Ricky Rubio is good, but he has the potential to be great.
Once considered by many to be another wasted David Kahn draft pick, Rubio finally joined the Minnesota Timberwolves last season, winning over critics with his incisive passes, crafty handle and angelic smile.
But then we blinked, he tore his ACL, and his fairy tale rookie season came to an abrupt end. Without him, the Timberwolves were fodder for playoff hopefuls seeking victory. Until he returned, Minnesota's hope of contending for a postseason spot (and championship) was but a whimsical fantasy.
Injuries have plagued the Timberwolves (including Rubio) this season, and the team once again finds themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff bubble.
Lost in all that disappointment (heartbreak?) is a small slice of reality. Assuming that Rubio, at full strength, can lead a healthy Timberwolves team to the playoffs and beyond is a reach. Premature, even.
With all the hoopla he generates, there are some who simply presume that he is an elite floor general, when really, he's not.
Rubio is a sophomore, a 22-year-old phenom who is more raw than actually phenomenal. His ability to read and break down defenses (especially when inside the free-throw line) is a valued commodity, but he's not amongst the most gilt-edged of point guards. Not yet.
During his rookie year, he averaged 10.6 points, 8.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game, a stat line worthy of a Rajon Rondo comparison. But that was just one season, and those numbers were attached to 35.7 percent field-goal shooting. There was still work to be done.
His need for progress was all the more evident upon his midseason return from injury earlier this year.
Through his first 25 games, which brought the Timberwolves to the All-Star break, Rubio averaged just 7.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 1.8 steals on 34.3 percent shooting. He also connected on just 3-of-23 of deep balls (13 percent).
Night has since turned to day, though, presumably because he's slowly getting his legs back. In the 11 games he's played since the break, Rubio is putting up 12.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 9.1 assists and 3.3 steals a night. He also tallied his first career triple-double in a thrilling victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
He's been an absolute monster.
The Timberwolves are still losing (3-8 since the break), but Rubio's shown glimpses of how far up the point guard ladder he can eventually climb, while also reminding us how much work he still has to do before he gets there.
Let's begin on the side of the ball people seem to care the least about when it comes to Rubio.
Minny's point man reads passing lanes fairly well. He's far better at forcing steals on the ball than off it, but he sags off his defender in hopes of mitigating his below-average footwork.
Sure, his 2.3 steals per game tie him for the second most in the league with Mike Conley. Going for these steals often gets him into trouble, though. Big trouble.
Though Rubio can be seen doing a far better job of forcing the ball out of Rose's hands than Luke Ridnour did, Rose still finished with 31 points and 11 assists.
When you watch Rubio, you can see that he struggles to find that balance in his spacing. He visibly prefers to play off his defender, in hopes of snagging a steal off a pass and preventing himself from getting beat off the dribble. What this does, however, is give the opposition room to get off a jumper or even drive into paint, almost negating his thought process.
Rubio has to understand that not all point guards are looking to pass as often as he is. If he gives them room, they're going to shoot or drive.
Over the course of the captioned game, you can see that Rubio gradually moves up on Rose. But for him, there's such a thing as playing too close, especially against explosive handlers like Rose.
Though he was quicker and more free to play the east-and-west game prior to his ACL injury, he still wasn't as swift (laterally) as most 1s. Smothering his man only impedes him further.
It also hurts him on screens.
Look how often Rubio goes under screens instead of fighting over them. Or look at how he switches when his teammate doesn't, leaving Rose alone. That's a recipe for disaster.
Moving forward, Rubio's general deficiencies can be corrected by taking fewer risks. He doesn't need to suffocate his defender—especially now that he's more liable to get beat off the dribble—but he can't leave too much room in the name of forcing steals either.
He also needs to fight over screens more. And if he's going to switch, he has to be on the same page as his teammates. The need for switching should be minimal if he can get over those screens, though.
Once he does, his overall defense will improve considerably.
Rubio is a deft passer, we know that. His court vision rivals that of elite point guards, and he's better than most at passing off one foot on the move.
