Many comparisons and lofty expectations have been pushed toward Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio. He's been tethered with astronomical expectations, such as being the next Pete Marovich or even Magic Johnson.
However, the link to these comparisons seems to be Rubio's showmanship and flashy play, rather than his real performance on the court. Ricky Rubio's public image seems more based around legend and highlight reels than on his full body of work. After examining much of his footage, I would make a controversial prediction that won't endear me much to Timberwolves fans: Rubio resembles more of a second-rate Globetrotter than he does an NBA caliber talent.
Let's begin by examining some of the core aspects of his game and whether they will succeed in the NBA and in the Timberwolves' system.
This is the most heralded aspect of Rubio's game, and it is easy to see why. He maintains a large repertoire of no-looks, behind-the-back and penetration bounce passes that would leave any street player in a jealous rage. But will those eye-candy passes truly be effective in the NBA?
Rubio's passes and assist count seem to mainly lie in two categories: kick-outs to shooters in transition and passes to slashers under the basket. His first tendency, kicking outside, is a safe pass that could benefit the 'Wolves if he can get Beasley, Williams and most of all Love good open looks.
His second tendency however, is where his showboating gets in the way of his effectiveness. He likes to thread the needle to a man inside, but this will be far harder than he makes it look in Europe when he is facing up against the elite pick-pockets of the NBA.
I also have concerns with how these type of penetration plays will fit in with his fellow Timberwolves. Beasley generally earns his money as a ball stopper, not someone who receives the ball while he is slashing to the hoop. Love also either looks to receive the ball with an open look for a jumpshot, or while he is already in position in the post.
Ricky Rubio's defense seems to be his most overrated quality as he has earned a reputation for getting easy steals and his tough man-to-man coverage. I think a lot of his defense would fall under the category of what I would call the "Ellis Syndrome;" players who go for a stat, like a steal, instead of playing team defense. This is easily seen while watching Rubio play. His center of gravity remains high and he seems to play defense against the ball rather than his man.
His high stance is worrisome because it hurts his balance, power and lateral quickness. It allows opposing point guards to get around him easily and beat him off the dribble, especially when he is baited into going for the ball. Searching "Stephen Curry owns Ricky Rubio" on YouTube should illustrate my point.
He needs to learn to lower his stance and keep the right amount of distance between him and his man. My other concern is that when he does lower his stance, he becomes very aggressive and pushes his man more than he will be able to get away with near most NBA referees.
Driving to the basket is Rubio's most potent offensive weapon. He is able to finish with either hand effectively and possesses a nice touch near the rim.
The variation and amount of effective moves Rubio displays on drives, however, are limited.
While watching footage, I feel I have implanted in my brain the image of his drive. He uses a screen or hesitation dribble to get around his defender, chooses either right or left and then leaps past the post defender as he gently kisses the ball off the glass and in the hoop. It is beautiful to watch, but becomes less and less impressive with repetition.
What seems to be lacking is the ability to draw contact and then finish, as well as being able to improvise effectively when up against an elite rim-protecting center.
Rubio is often able to get to the foul line but it often isn't because any talent of his own. Most of his fouls come from swats from big defenders, not by drawn contact. In fact, Rubio seems to go out of his way to avoid any contact with defenders, often at the expense of better looks or chances at three-point plays.
He also needs to learn how to find the basket when his primary path is obstructed or a big man predicts his movement. Rubio's field goal percentages are astronomically low for his style of play, and most of it is not because of his limited shooting ability.
Rubio needs to learn how to either go over the top of defenders and finish hard at the rim, or to weave his way around them with consistency in order to make himself a true scoring threat. At the moment his offensive game resembles that of Rondo's. except that Rondo keeps his percentages and efficiency high by finishing better inside, whereas Rubio often lacks consistency.
To say Ricky Rubio's shooting chops are "limited" would be like saying Darko Milicic is "paid adequately." Rubio's jumpshot not only produces inconsistent results, but his form is going to need an entire overhaul in order to be effective in the NBA. At least his percentages are low enough that his shot can't drop off much while he is relearning it.
Rubio's form is problematic on three accounts: It doesn't put the ball in the basket, his release point is very low and his shot is slow.
As far as the first caveat goes...we'll just move on to No. 2 for now and hope for the best. Rubio's release point on his shot is lower than I have seen on almost any prospect coveted as much as he is. His positioning before his release is about at eye level, compared to elite shooters in the NBA who get ready to release well above their head.
This is most troublesome because of the distance that Rubio will have to receive in order to have room to get off his shot. His slower release time only compounds the problem, which allows smart defenders to give him enough cushion that it is easy to stay in front of him but not enough room to get off a shot.
How successful will Rubio be in the NBA?
Being able to run the offense effectively is the most valuable trade a point guard can have. That is what made guards like John Stockton, Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo so valuable—their value was higher than any of their stat lines.
Ricky Rubio has some great qualities as a distributor. He has great court vision and finds the open man very effectively. The concern, however, is in how he is able to actually set up and direct an offense, since he seems to do very little of it. He seems to rely more on the playmaking abilities of himself and his teammates individually instead of as a cohesive unit.
While this is a serious concern, it may be greatly mitigated by the new style of play the 'Wolves choose to implement under their new coach. If it is a faster style of play like David Kahn is wanting, then Rubio may be able to fit in like a glove. But when they operate from a half-court set, Rubio seems to struggle much more.
Ricky Rubio is a lot less polished of a product as many analysts and highlight reels would like you to assume. He lacks both the scoring abilities and defensive traits that will allow him to make an impact in his rookie year.
No one doubts that Rubio is filled with potential, but after two more seasons of playing in Europe with limited improvement, it remains to be seen whether he can truly make the changes he needs in order to become a large asset at the NBA level.
Unless he is able to ride a learning curve like Derrick Rose or James Harden, I imagine that Rubio will find himself struggling to be an efficient starting point guard in the league, and will ultimately find himself more time on the bench than he does on the court.