

It’s not a coincidence that Rubio is able to generate so many steals. In addition to his size, he is one of the most aware and intelligent defensive guards in the league. In a lot of ways, Rubio is the complete opposite of James Harden on defense. He is almost always properly positioned between his opponent and the basket, is constantly surveying the ball-handler and the opposing offense as a whole, while waiting to jump passing lanes for a steal. He is constantly aware of where his opponent is, where the ball is moving and when there might be an opportunity to get a steal, as we see in these clips.

What’s great about Rubio’s steals is they usually aren’t generated by irresponsible gambling. He generally jumps passing lanes when his opponent is not a threat to score and when he has a good shot at getting the steal.

Furthermore, opponents for some reason seem to consistently underestimate Rubio’s length. Opponents often make routine passes when he is in the area, not realizing that his on point defensive positioning, awareness and length make him a serious threat to intercept lazy passes.

Rubio’s steals often lead to easy scoring opportunities in transition for his teammates. This is especially important for the Timberwolves for several reasons. First, with monster athletes like Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns running the court, Rubio gets to orchestrate some of the most collectively athletic fast breaks in the league. Also, Rubio is at his best when he is in open space and is able to improvise. Too often, Rubio is caught within the Timberwolves’ outdated half-court offense, where his creativity and passing abilities are generally suppressed – watch Minnesota’s half-court offense and you will frequently see Rubio having to throw predictable passes to teammates for long, contested two-pointers.

But it’s not just Rubio’s flashiness or highlight worthy passes in transition that are important. Rather, it’s his ability to execute some of the most essential and effective passes consistently that matters. For example, Rubio is one of the best in the league at delivering accurate bounce passes in tight space, whether it is in transition or in the half-court.

Rubio certainly isn’t the only point guard that can throw these sort of bounce passes, but no one seems to do it as accurately or often as he does, and they often lead to easy buckets for his bigs. In addition, Rubio has the vision, IQ and skill to consistently find the open shooters across the court that the defense has sagged off of.

In these clips, we see Rubio going through his options like a quarterback goes through his progressions, expertly reading the defense and taking what is given to him, rather than forcing the issue.

Rubio resembles a player like Chris Paul or vintage Steve Nash in these clips. Though Rubio is not the scorer that Paul is or Nash was, he is still able to draw enough defensive attention that he is able to consistently find an open teammate. If Rubio were on a team that had more consistent shooters behind the three-point line, he would probably be leading the league in assists without having to do anything more than he already does. Imagine if Stan Van Gundy was coaching the Timberwolves and put Rubio and three shooters around Towns. Rubio would be able to run pick-and-rolls with Towns every possession and have the choice to either drop pinpoint passes to Towns rolling to the basket or sling the ball to the perimeter to open shooters.

Despite all this optimism about Rubio’s skill and basketball IQ, the elephant in the room is Rubio’s shooting. While Rubio can make the occasional open set shot and pull-up jumper, he isn’t enough of a threat to get defenses to consistently scatter out as far as the three-point line to guard him. But while this should be problematic for just about any point guard, it somehow hasn’t really hurt Rubio or the Timberwolves all that much.

As we saw in the clips above, when Rubio drives to the rim, defenses collapse and leave shooters on the perimeter. This is especially true when Towns is Rubio’s partner in the pick-and-roll. Also, Rubio’s ability to throw pinpoint passes to any area of the court keeps defenses off balance and in a sense causes them to press him as if he were a scoring threat himself.

There are certainly more variables that go into explaining why and how Rubio’s shooting hasn’t sunk the Timberwolves as much as we might expect. However, there is a simpler way to show how Rubio’s poor shooting, which is something many consider to be an Achilles heel, really hasn’t mattered all that much.

When Rubio is on the court, the Timberwolves score 106.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, which would rank sixth in the league in offensive efficiency over the entire season up to this point. When Rubio isn’t on the court, that number drops to 99.9 points per 100, which would rank 27th in the league in offensive efficiency. Of course, part of that dramatic drop is the fact that the Timberwolves don’t have a great option to backup Rubio or great backups in general. But still, the fact that Minnesota is so much better with Rubio leading the offense shows that his poor shooting isn’t having a significantly negative effect on the team.

Then, factor in that on defense the Timberwolves give up 105.6 point per 100 with Rubio on the court, and 109.5 without him. Added together, the Timberwolves suffer a -11 point per 100 swing when Rubio is off the court.

