Checklist for Ricky Rubio to Take Next Step in Becoming an Elite NBA Point Guard

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Checklist for Ricky Rubio to Take Next Step in Becoming an Elite NBA Point Guard
Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Ricky Rubio's name conjures up images of fancy passes that few others can even dream of, but that doesn't make him an elite point guard quite yet. 

Coming off a sophomore season that saw him average 10.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 2.4 steals per game while recovering from a torn ACL, the point guard looks like a future superstar. He's a fantastic distributor and emerging defender, but he by no means possesses a complete game at this stage of his career. 

In fact, there's a lot that Rubio needs to do in order to become elite.

Let's start with the obvious. 

 

1. Stay Healthy

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It's unfair to label Ricky Rubio as an injury-prone player this early into his career. But at the same time, he must stay healthy or else he risks A) hindering his development and B) giving us legitimate reason to apply that tag. 

Thanks to an ACL tear, Rubio has played in only 98 games during his two-year NBA career. He's endured minor injuries like groin pulls and back spasms throughout his time in the lineup, but the knee injury is the only one that's knocked him out for an extended period of time. 

Was it a fluke? 

Probably, but Rubio is indeed a smaller, relatively frail player who takes a beating when he drives his tinier frame in among the trees. According to Basketball-Reference, the 6'4" guard weighs only 180 pounds, and that's simply not going to cut it if he hopes to have a long, productive and healthy career. 

Again, Rubio hasn't put together enough of an injury history to earn that dreaded injury-prone tag that can curtail the career of promising young players. However, he has been knocked out of the lineup enough times in his two NBA seasons that Minnesota fans are correct if they have a nagging fear in the back of their minds. 

To become an elite point guard, Rubio has to actually play basketball. And to do that, he must stay healthy. 

But now let's turn to the steps he needs to take when he's out on the hardwood. 

 

2. Become More Careful in Transition

Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the 'Wolves managed to score 1.09 points per possession in transition during the 2012-13 season. Only six teams performed worse when sprinting from one end of the court to the other. 

You'd think that Rubio's incredible court vision and passing chops would be highly beneficial to the Minnesota cause in such uptempo situations, but his carelessness with the ball was quite problematic. The Spanish floor general actually turned the ball over on 31.5 percent of his possessions, which is way too high for a point guard hoping to become elite. 

Take a gander at how this turnover percentage in transition compared to the league's elite point guards: 

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

While point guards who look to facilitate above all else will naturally have higher turnover percentages, that mark is still way too high for Rubio. He outpaces Rajon Rondo and the rest of the elite guards by a rather significant percentage. 

The major problem is that he often gets caught in situations where he tries to make too much happen. Even though he can squeeze the ball through windows so tight that sunlight can't get through the opening, he's not impervious to being overaggressive with his passing. 

The following situation against the Phoenix Suns shows exactly what I'm talking about. 

Screenshots taken from Synergy's video databases.

Rubio has the ball in a four-on-two situation. You can't see this now, but Derrick Williams is already camped out under the basket. 

The way that the Phoenix defenders have oriented themselves is telling, and it should force Rubio's hand. He can either push the ball past Goran Dragic (who's in great guarding position) in an attempt to create an open three-pointer on the wing, or he can hit a cutting Andrei Kirilenko and create a two-on-one situation in favor of his 'Wolves. 

Given the way the last man back is positioned for the Suns—clearly more worried about Williams than anyone else—this decision should be obvious. It's not a glamorous pass, and it may not even result in an assist if AK-47 dumps the ball off to Williams, but it's the proper choice. 

Rubio doesn't think so. 

He forces the ball to the wing, and Dragic's body makes him throw the ball too far behind his teammate. It's a turnover, and the scoring situation quickly dissipates in one fell swoop.

The talented point guard must realize that flashiness in transition doesn't win games. Easy buckets do.

Until he's willing to put the clamp down on his aggressive instincts, he's going to harm Minnesota's ability to be an effective transition team. And with athletes like Chase Budinger and Derrick Williams running the floor, plus one of the best trailing big men in basketball (Kevin Love), the 'Wolves should be a more potent team in these situations.  

 

3. Learn How to Shoot Jumpers

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Fox Sports' Phil Ervin wrote a pretty telling passage about Rubio, one that centers around how Flip Saunders thinks his point guard can improve:

His flashy passes dazzled fans, and his glowing grin—even in the face of a 50-loss season—spread positivity throughout a Target Center that otherwise reeked with disappointment.

Yet Tricky Ricky's new boss wants more.

Buckets, particularly.

"That's his next step in the evolution of the point guard position," recently hired Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders told KFAN 100.3. "Being a bigger scoring threat, being able to knock down shots, which will make the game much more easier for him."

While Rubio, at times, makes it look easier than anyone, Saunders has a point. Pass-first one-guards are a dying breed in today's NBA, mostly because they've all learned how to score.

