Ricky Rubio understands all angles — on offense and defense


Ricky Rubio is more than just a pretty face passer.

If you’re a Wolves fan, you know that. The national pundits questioning or even deriding his defense could not be more wrong, of course, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t collectively marvel at Rubio’s defensive efforts, both on the ball and in help-defense situations.

Last night in Dallas, the Wolves fell behind by 21 points in the second quarter. Rubio was part of the poor start, even struggling a bit to stay in front of the Mavericks’ guards at the outset even while being uncharacteristically aggressive in looking for his own jump shot. (He did beat Devin Harris off the dribble to his left fairly early in the game, and it’s strange how often we see opposing point guards overplay Rubio to his right; he clearly has no problem crossing over and shooting left-handed layups. We’ve seen this since his rookie season.)

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But even while Rubio was getting his legs underneath himself over the course of the contest, he became increasingly active and at times daring on defense. There were a couple of silly fouls that he took trying to draw offensive fouls, but those plays can often go either way from the officials perspective or lead to a turnover via travel if there’s no foul call. And that’s not to mention the effect that simply being a pest has on opposing guards.

The quintessential Rubio moment from Monday night’s game came on the Mavericks’ first offensive possession of the second half. With nine seconds showing on the shot clock, Dirk Nowitzki had the ball on the left wing. Rubio was guarding J.J. Barea, who was standing right at the break on the opposite side of the floor. Check out the setup:

Rubio is in the proper spot, knowing that the angle for a pass from Nowitzki to Barea is extremely difficult, especially with Andrew Wiggins and his wingspan standing at the midway point of where the flight of the ball would have to travel. He’s also close enough to Barea that he could recover were the ball to be swung to Chandler Parsons at the top of the key.

He is also anticipating a shot-fake and drive from Nowitzki, or the possibility of Monta Ellis, who is standing in the left corner and closest the ball, making a back-door cut on the vulnerable Kevin Martin. It’s the perfect example of Rubio playing the “free safety” role that he excels so much at — he’s not just wasting space, he’s helping on two other offensive players while still being close enough to effectively guard his own man.

In the below frame, Rubio has dropped a couple of steps further in the paint, mirroring Barea’s slightly changing angle on the play. He also correctly anticipated a pump-fake and as soon as Nowitzki stopped and it appeared as though he’d attempt a mid-range jumper, Rubio froze in the middle of the lane to be in proper rebounding position.

Martin makes the decision to abandon his man in the corner to try and contest Nowitzki’s long two-pointer — never mind that he’s leaving a good shooter open for a three-pointer, he won’t get to Dirk in time, and the six-foot-seven Martin wouldn’t bother the seven-foot Nowitzki’s shot, anyways. Predictably, Martin gets caught in no-man’s land, leaving Ellis open in the corner.

Interestingly, Ellis does not attempt to cut back-door despite Martin giving him the entire baseline, but waits for Martin to partially recover before pump-faking and driving to the basket. Rubio has maintained his spot in the middle of the paint — note the impossibility of a pass to the stationary Barea on the other side of the floor. Once again, Rubio is in the perfect spot.

Notice how Tyson Chandler has drawn Nikola Pekovic completely to the opposite side of the paint as the ball, giving what appears to be a gigantic swath of open court for Ellis to convert an easy layup.

As soon as Rubio sees Ellis start to drive baseline, he moves in to give help. Never mind that Rubio’s man, Barea, is now the furthest player from the play. Rubio knows that Ellis is looking to score, and isn’t just going to wait for him to get to the basket; he’s going to cut him off before he can even get a shot up.

And he does, simply beats Ellis to the spot. Charge on Ellis, and it’s Wolves’ ball on the turnover.

This is made possible by the same anticipatory skill that Rubio possesses on offense. It’s the understanding of angles, spacing, and timing. It’s seeing things occur in his mind before they actually happen. It’s unteachable — at least in the capacity that Rubio possesses the quality.

The other part of it is effort and desire, of course, but it’s obvious which players understand the intricacies of the game while others barely scratch the surface. And he just turned 24 years old.

Yes, his jump shot appears to be improving, and his shooting percentage at the rim should improve with time and will only be supported by a more consistent jumper that will help keep defenses off-balance. We’ll definitely be watching his shooting numbers in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, enjoy plays like this. They’re special.

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