Few NBA rookies took the basketball-viewing world by more friendly and flashy a storm as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio did in 2011—a full two years and change after the Wolves first selected the fresh-faced Spaniard with the fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft.
Now, many are wondering whether Rubio can ever be more than a middling—and deeply flawed—NBA starting point guard.
Worse yet, it looks as though the doubts are starting to creep into Rubio himself, as reported by Jon Krawczynski, a Minneapolis-based NBA reporter for the Associated Press:
Rubio: "It's basketball. I love it. But I'm just not having as much fun as it used to be."— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) January 17, 2014
Rubio: "I'm going to be honest. I'm not feeling comfortable out there."— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) January 17, 2014
For a 23-year-old who once showed such tantalizing promise, the most obvious question is also the most crucial: Can Rubio turn it around?
Before we dig deeper, a couple of caveats. First, for all his maddening faults, Rubio is still only 23 years old.
Second, he’s still a very good—and very promising—player, one whose strengths and upside alone have always been more than worth the wait.
Still, any analysis of Rubio’s prospects must take into account the elephant in the room: Rubio is on pace to become the worst shooter in the modern history of the NBA.
Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry laid out the evidence in excruciating detail in a piece published last month, and the implications—both for Rubio and the Wolves writ large—are profound:
Ricky Rubio shotchart this season. FG: 34.7% 3FG%: 35.9% Big problem on the left pic.twitter.com/OnGpzU4unz— Sportando (@sportando) January 13, 2014
Just how bad has Rubio been? Take it a way, Professor Goldsberry:
As of December 26, out of 152 NBA players who have attempted at least 75 shots inside of eight feet, Rubio ranks 151st in terms of shooting efficiency, converting only 39 percent of his shots. Only Zaza Pachulia has been worse. (BTW, how is that possible? He is giant.) This isn’t exactly a new problem for Rubio, who shot 42 percent in this area last year and only 41 percent in the previous season. He is arguably the worst finisher in the NBA, especially when Austin Rivers is inactive.
If your point guard in 2014 is that bad at shooting, how on earth is the team going to reach its offensive potential or strike fear into playoff opponents?
The short answer: They won’t.
That’s not to say Rubio should be seen as a liability, however: The Timberwolves are still a top-10 offense in terms of overall efficiency, and Rubio leads the league in assist ratio (for players who have logged more than 500 minutes) at 40.1.
Meanwhile, Rubio—who leads the NBA in steals per game (2.7)—has seen his defensive rating improve in each one of his first three seasons to date, a stellar sign indeed for a team not exactly known for getting stops when it needs it.
But for a coach who emphasizes offense as much as Rick Adelman, having a point guard off of which opposing team’s can shade to their heart’s content is almost certainly going to limit your productive potential.
Truth told, even Rubio’s woeful shooting comes with a crucial caveat, one that Goldsberry himself cites:
While his dreadful field-goal and effective field-goal percentages paint a picture of a player in crisis, Rubio’s three-point percentage (36 percent thus far this season) is actually…well…pretty good!
There’s just one problem: He’s only attempting 1.7 threes per game, putting him behind the likes of Hollis Thompson, James Nunnally and Draymond Green.
That’s not keeping the defense honest.
Even Rubio’s awkward, somewhat-slow shot release isn’t really a good excuse for the dearth of attempts. After all, if teams are playing off of him anyway, clearly there’s plenty of time and room to let one fly.
So what gives?
It all goes back to confidence—or, in Rubio’s case, a glaring lack thereof. If Rubio can somehow be convinced to look for the long ball more often, it might spark anew the kind of world-beating zest and zeal of his halcyon rookie season.
More attempts and more makes—be it at a similar or even slightly lower clip—will inherently force the defense to play Rubio tighter on the perimeter.
That, in turn, opens up a whole host of opportunities for the offense: pump-fake drives, skip passes, and more room for Kevin Love, Kevin Martin and the rest of Minnesota’s principle offensive threats to operate.
The time might well be past for Rubio becoming a consistent scoring threat. But given enough patience and practice, Minnesota’s firebrand floor general can at least mold himself into someone who incites the respect—if not the outright fear—of opposing defenses.
Once the shots start falling, you can bet that the fuzzy-bearded kid who once reminded us all what fun this game can be will remember how to have a little of his own.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of January 18, 2014.