Ricky Rubio’s Late Season Resurgence May or May Not Be For Real

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After struggling through the majority of the season, a resurgent Ricky Rubio has hit his stride late in the year; but once again Rubio has left the Minnesota Timberwolves with plenty of questions about his future.

I’m a late person.

I tend to misjudge times or sleep late, get distracted or forget altogether. It’s pretty incredible. This isn’t showing up fashionably late to make an entrance, this is showing up so late you have to apologize profusely and make it up to people at a later date. People love it and everywhere I go I’m a beloved figure.

If I was half as talented as I am at being late at – I don’t know – this whole basketball analysis thing, this column would be called, “Sean’s Lawn”; not be a column at all, but instead a live television show; record right on some lawn somewhere (it’d be a different yard every week); and feature me sittin’ around, givin’ hot takes (FS1 loves that idea).

Mike Birbiglia jokes in his Thank God For Jokes special that there are two types of people in the world: late people and on-time people. I’m not going to tell you the rest of the setup because you can go watch the special yourself – and you should, it’s pretty good – but just know that the punch-line eventually wraps around to all late people going to Hell (bummer) and it’s a knee-slapper.

So where does this long-winded, corny intro lead us to?

A fellow late person.

A skinny, floppy-haired Spaniard that at first look resembles a certain Italian plumber that likes to save princesses with his emerald-clad brother. Only rather than race Go-Karts or launch an assault on Bowser’s castle, this guy was the fifth pick in the 2009 NBA draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves, getting picked amongst claims that he would be the league’s next dominant “true” point guard (oh, and two spots before Mr. Stephen Curry. Who got picked one spot before the two-time MVP? Syracuse legend Jonny Flynn, also selected by Minnesota. This has been well-documented, but we must continue to educate our children to ensure the monstrosity known as the Wolves 2009 draft never happens again).

John Stockton…Steve Nash…Chris Paul…Ricky Rubio.

Only 19-years-old at the time he was drafted, Rubio had already played four years of professional ball in Europe, including two seasons in the EuroLeague. Here’s a kid that isn’t just playing professional hoops when he was 16-years-old, but also playing professional hoops fairly well!

Again: 16-years old. Playing professional basketball in the far more physical-than-it’s-given-credit-for EuroLeague. Running into the stands to save a turnover, then hopping back onto the court and lobbing a perfect alley-oop to a teammate. 7 ppg, 3.9 apg, a career 38.5 percent shooting clip (he was only 16 playing in a grown-man league, give him a break. Better than what your pimple-pus face would have put up at that age), and a boatload of highlights later, Ricky Rubio was headed to an NBA squad near you.

Fast forward eight years later

WHOOPSY DAISY!

Rubio made the All-Rookie team in 2011-12 after spending two extra years in Europe doing everything in his power to avoid going to Minnesota (the guy backed out of an agreement to join the T-Wolves and signed a six-year contract with FC Barcelona about a month after the draft. Eventually, someone was like “hey Lil Rick, it’s the NBA, just shut up and go,” and that’s the short story of how Rubio came to America)but hasn’t really come close to surpassing that accomplishment since.

As a passer, he’s proven himself to be amongst the league’s best and most creative. Over his career, Rubio owns a 39.2 percent ast%, meaning that he’s assisted on 39.2 percent of all Timberwolves buckets when he’s on the floor. To give you an idea of where Rubio ranks as a playmaker, during the 2014-15 season his ast% was at 43.5 percent. That ended up ranking fourth best amongst guards who played at least 30 minutes a game, behind only Paul, Russ, and Wall.

It isn’t just passing either, Rubio has become a strong defender. He’s led the league in steal percentage three times – including last season – and averaged over two steals a game over his career. Most importantly, though, is that opponents have worse offensive ratings against the T-Wolves with Rubio on the floor than with him on the bench every season Rubio has been in the league. That can partially be chalked up to Lil Rick getting plenty of run with starting units that automatically play better team defense, but it’s not like Minnesota has ever had a defense capable of carrying Rubio either.

And now, for the fun part.

BUT.

He has a fatal flaw.

He’s a late person (Alright, this metaphor has been tortured enough, let’s get on with the tale of Lil Rick and leave it behind).

More specifically, Rubio has been late to grasp onto the complete NBA game.

Sure, Rubio has led the league in passes that looked so unbelievable you actually question whether or not they’re an optical illusion. And defensively, he’s as legit an NBA player as anyone in the league, outside of the elite-tier guys (Kawhi, Draymond, LeBron, etc etc). He hasn’t had off-court troubles or gotten into it with coaches and teammates. The problem that haunts Rubio is one that’s fairly unique to him.

He won’t shoot.

