Mar 19, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (9) drives against Dallas Mavericks forward Brandan Wright (34) at American Airlines Center. The Timberwolves beat the Mavs 123-122 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The importance of the final weeks of the season: Rubio, Dieng, and more

While the Timberwolves’ playoff hopes have vanished for yet another dreary spring, there are legitimate reasons to pay attention to this under-performing squad over the final weeks of the campaign.

There’s the quest to show Kevin Love that there is something to work with in Minnesota, heading into what is likely the final year of Love’s contract, pending his opt-out at the end of the 2014-15 season. There’s the suddenly exciting and intriguing development of Gorgui Dieng, and the possibilities that may come along with playing a defensive-minded, shot-blocking big man alongside Love.

The unexpected development of fellow rookie Shabazz Muhummad is also an interesting thing to keep an eye on, even if he’s suddenly fallen back out of Rick Adelman’s rotation over the past week. And trust me, I won’t stop watching if only because I can’t miss seeing Kevin Love tear apart opponents’ futile attempts at defending him.

But especially, don’t miss this: Ricky Rubio has showed substantial improvement since the All-Star Break just over a month ago. It’s been obvious just by watching Wolves games, as his offensive impact has been much greater than it was for much of the first half of the season. But his defense has generally been more active, and the spring in his step that was missing in December and January has at least partially returned.

And the numbers back up that story. Rubio is shooting 44.1% from the field since the break, including 42.9% from three-point range (throw out the first game after the break against Indiana during which he shot 2 of 10, and he’s at a 47% overall since mid-February). He’s also averaged 9.4 points and 9.6 assists per game over that span. Clearly, not mind-boggling numbers or anything that would vault Rubio into all-star status or anything. But absolutely an improvement.

In Dallas on Wednesday night, Rubio actually used a head fake and a shoulder shimmy on the perimeter to split two defenders, get to the rim, and convert the basket. I’ve watched nearly every minute of Ricky Rubio playing basketball as a Minnesota Timberwolf, and I can think of less than a handful of times that Rubio has driven to the basket and scored that confidently. (One was his first ever NBA game, against the Heat. He beat Mario Chalmers with the left hand and converted an and-one.)

That, in and of itself, is not good of course. But it was noticeable. If you’ve tuned into the Fox Sports North television broadcasts of late, Dave Benz and Jim Peterson have brought up in almost every game in the past few weeks that Rubio visited a shooting coach in Los Angeles over the All-Star Break. Who knows if that has anything to do with it, after all, his jumper hasn’t necessarily looked that much better overall, but it certainly hasn’t hurt.

And at least it’s showing an recognition of the issue and an attempt to reconcile the problem. Yes, we know that Rubio has been a pro since the age of 14, which is nearly a full decade of being paid to play basketball as an occupation. But as a prodigy, he didn’t need a knock-down jumper. And he tore his ACL his rookie season, so his first NBA off-season was spent rehabbing. Last off-season was his first non-recovery summer as an NBA player, and he ended up playing in Eurobasket for Spain.

So now is when we expect some hay to be made by Rubio. He needs to continue to improve as a player, and that starts and ends with his shooting. It seems fairly clear that his mobility and short-area speed and quickness are not as good as they were pre-knee injury just over two years ago, but he’s also only 23 years old. He can likely still regain some of that quickness, which would certainly help on both ends of the court. But regardless, the jumper needs to improve.

We’ve all seen the Jason Kidd/Steve Nash comparisons, and they’re largely valid. Rubio’s court vision and passing prowess is on that same Hall of Fame level. And his defense is leaps and bounds above Nash’s and easily on par, if not slightly better than Kidd’s defensive body of work.

His shot is biggest thing that needs to fall into place. If that happens, those that stubbornly doubt Rubio’s true value as an NBA player will clearly see just how gifted he is offensively. It isn’t just flashy passes; there is a ton of substance there, too.

But nothing says we can’t enjoy the mixtape-worthy dishes, too.

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Tags: Gorgui Dieng Kevin Love Minnesota Timberwolves Ricky Rubio

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