These numbers can get a little messy since there are several factors and variables that can influence them, such as the quality of the player’s teammates and opponents. However, these impressive on/off numbers are supported by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric, which attempts to take these variables into account and control them. Rubio is currently ranked fifth among point guards with a 4.72 RPM. That puts him behind only Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul and ahead of players like John Wall, Reggie Jackson and Damian Lillard.

For his career, Rubio is averaging 10.1 points, 8.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game and a Player Efficiency Rating of 16. His stat line, Player Efficiency Rating and poor shooting may not impress you. However, when you look past his current limitations and watch how skilled he is and how intelligently he plays the game, you can start to notice and appreciate how good and valuable he really is.

When you consider this, the fact that Rubio is still just 25 years old and that he is under contract for what will soon be considered a very team-friendly rate, it’s clear that Rubio is an asset to the Timberwolves and should be valued more than he generally is. He may not drain threes from near half-court like Curry, or physically overwhelm opponents like Westbrook, but he’s one of the best overall point guards in the league today.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Shamet Comfortable With Steady Self Going Into Draft

With a natural feel for the game, Wichita State guard Landry Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.

Spencer Davies

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No matter what professional field a person wants to work in, there are multiple ways to show why they belong.

A positive attitude is everything, confidence goes a long way and honesty truly is the best policy.

Speaking with Wichita State product Landry Shamet this past week at the NBA Combine in Chicago, it’s clear that he has all three boxes checked off.

“It’s been great,” Shamet said of the event. “Just trying to absorb everything, soak everything up. It’s a big learning experience for sure. A lot of knowledge to be attained (at the Combine). With interviews and playing on the court, being coached by NBA guys, it’s been cool so far.”

During his three years with the Shockers, the 6-foot-4, 188-pound guard accomplished quite a few feats, but his junior season was arguably the most spectacular. Not only did Shamet lead his team in multiple ways, but he also topped out in four statistical categories in the American Athletic Conference—the school’s first year there after moving on from the Missouri Valley.

Shamet’s 166 assists (5.2 per game average) were the most in the AAC by far. In addition, his true shooting percentage (65.5) and three-point percentage (44.2) ranked number one among his peers.

From entering the program in 2015 to now, he feels that he’s grown dramatically as a player—but in what areas, specifically?

“I would say being a point guard honestly,” Shamet said. “I was recruited in as a two. But just kinda that leadership role, that accountability. Knowing that you’re gonna get a lot of scrutiny (after) a loss and you’re gonna be responsible for a win. Regardless of how the game goes, it’s your responsibility.”

Much of his development at Wichita State was courtesy of a hands-on approach with Gregg Marshall, one of the most revered head coaches in college basketball. Thanks to his guidance, Shamet feels ready, even aspects outside of his offensive ability.

“On the defensive end, I feel comfortable with my positioning,” Shamet said. “Obviously, need to get better. You can always get better on the defensive end. That’s one thing I’ve been focusing on. Trying to get more athletic. Just be better defensively. He gave me the groundwork for sure. 100 percent.”

Shamet has kept in touch with Marshall throughout the entire pre-draft process. He was told to be “smile and relax” in interviews and to be confident, which he’s certainly followed through with.

A similar message has come from Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, two former Shockers who have each made their mark at the professional level.

“Just be yourself, you know,” Shamet said of VanVleet’s pointers. “That’s really what it boils down to I think. He’s been great to have him in my corner—a guy like that who’s been through a lot of adversity on his way to the NBA, so I’m gonna listen to him 10 times out of 10.”

VanVleet’s career is already taking off with the Toronto Raptors as a part of their young and hungry bench. But with four more inches of height and a similar feel for the game, Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.

And it won’t require flash or making a daily highlight-reel to do so.

“I’d like to just say versatile,” Shamet said of his game. “Just try to stay solid. I don’t ever try to make spectacular plays all the time. Try to just do what I feel I can do—play multiple positions, both positions, on or off the ball. I’m comfortable at either spot, honestly. Whether it’s facilitating, scoring, whatever the case may be.

“I feel like I have a high IQ as well. Just a cerebral player. Not gonna ‘wow’ you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. But I feel like I’m a solid player. Pretty steady across the board.”

However, just because he rarely shows off on the court doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability to do it.

“I feel like I’m a little more athletic than I might get credit for,” Shamet said. “I think I’m a better athlete than I get credit for.”

Shamet is projected to go anywhere from the middle-to-late first round of the draft in June. Whoever lands the Kansas City native will be getting a tireless worker who does things the right way and is all about the team.

