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.
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