Not Ricky. Not yet.

Definitive as that last paragraph may be, it's still not enough. Rubio wasn't just bad at shooting the basketball during his second season in the Association; he was awful

From 10 to 16 feet, Rubio made 31.9 percent of his looks. On longer twos that fell shy of three-point range, he drilled 35.5 percent of his attempts, a number that wouldn't be as problematic if he didn't insist on letting fly from there quite as often. And on three-point attempts, Rubio made only 29.3 percent of his shots. 

Now the problem isn't just that he's not hitting with any sort of frequency, but rather that he hasn't demonstrated an improvement yet. 

While Rubio is shooting better from the closest range in question, he's also eschewing those looks in favor of shots either closer to or further from the basket. That improvement is mitigated by the fact that he almost never pulls up from 10 to 16 feet. 

The slight jump from 16 to 23 feet is encouraging because that's his most frequently used range, but the decline in three-point shooting is ultimately enough to turn smiles into frowns. 

According to Synergy, Rubio is particularly bad in spot-up situations. He ranked 282nd in the NBA there, scoring 0.81 points per possession thanks to his putrid 29.8 percent shooting. And if numbers aren't enough for you, take a look at how the San Antonio Spurs defended the Spaniard on three different plays. 

In the first play, Danny Green has no qualms about leaving Rubio open in order to help collapse the defense around J.J. Barea

This is actually the only one of the three plays in which Rubio made his shot. 

Here Gary Neal decides to spurn guarding Rubio for a chance to poke the ball away from Dante Cunningham. It doesn't work, as the forward finds a wide-open Rubio, who clangs the ball off the iron. 

Finally, Tony Parker is making no pretense at guarding his fellow point guard. The French floor general is on the wrong side of the court and doesn't even bother reacting when the ball is in the air. 

In all three situations, Rubio was able to get off clean looks. He made only one of the three attempts. And since he shot 29.8 percent in spot-up situations, this three-play sequence is actually slightly too favorable a portrayal. 

Until he starts hitting jumpers with more frequency, defenses will continue collapsing around the interior of Minnesota's offense without fear of Rubio making them pay. This can't be allowed.

 

4. Don't Gamble as Much Defensively 

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Much like points per game, steals per game is an incredibly overrated stat. What does it actually tell about defensive ability? 

Some things, but not much. 

Not all steals are created equally. Some are racked up by properly playing passing lanes or capitalizing on lazy dribbling, while others are generated through excessive gambling. Take Monta Ellis, for example. He's a terrible defensive player, but he gambles enough that his superficial stats actually look pretty decent. 

Rubio is a solid defender. I'm not going to deny that.

But he's far from elite, despite what his thievery numbers—he ranked second in swipes per game, behind only Chris Paul—might tell you. There's a reason that Minnesota allowed only 0.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when Rubio was on the court, according to Basketball-Reference.

The problem is that Rubio is too prone to gambling. 

Last season, the point guard allowed spot-up shooters to score 1.15 points per possession against him, as shown by Synergy. That left him as the 359th-ranked defender against spot-ups, and that just isn't going to cut it. 

To improve, Rubio has to stop straying too far away from his man. Maybe he's lulled into the belief that he can do so with such frequency because it's the strategy defenders—correctly—use against him. But again, most guards can put the ball in the basket with much more ease than he can. 

I'm not entirely sure why Rubio felt like switching over to Paul Millsap here, and yet, that's exactly what he does. It's not the most egregious gamble of the play, though. 

This whole sequence against the Utah Jazz is rife with unnecessary gambles. 

Rubio and Derrick Williams switch back so that they're guarding more natural fits, but Rubio doesn't feel like sticking with Mo Williams. 

Instead, the point guard sneaks over and abandons Williams in the corner, which just happens to be the most efficient area of the court. 

Why? 

Again, no idea.

D-Will is in a solid defensive position, and Greg Stiemsma is right there to pick up the slack in the paint. Rubio doesn't have to help out, and he should instead be taking away the passing lane to Mo Williams as one of Millsap's options. 

Well, that doesn't happen, and Williams is able to hit the easy corner three-pointer when Rubio can't close out on time. 

When will Rubio be an elite point guard?

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It was one of 44 three-pointers made against the Minnesota point guard in spot-up situations during the 2012-13 season. That would be fine if there were more than 95 shots lofted up, but the reality is that he let triples be made 46.3 percent of the time they were attempted. 

Just as is the case on offense, he has to stop gambling for the flashy plays. Flashiness doesn't lead to winning, even if it might result in a few more SportsCenter appearances. 

Despite these few glaring flaws, Rubio is still on the fast track to becoming an elite point guard in the NBA. His skill with the ball and innate ability to create easy looks for his teammates can't just be glossed over entirely.

After all, Rubio has quickly become one of the best distributors in basketball, and he's only 22 years old. But more than distributing is needed if he actually wants to be one of the best. 

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