Will Ricky Rubio Ever Live Up to the Hype?

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 20, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03: Ricky Rubio #9 of the Minnesota Timberwolves stands against the New York Knicks on November 3, 2013 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio's superstar rise was supposed to be a formality, not a possibility.

By most accounts, he was the perfect amalgamation of eras past and present. He had Steve Nash's creativity, Magic Johnson's flair and Chris Paul's defensive tenacity. He had some notable deficiencies—namely anything do with scoring—but the hope was that those would come with time.

Two-plus seasons into his NBA career, though, those same issues continue plaguing his production. His inability to score with any semblance of consistency has him looking far more serviceable than special.

While the Wolves have no choice but to practice patience, the basketball world isn't bound by any loyalty to the 23-year-old. We're tired of waiting for that "Aha!" moment on the hardwood; there's no point in holding on to false hopes.

 

Pass-Only Point Guard

Rubio's insatiable drive to elevate his teammates is what put him on the path to greatness long before his NBA debut.

He makes the most of what he has around him. Whether that's running a potent pick-and-pop set with Kevin Love, spotting an open Kevin Martin in the corner, finding a streaking Corey Brewer on the fly or feeding Nikola Pekovic underneath, he sets those players up for success.

Often times netting them a run through the highlight reels in the process.

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 17: Ricky Rubio #9 and Kevin Love #42 of the Minnesota Timberwolves speak before resuming play against the Orlando Magic on December 17, 2012 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

But there's a big difference between being selfless and helpless. And plenty of reason to think Rubio's more the latter than the former.

Scouts were worried about his shooting ability before he came stateside in 2011.

Back in 2008, when Rubio was just a 17-year-old rising through the Spanish ranks, DraftExpress.com's Luis Fernandez wrote that Rubio possessed "a static jumper he shoots with no elevation off the floor and somewhat ugly mechanics." He added that Rubio's "ability to become a consistent perimeter shooter will probably play a big role in deciding whether or not he reaches his full potential."

That consistency has never come. More and more it feels as if it never will.

He's a career 32.8 percent shooter from beyond the arc. That's flying a little too close to the groan-inducing territory of Josh Smith (28.1).

Point guards don't need a three-point stroke to survive. Magic Johnson was a sub-33 percent shooter from distance in 11 of his 13 seasons. Rajon Rondo has converted just 24.1 percent of his long-ball attempts.

But Johnson (career 52.0 field-goal percentage) and Rondo (48.1) each found other ways to score. Rubio's still searching for his scoring niche.

He's shooting just 35.2 percent from the field this season and only 35.8 percent for his career. He's run 340 offensive plays himself on the year and turned them into just 0.72 points per possession (331st in the league via Synergy Sports, subscription required). 

He lacks the quickness to break down defenders on the perimeter and the strength to finish plays at the rim (38.8 percent within eight feet of the basket). Throw in a nonexistent mid-range touch, and there isn't an area of the floor that treats Rubio the scorer well.

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 30: Ricky Rubio #9 of the Minnesota Timberwolves shoots a jumper against Gal Mekel #33 of the Dallas Mavericks on November 30, 2013 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
Glenn James/Getty Images

Pass-first point guards can be All-Star regulars. But pass-only floor generals don't always last the longest in NBA waters.

 

Realistic Ceiling

The pressure to perform put Rubio in a nearly impossible spot. I say nearly because some have thrived with the weight of the world on their shoulders (see: LeBron James) and others have wilted beneath it (see: Sebastian Telfair).

Rubio wasn't just pegged to be the Wolves point guard of the future. He was supposed to be the missing link, the one responsible for helping Kevin Love snap the franchise's playoff drought that's quickly closing in on a disastrous decade.

Via NBA.com.

Rubio just isn't that type of talent. Not now, not ever.

Don't let the flair fool you; he's a gifted distributor but not this passing prodigy scouts had described.

He's currently sitting eighth in the assists race (7.9 per game), nestled in between shot-chucking Detroit Pistons point man Brandon Jennings (8.0) and Los Angles Lakers journeyman Steve Blake (7.7). The 18.7 points Rubio creates off his assists a night leaves him in a three-way tie with Jeff Teague and Jrue Holiday for fifth in the category.

His defense is similarly good-not-great. It depends on the situation.

He's been a brick wall against isolation plays (0.58 points allowed per possession, eighth overall), but a sieve when it comes to stopping pick-and-roll ball handlers (0.84, 116th) and stop-up shooters (1.04, 155th).

Nov 8, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love (42) and guard Ricky Rubio (9) against the Dallas Mavericks at Target Center. The Timberwolves defeated the Mavericks 116-108. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Consistent success eludes both him and the Wolves as a whole.

Minnesota (13-13) has hung double-digit defeats on both the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-4) and Portland Trail Blazers (22-5). But the Wolves have also dropped head-scratching losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers (9-15), Washington Wizards (11-13) and Boston Celtics (12-15).

The preseason playoff chatter was either overly optimistic or at he least premature.

"It's not going to be easy just because somebody writes at the start of the season that our goal is the playoffs," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said, via Tom Powers of the Pioneer Press. "Well, let's figure it out as we go. It's not going to be the playoffs if we keep playing the way we're playing right now.

There are leaps that need to be made to cross that postseason bridge, none greater than Rubio's.

But where's the evidence suggesting he's ready to make that jump? Where are the signs that he'll ever be the player scouts thought he could be?

Dec 15, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley (11) drives to the basket against Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio (9) during the first quarter at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

He's a good rebounder for his position (4.5 a night), a flashy-but-functional passer and a hard-nosed defender. Maybe it's me, but those sound like the traits of a supporting-cast member not someone starring in a feature role.

At some point, Rubio's hype train will make its final stop. Talks will shift from potential to production. Dreams will be replaced by reality.

Your eyes aren't deceiving you. It's just that optimistic film has started to wear thin. Rubio can't always be the player of tomorrow. Not when he's failing today's superstar tests.

It could have been worse, Wolves fans. You could've figured this out after giving him the five-year max that should have gone to Kevin Love.

Speaking of the roster's real transcendent talent, it might be time to start thinking about repairing that bridge before it's too late. It would make a lot more sense than continuing to build this superstar path that Rubio won't ever be ready to take.

 

*Unless otherwise specified, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.