Monday, June 06, 2011

Thoughts on Ricky Rubio and the Timberwolves

Well, the wait appears to be over for Minnesota Timberwolves fans: Ricky Rubio is expected to join the team whenever the 2011-12 NBA season starts.

For fans who want another glimpse of Rubio, note that the best-of-five Finals of the Spanish ACB between Rubio's Regal FC Barcelona team and surprising Bilbao, a heavy underdog, begin on Thursday at 2:45 p.m. ET (2045 CET) and can be watched online via ACB360 on ACB.com.

Rubio has not done much in the ACB playoffs, relegated to a reserve role behind veteran Victor Sada since the playoffs started (Rubio is apparently dealing with a foot injury). And that's something consistent with we've noticed in trying to scout Rubio's games this season: they're almost irrelevant because Rubio hasn't been asked to do much of anything.

He's a player who excels in the pick-and-roll and transition, yet Barcelona doesn't put him in those roles very often. While we disagree with how Rubio's been deployed, we can also understand that he's still a player in development, and Barcelona is a team primarily interested in competing for European and Spanish trophies, rather than developing a player for the NBA.

In April, in the NY Times' Off the Dribble blog, Stephen Danley wrote a terrific, thorough article detailing the many distinct pros and cons of Rubio's game, the development of which appears to have stalled in a disappointing season in Barcelona.

Danley argued that, in order to improve and fully realize his game, Rubio needed to come over to the NBA, which better suits his unique skill set.

We've watched him many times in FIBA, Euroleague and Spanish ACB play over the last few years. After not having seen much progression in Ricky's game this season, we'd have to agree.

Last January in this space, M. Haubs offered his own scouting report of Ricky's game. This season, Kevin Pelton and Jonathan Givony are among those who've taken in-depth looks at Rubio's progress.

Today, Jay Aych offers an updated scouting report on Rubio, and M. Haubs follows with some thoughts on Rubio and the Timberwolves.

Jay Aych:

OFFENSE
We've always thought Ricky was best compared to a Jason Kidd, though not quite as strong or athletic. We think that a Rajon Rondo comparison (which was made by both Danley and Pelton) is pretty apt. Danley focused on how Rondo and Rubio are both poor outside shooters, which we agree with, but the one, somewhat critical, area where we'd make a distinction is that Ricky does not possess the finishing ability of Rondo or Kidd (at least in his prime years).

Rondo is crafty getting shots up in traffic, and has an arsenal of floaters/runnners/scoops that keep the defense off-balance. Rubio's not much of threat to score anywhere on the floor, and his drives to the goal are straightforward, easily denied, and look rather amateurish, to be perfectly honest.

Rondo and Kidd (early in his career) have prospered in the league while largely lacking jumpers (though Kidd has obviously developed into a dangerous standstill shooter as his career has gone on), but were able to hurt defenses with some scoring at the rim. No doubt Rubio needs to work on his spot shooting and pull-up shooting, but maybe more crucially, he needs to develop his scoring on the move at the basket and in the lane.

Ricky is so good in the open floor pushing the ball ahead. Great with hit-ahead passes - reminiscent of Nets-era Kidd. One of the best pure passers in the world - master of adjusting the touch and trajectory of passes. Has the same innate ability as Nash to anticipate angles developing in the defense and putting passes on target and on time.

Ricky needs to concentrate on drills going hard to the basket, maybe against assistant coaches hitting him with pads, to help learn how to finish in traffic. Incorporating a floater or an off-balance runner to his repertoire would go a long way, as well.

Don't discount that developing a few post moves could help round out his game, also. Ricky isn't nearly as strong as Kidd at the same age, but does have a decent frame that could handle some more bulk.

One possibility as to why Rubio's scoring skills have failed to develop is simply because he's been too unselfish and much too reluctant to look for his own offense. Ricky has some issues with over-penetration, where it seems his entire mentality when attacking the lane is "Where am I dishing the ball off to?" He never seems to have any interest in scoring even if a good opportunity is available. He's always about drivin'-n-kickin', rarely thinking about drivin'-n-scorin'.

