In the first flickers of this NBA season, we’ve already seen Toronto’s five-game surge, Damian Lillard’s defiance, a burst out of the gate from what seems to be the entire rookie class, Andre Drummond’s actualization, Washington’s rebirth, and the perfect lunacy that is Stephen Curry. Those watching have also borne witness to the unthinkable: Ricky Rubio, long reluctant and unsuited to score, aggressively pursuing his own shot.
His doing so runs contrary to years of precedent. This is the same Rubio who blanched at the mere thought of attacking the rim, given that he finished a horrendous 31.7% of his shots from the restricted area last season. This is the same Rubio who had to be conditioned to even take the spot-up jumpers he was given, much less honed to make them. His was a disabling style, in a sense; Rubio was able to do good work for Minnesota in seasons past based on playmaking ability alone, though his every move around a ball screen mired the Wolves in a predictable passivity.
Now, Rubio seems rather comfortable stepping into space for this kind of unflinching attempt:
Enough of those shots and confident drives earned Rubio a new career high (28 points) in the first game of the season. That performance was symbolic of what Rubio can do if not an exact representation of what he will. Output of that magnitude will be rare for him, still, as his pair of 12-point outings that followed can attest. Keep in mind, though, that even averaging 12 points a night would make for Rubio’s most productive scoring season. Better yet: with that assertive mindset comes the means to augment all that the Wolves’ lead guard already does so well offensively, bringing the Rubio Effect to its fullest.
Even the most creative playmakers in the league use their scoring ability as currency. Chris Paul knifes through the lanes and contorts the defense before threading a pass to his target. Curry strings out defenders, who have to match his every step for fear of a quick pull-up, until a passing lane materializes for a behind-the-back whip. The Rubio we’ve known has been similarly prolific in generating assists without any of that punch. What he’s been able to provide to this point has been a product purely of vision.
As glaring flaws go, this is rather impressive. Minnesota’s offense has been consistently better with Rubio on the floor over the last few seasons, in part because he has a way of turning routine possessions into easy scores:
He’s done this without being any kind of dribble-drive threat whatsoever. Defenses have been able to go under any ball screen set for Rubio and contain his dribble penetration with other lax schemes. That he hadn’t been a competent shooter allowed opponents to recover from their mistakes or overplay his passing angles.
When everyone on the court knows that a certain player wants desperately to pass, the geometry surrounding that player changes. It all but erases the straight-line angles that might otherwise be available, turning what should be a direct path into a game of Frogger—a wiggling, frustrating course of imminent danger and constant adjustment.
Rubio has spent the better part of his NBA career dodging traffic in that matter. Only now (and only if he continues to hit shots at a respectable rate) does he have the opportunity to more fully direct it. Rubio sees possibility in all kinds of seemingly hopeless angles. What good it would do Minnesota if he could apply the same gumption to simpler circumstances. All it takes is the commitment and poise Rubio has shown through these first three games, which in this specific case turned an unfavorable fast break into a wide open three-pointer:
Becoming a better scorer won’t make Rubio a better passer so much as a more effective one. Everything he creates and contributes will stretch further when defenses have to respect the possibility that he might shoot. Rubio will have to prove it by knocking down those midrange pull-ups or slinking his way to the basket before his scouting report adjusts in any meaningful way.
In the interim, there’s room for Rubio and the Wolves to create leverage out of his scoring opportunities—especially if Rubio continues to feel out defenders and lure potential fouls to such great effect. Thus far, Rubio has more than doubled his free throw attempts per game (6.7) relative to last season (3.2) while registering in the NBA’s top 20 by that particular measure. The level of competition faced in terms of both perimeter defense and rim protection has not been stellar. With Rubio, though, simply getting him to the point where he feels comfortable pushing to score is progress in itself.
The numbers will regress to the mean as they always do over the course of a season; Ricky Rubio won't last in the top 10 in player efficiency rating for long, I’m afraid. Still, he’s essential to Minnesota’s every hope for competence. The offense literally does not run without him. Rubio is spelled by the odd, fruitless ballhandling combination of Zach LaVine and Kevin Martin—neither of whom is qualified to initiate an offense. Even the simplest things tend to go awry:
And a concerning number of possessions tend to go nowhere at all:
Rubio takes those same teammates, those same basic ingredients, and makes a relatively cohesive whole. He starts by preserving opportunity and creating more. Through impressive ball control and preemptive defense, Rubio’s presence has cut Minnesota’s turnover rate by 5% (relative to when he’s off the floor) and bumped up the opponent’s turnover rate by 2%, per NBA.com. Those figures will need more time to firm up in a meaningful, predictive way, but to date Rubio is the principal actor involved in a net swing of about seven turnovers per 100 possessions.
That Rubio is far and away Minnesota’s best offensive and defensive point guard should be self-evident given the alternatives. What’s less widely understood is just how good Rubio is—and could be—in a more general sense. Rubio’s most significant weakness has become the central talking point of his career. Frequent injury hasn’t helped, either, as the 25-year-old guard has played out just a single healthy season in four tries. Still, Rubio’s blend of first-rate passing and defense makes him an especially influential player on a nightly basis. If he can be even an adequate scorer in addition, Minnesota’s on-court possibilities expand in all sorts of productive ways.
We're just three games in for Rubio and the Wolves, leaving many open jumpers to test his accuracy and many open driving lanes through which to gauge his confidence. There will surely be ups and downs, as is the case for even shooters far more capable than Rubio. The statement of those crests isn't a pronouncement of arrival. It's a vision of a way forward for Rubio and a glimpse of what could be.