NBA Futures: How Ricky Rubio Will Redefine the Trigger-Happy Point Position
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
In Europe, the extra pass is a work of art and teamwork is a religion.
Suffice it to say, the majority who've come across the North Atlantic to the NBA and found success did their part to stem the tide of isolation plays and stagnant, one-pass offenses.
Just think of recently retired and underrated passing center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, as well as solid playmaker Pau Gasol. Further back you have the irrepressibly crafty Arvydas Sabonis and the frustratingly-clever master of the flop Vlade Divac, both Euro-progenitors of an NBA renaissance comprised of smooth-passing big men.
At the 3 and 4 spots there's Hedo Turkoglu, Toni Kukoc and Detlef Schrempf. All three were exceptional ball-handlers for their size—standing 6' 9", 6' 11" and 6' 10", respectively. All three did or could have played at the 2 or 3 spot without hesitation, due in large part to their refined passing games.
As for guards, there is the late, great Drazen Petrovic, the smart offensive threat Peja Stojakovic and the current slick-handles of Tony Parker.
Looking at the breadth of international imports, with no particular offense to Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming and, especially, Steve Nash, notice how European players have done more to spearhead a team offense revolution in the NBA than an identical cross-section of domestic or non-European international players during the same period.
They've greatly evolved the interchangeability of spots one through five, the changing dynamic of who starts and finishes an offense and the instinct to create improvised yet fundamental team plays.
Yes, Europe has the NBA in check when it comes to keeping "team" at the forefront of the league's often individual-obsessed outline in the last two decades.
Now the plot thickens, because another revolution is here named Ricky Rubio.
If the European players listed previously did their part to bring the extra pass and team offense back to the NBA, then the Spanish sorcerer Rubio is once again healthy and ready to make true team offense the marquee attraction.
The skinny Maravich-esque point guard lit up the league—with a panache not seen since the Kings had a rookie named Jason Williams—in his debut season only to be hobbled by a torn ACL in early March of this year.
Rubio worked hard and returned on December 15th, posting nine assists in only 18 minutes of action. Besides the eye-opening stats, you got the feeling of just how badly this guy wanted to play. Highlights of the Wolves' 114-106 overtime victory over Dallas show a man, not a kid, supremely focused, yet loose, and intent to display the immense talent we've only received a relative glance of.
In the last decade we've seen another wizard with the ball, Steve Nash, win two NBA MVP awards for basically being the absolute best playmaker in the game, in the the same mold as Magic Johnson and John Stockton.
An amalgam of what constitutes a great passer, Nash is always aware, lightning quick and confident to hold onto the ball a bit longer to find the open man—though "too much dribbling" for most is bench-worthy more often than not. In his mode, Nash always finds extra space whenever and wherever he needs.
All of these characteristics are possessed by Ricky Rubio who—listed at 6'4" and possibly still growing—has a bit more height and a definitively longer wingspan than Nash. Rubio's physical makeup presents a truer shooting guard-type body, which he'll hopefully bulk into in the coming years, a la Jason Kidd.
Rubio has the vision, the instincts and smoothness to his game that gives the impression of a point guard playing at the height of a young Penny Hardaway or Magic, yet more fluid and flippant with the ball like he's the true progeny of the And-1 generation of hoop artists.
If evolution is inevitable, Rubio is a mutant of spacial awareness and a seer of on-court movement.
Okay, maybe my words are getting too flowery, but the revolution Nash started with his "I can see better than you" menagerie of passing angles is finding a protege who prefers to run rather than walk on that same trail.
Rubio, like two of the top contemporary point guards Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose, has thrived on offenses with deft spot-up shooters and hefty trailers. Just think of Ray Allen, Kyle Korver and Luke Ridnour as well as Kevin Love, Kevin Garnett and Carlos Boozer. Still, Rubio will surpass Rondo and Rose as a herald of the modern point guard prototype if he stays healthy.
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What will separate Rubio from these other two brilliant point guards is his height and length, and, much more importantly, his economy of instincts, movement, space and speed.
What that means is that in watching Rubio play, one gets the sense that he always goes with his gut instinct, throwing the lob the second he sees Derrick William or Kevin Love give the nod. Simply put, Rubio's game has been bred free of needless hesitation.
His game's been contemporarily honed by a million highlight-reel fantasies and the available competition to realize so many of them since he was a 15-year-old professional playing for DKV Joventut. The paradigm of today's bounce-and-lank swingmen, who need only a split-second to grab a 25-foot lob, is growing. In Rubio's eyes the whole offense could focus a foot above the rim.
Not that Rondo and Rose aren't capable of throwing timely and accurate oops, but one is more a "receiving end" point (Rose), while the other is limited by his height and his notable hesitation in the half-court set.
Watch Rubio's game, and his first instinct is the right one, even if his teammates are slow to realize.
Seeing Rondo or Rose's movement on the court, the first noticeable thing is their speed. Rubio will never have those fast twitch muscle fibers, then again he won't need them. And, likely, it would be a hindrance to his game.
Getting to open spots, getting better passing angles and spreading the defense is key, but there is something to be said of the organic nature of a balanced offense.
Rose is supreme at leaping lateral lunges and dagger-like cuts in between defenders. Rondo is masterful at sudden, more than likely improvised, hand and body ball fakes. Both are just too fast for any defense to stay in front of, let alone ahead of.
But is speed, albeit with a sense of jagged purpose, more likely to beat out measured and seemingly more predictable movements like Rubio's?
Okay, Nash was fast and is still, relatively, but his speed didn't win him the MVP.
Rubio, like Nash, inherently understands relative motion on the court, meaning the continuous positional change caused by separate bodies on the court. And how simply, for them, it is to toy with what opposing and cooperating bodies in motion tend to do.
For example, dribbling in a circle tends to swing many players to one side of the court after a complete revolution, or how maintaining a consistently perpendicular position to the team's defense lends itself to more direct passing angles.
Bottom line: Other point guards can thread the needle, but Rubio doesn't even need the thread. He knows where he needs to be for the pass, though spectacular, to easily finds its way.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
He doesn't need to rush to a spot that isn't there because a precise, not just quick, movement will free up position just the same.
So where does the revolution come from?
Rubio is young, athletic and deceptively fast. He has developing instincts and vision of Stockton-meets-Nash and the height of Kidd with a better shot (he does). He doesn't hold onto the ball for too long like points of yesteryear, e.g. Nash, Andre Miller and, even Stockton. His hot-potato instincts are a perfect fit to the unlimited athleticism that surrounds him. His talent and creativity seem to harness the collective conscious of the modern NBA fan who is well aware of the potential of a heavily lob-infused spread offense. Just think of Lebron James and Dwyane Wade at their best or the frontline of the Clippers with CP3 at the helm.
On the issue of Chris Paul's omittance from this article, there is this rebuttal: As great as Paul is, averaging 9.3 dimes a session, if Rubio was there he'd average 14.
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