DEFENSE
Some have worried Rubio will be a significant liability on defensive end, but we think that is overstated. He should be fine on the defensive end in the NBA. Expect him to be a solid defender, who by no means should be a liability who needs to be pulled for defensive shortcomings.

Solid athlete with choppy feet, length and quick hands. Anticipates very well and seems to know his opponents' tendencies - sharp b'ball IQ on the defensive end. Like his alertness when he's off the ball. Has the ability to slide over and handle some 2-guards as well. The likes of Rose, Westbrook and Wall will give him issues, but they tend to give everyone issues. Expect Rubio's ability to pile up steals to transfer over and wouldn't be surprised if he's a Top 10 stealer.

PLAYING IN EUROPE
A big point emphasized by Danley in the NY Times is that the distinct style of play in European basketball may not fit Ricky's game quite as well as the more open American style. Can't disagree with that sentiment. Though another factor that could be stunting Ricky's growth is the other talent around him.

Rubio might just need to get away from a team with Juan Carlos Navarro, Barcelona's central figure on offense. Rubio needs to be able to improvise on the offense like Nash, shouldn't be hemmed in by a rigid system of set plays. Allow him to free-lance, let him probe, let him create angles. Ricky needs the ball in his hands a lot, running tons of pick/roll.

With Barcelona (and the Spanish national team), too many times Rubio acts like a caretaker where he's just initiating the offense or waiting for Navarro to get open around screens. You can't necessarily fault Coach Xavi Pascual for making La Bomba the focal point since he's the best pure scorer in Europe. Navarro also handles the ball somewhat, using ball-screens which have Ricky standing around more often.

Rubio is probably better-suited to just have a spot-shooter next to him in the backcourt, not such a dynamic offensive threat like Navarro who needs the ball in his hands a lot.

Another factor possibly cramping Ricky's style is the way minutes are distributed in Europe. Sometimes it's hard for players to get into a rhythm with the sometime peculiar substitution patterns of Euro coaches. You don't see many guys on the top-flight teams in Europe averaging more than 30 minutes per. Rubio plays only about 23 minutes a game (roughly the same as last year) and he has to share ball-handling duties with Jaka Lakovic, Victor Sada and Navarro. A combined 30 minutes of backcourt time are split between limited role players, Sada and Roger Grimeau.

Still, even if Ricky is put in a system that allows him to freelance more, unless he develops his scoring acumen, he won't be able to become a truly top-tier point guard in the NBA.

M. Haubs:
Really torn about Ricky Rubio at this point. In watching him play for Spain in the 2010 FIBA World Championships and for Barcelona in the 2010-11 season, it's certainly disconcerting that Rubio has not made more progress, especially as a scorer and finisher. Yet it's also felt somewhat useless to watch these games, given that Ricky's teams have not put him in a position to thrive and develop, and that he's been asked to do so little.

For a glimmer of optimism, I'd point back to the one game Rubio's played in the last year which was played with a majority of NBA players, and NBA style: Spain's friendly matchup vs. Team USA a week before the World Championships last August. I thought Ricky held up well, and here's what I wrote about it last September:
    Rubio's most important game of the summer from an NBA prospect perspective was still the friendly vs. Team USA prior to the tournament, and I thought he was impressive in that game, with 7 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals in 21 minutes, though he did commit 5 turnovers. Ricky's outstanding court vision was on display, though he was overly flashy at times, and he played solid D against the likes of Derrick Rose and Steph Curry. Considering again his production in per-minute terms and FIBA terms, his stat line was deceptively good.
A recent post on SBNation's Timberwolves blog, Canis Hoopus did an exceptional job of breaking down what kind of statistical production we might expect to see from Rubio.