He often struggles with his placement, though. It can be deadly when successful, but it's also detrimental. The Spaniard has dished out over nine assists per game over the last 11, but they've been accompanied by an average of 4.2 turnovers.
This isn't an isolated stretch either. Of all point guards who dish out five or more assists per bout, Rubio ranks 24th in turnovers committed. And when you're coughing the ball up as much as Monta Ellis, you know you've got some adjustments to make.
Sadly, this may require Rubio cut down on the turnovers by being less, well, fancy. Between-the-legs and behind-the-back passes are great, but sometimes they're unnecessary.
Take this pass here to Lou Amundson (I know, Big Lou's no longer in Minny).
This between-the-legs bounce pass is magnificent in terms of flair. As far as function goes, this could have been better.
Instead of throwing a bounce pass that: 1) gives defenders an additional split-second to potentially pick it; and 2) forces Amundson to go down and get it, a direct dish would have been more efficient. Of course, the pass was successful (a more deft big man would've likely scored), but judging by the tiny window Rubio had to squeeze it through the double-team, it was a notably high-risk decision.
I'd suggest being more aggressive when driving toward the basket as well.
If he's to go through the motions of a few behind-the-backs and what not, why not try to finish at the rim instead of deferring, like he did to finish off his most recent performance against San Antonio?
Just thinking aloud here.
Of course, to become more of a scoring threat, Rubio has to be confident in not just his ability to get to the rim, but his jumper. Right now, he's not. And how could he be?
Rubio is shooting just 35.7 percent from the field this season and, per hoopdata.com, just 28.1 percent outside of three feet. Even during his recent stretch of dominance (last 11 games), he's shooting just 36.6 percent from the field.
A lot of this has to do with shot selection. As you can see, he's shooting better than 50 percent in just three areas, yet only 6.5 percent of his total attempts have come from any of those zones.
A good portion of his attempts come at the rim (41.5 percent of his total shots), so that's merely a matter of him adjusting to contact and shooting better than 41.7 percent there. But 17.6 percent of his attempts are three-pointers. When you're converting on just 17.8 percent of your shots from deep, almost one-fifth of all your takes shouldn't come from behind the rainbow.
Also worth noting is Rubio's rushed footwork.
Because he doesn't set his feet, too many of his shots are taken off balance, and they're coming up short because they lack rotation and arc. Line drives have become a staple of his, and it's hardly pretty to watch—he abuses the front of the rim.
Rubio also needs to work on his follow-through. The wrists look about right when the ball leaves his hands, but his release point is far too late in the motion, paving the way for the ball to carom off the front of the rim.
Ironic, isn't it? Rubio rushes his attempts but then releases the ball late.
Setting his feet and releasing the ball earlier should create the necessary rotation and give the ball enough arc to get over the rim. If he can do that, shots should start to fall more than a third of the time.
Which is huge.
Defenders like to play off him, daring him to shoot, not unlike they do with Rondo. While that helps him see the court better, he's quick enough to get around his opponents and create for his teammates that way.
Honing his jumper will then either force his opponents to respect his scoring ability and allow him to go to work off the dribble where he's most comfortable, or it will allow him to, you know, make them pay for choosing not to.
Rubio is one of the craftiest passers in the game and a future star by many accounts, but there's still so much work to be done.
Even if we were to overlook his turnover and defensive issues, he still ranks 142 out of 158 point guards (minimum 10 games) in shooting percentage. For an athlete of his caliber, that's a waste.
What does Ricky Rubio need to work on most?
Should he be able to read opposing point guards and communicate with his teammates better on defense (specifically screens), limit his turnovers and establish a form-fitting jump shot, there's no limit to how far his ceiling would extend.
As of now, though, his potential as a star (and leader) is dampened by an incomplete skill set. Failing to expand his bag of tricks to encompass other facets of the game ensures he'll remain far more grounded than he should be.
Is this to assert that Rubio is overrated or even a failure?
The kid is one of the most resourceful facilitators in the game, but that's just not enough. Not if he wants to be great.
Which we know he can be.
So long as he doesn't fail to make the necessary adjustments that currently stand between him and those who are actually elite.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.