But for now, he’s soaking in everything he possibly can before that night comes.

“I don’t have all the answers,” Shamet candidly said. “I’m a 21-year-old kid, man I guess. So just trying to learn as much as I can, gain some knowledge, get good feedback—because at the end of the day, I’m not a perfect player. I know that.”

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The Lakers Have Finally Stabilized

After a tough five-year period filled with loss and disappointment, the Lakers have finally put themselves back in a position to succeed.

Matt John

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On paper, missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row would rarely be considered impressive, but for the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that’s suffered pretty much nothing but misery over the last half-decade, this season was a sign of progress.

Leading up to this past season, the previous four years overall were anything but easy on the Lakers. Besides consistently being one of the worst teams in the league, some of the team’s high lottery picks, such as D’Angelo Russell, did not pan out as well as they had hoped, and management baffled the fanbase when they signed both Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to approximately $140 million combined over four years.

This season, things finally took a turn for the better. The team’s youngest players, particularly Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Lonzo Ball, started to yield positive results. The team’s new acquisitions, specifically Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and briefly Isaiah Thomas, made a notable impact on the season. Second-year head coach Luke Walton proved himself to be up for the job with improved personnel at his arsenal. That may have led to only 35 wins, but compared to the previous four seasons’ final results, 35 wins is about as good as the Lakers could have hoped for.

And it should only get better from here. The biggest positive is that the team’s long-term outlook is now the brightest its been since Dwight Howard skipped town in 2013. Their impending return to the glory days is still up in the air, but the Lakers can finally look forward to a promising future for two reasons.

Cap Flexibility

When the Lakers replaced Mitch Kupchak with Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to run the team, the two of them went to work right away. Pelinka and Johnson knew that if the Lakers were going to attain relevance again, they had to undo the franchise’s previous mistakes, even if it meant getting rid of some of their young talent.

It’s as the old saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Making said omelet started with getting rid of their albatross contracts. The Lakers found a taker for Mozgov when they traded him to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez’s expiring deal, but that deal also required trading Russell. Mid-season, the Lakers found a taker for Jordan Clarkson when they traded him to Cleveland, but that deal also required trading Larry Nance Jr.

Losing Russell and Nance Jr, and to some degree Clarkson, may have been tough cheese to swallow, but with Mozgov and Clarkson off the payroll, the Lakers have a ton of cap space at their disposal. In fact, this summer, the Lakers have only $34.5 million in guaranteed contracts, which will be the lowest payroll in entire NBA. This is a much bigger deal now that it’s been in the past for one simple reason: Hardly any teams will have cap room this summer.

The NBA salary cap’s drastic rise in 2016 caused many teams to overshoot their mark over the past two off-seasons. Because of that, quite a few teams will be paying the luxury tax while others will do everything in their power to avoid the luxury tax. This means that only a select few teams will have cap room to add a free agent on a max deal. The Lakers, on the other hand, have the cap room to add two.

Their situation only gets better given the competition in free agency. Most of the other teams that have cap room are in rebuilding mode, so the Lakers shouldn’t expect many competitors in their chase for marquee free agents ie LeBron James and Paul George this summer. The only other team that will be competing for their services with available cap space is Philadelphia, who only has $44 million on payroll this summer. Houston will also be in the race, but they will have to get creative if they hope to add a max free agent this summer plus keep Chris Paul AND Clint Capela.

Even if the Lakers whiff on LeBron and George, it isn’t the end of the world. They can afford to re-sign Thomas and/or Caldwell-Pope to one-year deals worth over $10 million because hardly anyone else can do the same. Even if absolutely nothing goes their way this summer, they’ll have flexibility again next season. While having cap space does not automatically mean free agents will come to the Lakers’ door next season, it’s better to have money available to offer than having to spend it on Clarkson and Mozgov.

Promising Youth Movement

Many knew the Lakers’ young core was nothing to sneeze at, but for the first time since they’ve started their rebuild in 2013, their youth movement’s talent finally translated into wins. They didn’t do it all on their own, but nothing makes a team’s future brighter than their young players starting to reach their potential.

That starts with Brandon Ingram. Ingram was the textbook example of raw his rookie season, but his sophomore year, he started living up to his billing as the second overall pick in his draft. Across the board, he improved his numbers, but his shining moment came when the Lakers turned to him to run the point with Lonzo Ball out in late-January. During that stretch, the Duke alum averaged 18.4 points on 52 percent shooting including 46 percent from three, 5.4 assists, and 5.5 rebounds. Ingram struggled mightily with injuries after that, but his vast improvement should be very beneficial in the long run.

