Off-season player capsule: Ricky Rubio

This is Part Ten in a thirteen-part series that will examine all players currently on the Wolves’ roster that played for the team last season. We’ll be omitting Kevin Love, because…well, you know why.

Ricky Rubio is still getting better.

It should be obvious. After all, he’s still just 23 years of age. He’s only played one full NBA season, after the lockout and a torn ACL shortened his rookie season and his sophomore season was affected by recovery from the previous year’s knee injury.

There’s no way around the other-worldly court vision and passing ability. It’s a generational talent, no doubt, but it’s also been muted a bit ever since the knee injury that Rubio suffered in March of 2012. He’s still a great passer, of course, but the flare isn’t consistently there. The no-looks and between-the-legs passes are still present in spurts, but the flash, the risks…they’re largely gone.

Part of this is the way that former head coach Rick Adelman‘s corner offense operates. Part of it is the way that Adelman appeared to look down on some of the flash and flare that Rubio brings to the court, and the apparent preference towards veteran guard J.J. Barea in the fourth quarter of close games.

But surely, the lack of success in shooting the ball has to have drained on the Spaniard. While his overall shooting percentages have actually increased each year with consistency, they were so low to begin with that he has a reputation as a candidate for “worst shooter in the history of the game”. It’s a little far-fetched, but to this point, there hasn’t been a clear enough improvement to dispel this notion.

His field goal percentage has gone from a putrid 36.3% as a rookie, to 37.4% in 2012-13, to 39.3% last year. His True-Shooting Percentage of 49.1% in 2013-14 was also a career-high, as was his Effective Field Goal Percentage of 41.3%.

Rubio also raised his three-point shooting percentage from 29.3% in 2012-13 to 33.1% in 1.6 attempts per game in 2013-14. As a spot-up shooter, he’s improved. The issue is the amount of time that it takes the shot to leave his hand, as well as his complete inability to maintain balance when shooting off the dribble.

The jump-shooting is entirely fixable. The improvement has not been as quick or clean as Wolves fans would like, but a Jason Kidd-like transformation is far from out of the question. Besides, Rubio has been a consistent 80.1% free throw shooter since joining the NBA, which is generally an indicator of future success from the floor.

The more concerning issue is the field goal percentage around the rim. In his third season in the NBA, Rubio still shot just 47% at the rim, well below league average. While the number is improving from a sub-41% mark as a rookie, to a sub-42% rate as a sophomore, to last year’s 47%. But it still isn’t good.

Especially when considering Rubio’s youth. Shooting percentages at the rim tend to go down in the twilight of a player’s career as athleticism begins to wane. But Rubio is still not to the prime of his career, and while he’s probably just now enjoying a full recovery from the knee surgery of 2012, finishing through contact is something that is harder to get better at than jump-shooting.

Photos of Rubio from the FIBA exhibition games have shown that he’s already added an obvious amount of muscle since mid-April, and that’s no doubt via mandate from the Wolves — he simply must be stronger at the rim. With added weight, improving health, and hopefully, confidence, the field goal percentage at the rim should continue to increase.

Rubio is passable as a long-range shooter. If he can nudge his three-point percentage north of 35% as a spot-up shooter, he’ll be just fine. He’s already an 80% free throw shooter. If he can improve to league-average at the rim, that will be huge. The mid-range game and a floater in the lane would be nice, but a luxury at this point. That would be the final phase to what would ultimately make Rubio a superstar.

As of right now, the ability to make shots at the rim is easily the biggest hindrance that is keeping Rubio from ascending to the next level. In fact, multiple statistics provide fuel to the argument that Rubio is already a star-caliber player, largely due to his defensive prowess. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus ranks Rubio 29th in the entire NBA. Their version of Wins Above Replacement at the same link places him 15th in the league.

I further laid out the case for Rubio to deserve a near-max contract in the summer of 2015 a few weeks ago, and apparently Rubio and his agent agree. They’ve apparently turned down a four-year, $43 million contract in hopes of inflating his value further with a strong 2014-15 season, so we’ll see if the gamble pays off. Likely, it will.

If Rubio inches northward at all in his shooting ability, it’ll be a great sign for both his future and the future outlook for the Wolves.

Expect some improvement, as well as the return of some of his creativity underneath a more point-guard-friendly coach in Saunders. Rubio should have a very good year in 2014-15.


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