Ricky Rubio Field Goal Attempts Per Game Over the Last Three Seasons:

2014-15: 11.4

2015-16: 9.1

2016-17: 8.7

As the league has continued to stretch out towards the three-point line – rewarding teams that can pull the trigger and spread the floor while punishing those who focus on the mid-range and low-post on its way – the point guard that won’t shoot has gone nearly extinct.

Notice the key word in that sentence. “The point guard that WON’T shoot.”

Sure, it’s a benefit to actually be capable of shooting the three-ball, but there are still some guards lurking around that haven’t quite developed an outside game. Many of these guys have struggled to make up for their deficiency; some of their names even rhyme with Rerrick Dose or Tajon Tondo…

But there have been some examples of guys who can’t shoot still getting it done! My personal favorite example: 2016-17 MVP (unless you’re one of those silly Kawhi/Harden/LeBron people) Russell Westbrook, whose skill, in this case, is being bad at three-pointers.

That’s right. Russell Westbrook: MVP candidate, triple-double monster…. and the worst three-point shooter of all time.

This has been fairly well documented, so I’ll try and be quick when explaining just how bad of a shooter from behind the arc Brodie is.

He ranks a staggering 107th in three-point percentage this season, yet currently, sits at tenth on the NBA’s leaderboards for three-point attempts. That puts him between Damien Lillard and Bradley Beal who are tied for ninth (but shoot 36.4 percent and 40.5 percent, respectively, from deep), and Ryan Anderson at eleven (39.7 percent). Statistically speaking, this all makes Russ one of the least efficient shooters ever.

And yet, he is on the cusp of potentially winning an MVP award, not to mention becoming the first person since stat-inflated Oscar Robertson  to average a triple-double over an entire season (sorry, but it’s true. Oscar’s doesn’t really count. In fact, I’d argue that Westbrooks campaign is the first of its kind). Because, as it turns out, the mere threat of pulling the three is enough to open up the rest of Westbrook’s game.

You see, Russ is playing the odds when he fires up that god-awful three-pointer about four seconds into the shot clock midway through the first quarter. Sure, it’ll probably miss (or it won’t, the crowd will go ballistic and Russ will tee another one up the next time down). But regardless, that shot will stick in the defenders head and go onto the scouting report as Russ being unafraid to pull it, so defenses will play him tighter.

And what happens when you play up too close on Brodie?

He blows by you and throws down with the force of 1,000 lightning bolts.

https://twitter.com/BleacherReport/status/843216077526126593

So by taking a lot of three’s, regardless of the actual likelihood of those shots going in, Russ opens up a lot of his penetration game, which in turn opens up passing lanes and the rest of the OKC offense. If Russ tries to be more efficient and stops hauling up three’s, would teams back off him? How would that effect his ability to attack the rim? And then what type of player is he? And how on earth does this connect to Ricky Rubio!?

Really, just look at all the good stuff Russ’s “bad” three’s do, then imagine he wasn’t pulling up with it the way he does.

The floor shrinks. It’s suddenly harder to move off the ball and space out, plus driving to the rim becomes a nightmare and passing lanes disappear. The entire offense gets clogged up!

Now put that in a crunch time situation, when Dan Patrick says in that crappy Continental Tire commercial they’ve been playing during March Madness, “Three-pointers tend to feel like five” (how many times did it take him to make that behind-the-back shot at the end of that ad, by the way?). Now can you start to see why Rubio has struggled to really gain momentum over the past five seasons? Rubio is about as good (or as bad, depending on how you look at it) at three’s as Russ, but Russ’s confidence doesn’t stop him from jacking up treys, in the process opening everything else up.

So now connect this problem to Rubio and essentially, the problem hasn’t been that he can’t shoot the three, it’s that he’s too hesitant to even make the defense consider he would.

For instance, look at this play from the T-Wolves January 6 matchup against the Washington Wizards earlier this season.

Okay, now let’s count down all the times Rubio passes up a shot just in this one possession.

  1. Bradley Beal goes so far under the Gorgui Dieng slip-screen that you can actually hear a Steph three hit nothing but net (or a Brandon Jennings airball completely miss the rim, whatever you want). Ricky has plenty of time to gather himself and shoot, but instead opts to toss it down to Towns in the post. To be fair, though, this was super early in the shot-clock and I can only assume Thibs would have had a damn seizure on the sideline if he had shot it, so I’m willing to grant a free pass. NEXT.
  2. Now we see Rubio come storming down the lane, catch a well-timed pass by KAT, and finish strong at the rim! Except for the last part. Rather than go up strong against Markieef Morris and either initiate contact or finish at the rim, Lil Rick pulls it back outside and regroups. No free throws. No bucket. But hey, there’s still time on the possession, maybe he’s just being patient! Let’s see what our guy can do.
  3. Now attacking once again, Rubio drives on Wall. Only Wall now has good defensive positioning and, knowing that Rubio won’t go up with it, is aggressive enough to try to poke the ball away without worrying about sending Rubio to the line. He doesn’t quite get the ball clean and fouls Ricky, but it’s on the floor and only leads to an inbound.