Then there was the biggest surprise of the season: Kyle Kuzma. When the deal was first agreed to, Kuzma was originally a throw-in when the Lakers traded Mozgov and Russell for Lopez, but knowing Brooklyn’s luck, Kuzma may wind up being the best player in this deal. Kuzma wowed the fans at the Staples Center, as he averaged 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 45 percent from the field. Since Kuzma is only 22 years old, there’s no telling what his ceiling might be.

Then there’s the first lottery pick the Lakers drafted in their rebuild: Julius Randle. Randle got himself in the best shape of his life in preparation for this season, and it paid off on the court. Randle averaged career-highs in both point average (16.1) and field goal percentage (58 percent), but his best stretch came in February through March. In that time, Randle averaged 21.2 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. Randle is a restricted free agent this year, but with the lack of available money this summer, his best option may be to stay in LA.

Finally, the biggest wild card of the Lakers’ young talent: Lonzo Ball. Ball was both injury-riddled and inconsistent his rookie year, but he showed flashes every now and again of the player his humble father said he would be. While he had his issues putting the ball in the bucket, Ball’s much-hyped passing translated in the NBA, averaging 7.2 assists a game, and his rebounding was terrific given his size, as he averaged 6.9 rebounds a game. The jury is still out on Ball, but he should be given a full season before anyone comes to judgment.

In short, the Lakers’ cap flexibility and promising youth movement give them stability that not many believed they would have had at the end of last season. Inadequacy and incompetence have plagued the Lakeshow for the past several years, but now that they’ve brought the right people aboard, they are now pointed in the right direction.

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NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man

Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when it comes to the NBA draft, there always seems to a few players flying under the radar a bit. Players who are underrated or overlooked for whatever reason. This year, one of those players is Chimezie Metu from the University of Southern California.

In early mock drafts, Metu was projected to go anywhere from mid to late first-round. In some of the more recent mocks, he’s fallen out of the first-round altogether and into the second-round. If those projections hold and he does end up being selected in the second-round, then some team is going to get a huge steal.

Metu is a versatile big man who impacts both ends of the floor. He is an agile shot blocker who can control the paint defensively, and on the other end, he can score in the post while being able to step out and knock down mid-range jump shots. He is confident in what he’ll be able to bring to an NBA team.

“I think being versatile and being able to make an impact on defense right away,” Metu told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine this past week. “Being able to switch on to smaller players or guard the post, and just being able to knock down shots or make plays when I’m called upon.”

In his three years at USC, Metu blossomed into one of the best players in the Pac-12 conference. This past season, he led a solid Trojans team in scoring with 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He also led the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game and had a team-high 59 blocked shots.

He’s taken note of some of the best big men in the NBA, some of whom he’s tried to model his game after. He told reporters at the combine that some of his biggest influences are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. He knows that there may be misconceptions about his game, or those that doubt him, but he isn’t worried about that at all.

“I don’t really worry about what other people are saying about myself. I just go out there and play hard, and try to help my team win games,” Metu said. “My strength is being versatile, being able to impact the game in multiple ways. Not being one dimensional and being able to have fingerprints on different parts of the game.”

It’s been busy past few days for Metu. He’s had 13 interviews with NBA teams to go along with workouts, medical testing and media availability. Although it’s been a hectic time, part of what has made it so worthwhile is all of the NBA personnel he’s been able to interact with. What really has stood out to him being at the combine is the difference between college and the NBA.

“I can just go up to the owners and the GMs and just talk to them,” Metu said. “Coming from college you basically have to act like they’re not there, cause of the rules and stuff. Just the fact that they can come up and talk to you, you can talk to them, that’s probably the most surprising part for me.”

Aside from all the front office personnel he’s interacted with, Metu has also had the opportunity to meet with some of the most respected names in NBA history. Among the former players who he’s had a chance to meet with, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo have definitely stood out to him.

While he’s grateful just to have been able to meet NBA royalty, he’s used it as an opportunity to pick their brains. He’s also been able to showcase his game in front of them. He is confident that he’s been able to impress them and hopefully make an impact on their decisions come draft night.

“Just coming out here and having fun, there’s a lot of basketball royalty,” Metu said. “Being able to get a chance to shake their hands, being able to take stuff from them and what helped them become great. I’m just trying to take their advice. It feels great because never in a million years did I think I’d be here. It’s fun just going out there and showing what I can do.”

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