John Hollinger's formula for translating Euroleague stats to the NBA works like this:
    • Scoring rate decreases 25 percent
    • Rebound rate increases by 18 percent (there are more missed shots in NBA play)
    • Assist rate increases by 31 percent (Euro scorers are tightwads with assists)
    • Shooting percentage drops by 12 percent
Here are Rubio's numbers for the last two seasons (at ages 19 and 20, respectively) translated from the Euroleague to the NBA:
    MIN PTS REB AST FG%
    09-10 20.9 6.8 2.9 4.1 37.0
    10-11 22.7 6.5 3.2 3.6 31.0

    09-10 per36 11.7 5.0 7.1 37.0
    10-11 per36 10.3 5.5 6.2 31.0

    09-10 NBA36 8.8 5.9 9.3 32.6
    10-11 NBA36 7.7 6.5 8.1 27.3
Obviously, the projected field-goal percentage is beyond dreadful and the scoring is low, but the assists are high and the underrated factor in Rubio's game in his rebounding. He projects to be one of the best rebounding point guards in the NBA, and this is an attribute that's been consistent throughout Rubio's career.

While my sense of Ricky Rubio as a prospect has dimmed a little following his 2010-11 performance, fundamentally I still believe in what I wrote in January, 2010:
    Overall, I remain high on Rubio as a prospect overall, though I do find it uniquely challenging to try to project Ricky's NBA future because of these competing factors:

    Pro: I believe Rubio truly has the court vision of an all-time great. Stockton, Magic, Nash - name who you want. I think Rubio sees the floor on that level.

    Con: Rubio just cannot finish at the basket at all, and he doesn't really score in the lane, either.
He's still just 20 (turning 21 in October), so there's still plenty of time to grow, but it's time to start developing that floater, young fella.

***************************

I do believe that it's going to be vital for not only Rubio, but the Minnesota Timberwolves as a whole, to find a coach who can take advantage of this team's peculiar mix of skills.

Minnesota has almost created a team of Super Friends, each with their own unique and even bizarre attributes and fatal flaws.

Kevin Love has the ability to throw otherworldly outlet passes, as well as grab boards at uncommonly high levels and hit threes at a strong rate for a big, though he's limited defensively and athletically.

Rubio has exceptional court vision which allows him to excel in transition and on the pick-and-roll, but he just can't score.

Anthony Randolph is a complete basketball freak show, and Super Cool Beas commutes to the Target Center from outer space.

I've been absolutely giddy at the trade rumors suggesting the hint of a JaVale McGee or an Andre Iguodala possibly heading to Minny for the no. 2 pick. Maybe they're far-fetched, but I can dream. Give me more freak-athlete freak shows for this club. Give me Bismack Biyombo if they keep the no. 2, with his crazy-long wingspan and his Wallace-like potential to lead the league in blocks while not being able to score a lick.

Really, all I want for this Timberwolves team is for them to become what Bethelehem Shoals defined as a "critically acclaimed" team, a la the Seven Seconds or Less Suns or the early-2000s Kings.

I want a team that is fascinating to watch, a team that I can't wait to watch every night of League Pass - a team that plays unlike any other, with Love throwing ridiculous 60-foot outlet passes to Rubio, with Ricky making floppy-haired no-look passes on the run to Anthony Randolph so he can do freaky Anthony Randolph things, or (I can dream) alley-oops to a plastic man like JaVale or Biyombo.

I don't care if this team is anywhere near a championship, I just want run-and-fun. Please just hire the right coach, who understands that he needs to let this team's unorthodox gifts flourish, and let them run run run (and let Ricky play some pick-and-roll), and turn this into the most fun team to watch in the league - because that is easily within this roster's potential - and all will be forgiven, David Kahn.

8 Comments:

At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your closing paragraphs. "A team of Super Friends." I love it!

 
At 5:19 PM, Blogger Leo said...

Awesome article and I couldn't agree more. I'm expecting Rubio to turn Wes, Martell, and Randolph into the Phoenix Suns version of Joe Johnson, Q-Rich, and Matrix/Amare. To say "I can't wait" would be a huge understatement.

 
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