Off that inbounds pass, Zack LaVine attacks the rim, wildly throwing up a poor shot that clanks off the rim. Possession over.

So to review, three genuine opportunities to get a bucket or pick up a couple free throw attempts. The results: Not even so much as a glance at the basket, no field goal attempts, no points.

Not great.

That’s the type of stuff you’ve seen all the time with Rubio. Pass up an open shot, dribble around until he either turns it over or passes it away, then get back on D. One of the most electrifying passers in the league has been playing with one hand tied behind his back for five complete NBA seasons.

Over those seasons, only 8.8 percent of Rubio’s shots have come from between 10-16 feet; 33.1 percent coming from between 16 feet and the three-point line, and  23.5 percent from deep. In other words, Lil Rick has not been a fan of the jump shot.

In fact, of players who averaged at least 30 minutes per game last season, Rubio finished 89-out-of-92 and dead last amongst guards in field goal attempts per game. If you count only three-point attempts and only include guards, Rubio was still 30-out-of-37, finishing with 190 attempts (making just 32.6 percent of them).

Believe it or not, defenses have picked up on this and its caused a lot of problems for the T-Wolves offense as a whole.

This is from the same midseason game as above.

Andrew Wiggins work off screens by Dieng and Towns and create a positive matchup between himself and Marcin Gortat. With Bradley Beal still working through screens and the ball in his left hand, Wiggins goes after the much bigger Gortat, only Wall is able to leave Rubio alone in the corner, double-team Wiggins and leave him with no choice but to barrel right into Gortat and dare the ref to call it. Spoiler alert: the ref calls it, possession over.

According to NBA.com/Stats, Rubio has taken only 7 percent of his total field goals this season out of the left corner, making a dreadful 19.4 percent of them. Wall knows that even if he does leave Rubio alone in the corner, he isn’t going to shoot (nonetheless, make it), so he instead cuts off Wiggins drive, forcing him into Gortat for the charge.

The Timberwolves are a bad shooting team (35 percent from deep, 21st in the league), and the lack of spacing provided by their top point guard doesn’t help them overcome that. Driving lanes and the mid-range area have clogged up for Andrew Wiggins, defenses that double-team KAT in the low-post have less risk of him kicking it out and giving up a three, and everything for the Wolves grinds to a halt.

*Record Scratch*

Now just hold on a second.

So far, this has been a pretty rough review of Ricky Rubio. I’ve said he’s afraid to shoot, that he was fairly-drastically hurting the T-Wolves offense and stopped just short of calling him an outright bust. Given another season or two of the Rubio we’ve seen and it might have gotten to that point.

But like a sorority girl realizing she can get boys attention by simply being a girl, Rubio is starting to blossom into something Minnesota might be interested in.

He’s gotten to ten field goal attempts ten times since the All-Star break, including a current nine-game streak of making that mark. Compare that to the fact that Rubio had only ten games with at least ten FGA’s in the entire first half of the season (and 20 all of last season), and now we’re cookin’.

The difference between pre-break Rubio and post-break Rubio is fairly incredible.

Before the break: 32.1 mpg, 7 fga, 38.6 fg%, 28 percent 3p% and 8.4 apg.

After the break: 33.5 mpg, 11.3 fga, 45 percent fg%, 42.9 percent 3p% and 10.8 apg.

For the first time in his career, Rubio is playing with real confidence and it’s finally showing.

Look at that! He just catches it, squares up and fires away. No hesitation. No looking around like you’re begging someone (“please anyone please, God, just not me”) to come take this shot for you. Ladies and gentleman, Ricky Rubio is a shooter!

It’s obviously way too soon to say that, but Rubio has legit been playing some of the best ball of his career. There’s just a confidence that he’s playing that you haven’t seen quite like this.

Rubio is shooting 48.1 percent from 10-to-16 feet this season, over double the 22.9 percent that he shot from that same zone last season. It’s almost like having a Grizzly Bear-Human hybrid like KAT to set your screens will lead to a bunch of open shots and eventually, maybe, just possibly, some confidence.

I mean, just look at this guy!

Who is THAT?

Certainly, it’s not the guy who has looked terrified of taking a big shot for the last five years? The guy who has taken only 18.4 percent of his field goals in the fourth quarter this season, a number that’s actually up from last years 16.7 percent? I KNOW it’s not the guy that would have shook himself out of the game if he went 0-for-3 in the first half a few months ago?

But it is! Off-balance, late game, against the Spurs, tight score, Tony Parker all up on him.

And Rubio buries it.

My favorite part? He started out 0-for-3. A good barometer for whether or not something is a trend or a fact is how it responds when it gets stopped. To see Rubio bounce back after a rough start and be dynamic late in a game was something that Minnesota fans have been waiting to witness for a long time (almost as long as Seattle has been waiting on a basketball franchise… Cmon, even the people of Minnesota know they don’t deserve an NBA franchise when the home to Microsoft and Nintendo doesn’t have one!)

Now comes the awkward part: Why now? What has suddenly changed that has led to Rubio finally gaining some amount of confidence offensively?

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand we all look at Zach LaVine.

To check on the LaVine-Rubio playing relationship, I went back to Rubio’s lowest point this season – a brutal seven-game stretch from December 25 through January 6 – and watched his performance from each game to see what he was like alongside LaVine.

He played for around 30 minutes each game: typically the majority of the first quarter, about four or five minutes at the end of the second, nearly all of the third and finally finish with the last few minutes of the fourth. Despite consistent minutes, Rubio averaged only 5.3 fga’s, 5.6 ppg and 7.7 apg, shooting just 35 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from deep. There was A LOT of this:

Bring the ball up, pass it off and stand like a ghost in the corner while his defender – in this case, CJ McCollum – leaves him nearly completely unguarded.

Amongst guards who average at least 30 minutes per game, Rubio ranks 36-out-of-38 in usage rate this season at just 16.2 percent. To clarify, that means the Rubio has the third least amount of plays called for him amongst qualifying guards. Somehow, a man that can put a pass wherever he wants was forced to watch the rest of the game take place from the corner, occasionally getting up a catch-and-shoot three.

Still, though, I didn’t feel that LaVine and Rubio were incapable of playing together. In fact, I liked some of the stuff they do together. The two showed a bunch of chemistry in transition, with Rubio having a knack for finding ZLV on outlet passes like this one from the January 3 matchup at  the 76ers:

It’s not really LaVine that sucks the life out of Ricky, but the scheme altogether. Zach, Wiggins, and KAT all demand the ball a lot and aren’t accomplished enough yet to run a smooth, Warriors-esque offense that flows smoothly. That leads to the ball getting stuck in the hands of the team’s primary scorers a lot and leaving the shooting-challenged Rubio sulking in the corner, questioning his ability and leading to a depleted confidence.

So no, I don’t think that LaVine was the reason behind Lil Rick’s woes. But I do think that his absence has helped Rubio figure out whatever confidence issues he’s been battling, get his head on straight and see the game at a different speed.

If you extend his recent hot streak to LaVine’s injury on February 3, Rubio has played in 20 games. He’s averaged 13.6 ppg, 10.5 fga (ten shots a game seems to be the magic number for Ricky, in case you’re keeping track), 43.8 percent fg%, 36.4 percent 3p% and seen the passing lanes start opening back up with 10.5 apg. Every single one of those numbers is drastically up compared to before LaVine got shut down.

Minnesota Timberwolves
With so many talented young guys that want the ball in their hands, the T-Wolves struggled to find a spot for Rubio within the offense outside of passing for the majority of this season (Photo by: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

It feels like Rubio may have finally broken through a wall here, and now we’ll have to wait and see how real it is. This could be the moment we look back on as the time Ricky Rubio almost broke out, but eventually came back to earth, or it finally be the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for when it comes to Rubio.

As always, the truth will eventually be found somewhere in the middle. The days of, “Ricky Rubio: Afraid to shoot” are over. But he’s also not suddenly going to come out and take over the league next season, becoming the missing-piece the T-Wolves have yearned for this season and leading them back to the playoffs.

All I want – and what any reasonable person wants, for that matter – is about what Rubio has been this second half. Nothing more, nothing less. Dictate the pace of the offense, take just enough shots to be an all-around offensive threat and play pesky defense that generates turnovers.

If he can supply just enough juice to a Minnesota unit that has lacked a perimeter threat this season, Rubio can be an absolute difference maker for one of the leagues most promising teams.

So you see, Mike Birbiglia was wrong.

Oh, you thought we were done with this analogy? Absolutely not. The old bait and switch. You’ll be on your death bed and I’m going to come walking out, asking whether or not you’re a late person or an on time person and how that means you’re really blossoming as the point guard of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Just think, you’ll close your eyes and embrace the sweet release of death with me talking about how trash your usage rate is as the last thing your mortal ears ever hear.

Anyways, he was wrong! There are three types of people in the world: late people, on time people, and people that never show up. The entire concept of being a late person relies on the idea that eventually, you’ll show up. After all, it’s impossible to be considered late if you never actually show up (this is actually also stolen from that comedy special. I’d tell you to go see it again, but at this point I’ve stolen damn near all it’s material anyway).

Well, there’s a reason that I called Ricky Rubio a late person.

Because he’s finally showing up.

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