In the 17 games since Zach LaVine began to start at the two-guard with consistency, the Timberwolves have taken flight on offense.
LaVine is showing that he has the potential to be a very good shooting guard, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have improved on their already fantastic numbers, and the team offense has looked like one of the best in the league when the starters play together.
Lost in all that excitement has been the quiet emergence of Ricky Rubio‘s offensive game. After starting the season with a tantalizing offensive performance against the Lakers, Rubio settled in right around his career averages in every shooting category.
Many fans and critics continued to express their frustration and disappointment in Rubio. It didn’t matter that Ricky was a top-five defender at the point guard position, or still the very best passer in the league, or that his energy and leadership pulled the Wolves forward while he was on the court and that the team looked totally lost when he sat.
Critics of Rubio downplayed or completely ignored all of that. All that mattered to them was that he still couldn’t shoot.
Ricky is slowly but surely beginning to flip that line of thought on its head. For as big of a boost that LaVine has experienced since slotting into the starting lineup, Rubio has realized an equally large lift in his own game.
In the 17 games since LaVine began to start (dating back to the game against the Raptors just before the All-Star break), Ricky has improved his scoring by 3.1 points per game (up to 12.6 ppg) and bumped his assists up to 9.4 from 8.6 per contest.
But it’s the shooting percentages that are even more striking. Before the insertion of LaVine into the starting lineup, Rubio was shooting just 35.6 percent from the field, including a ghastly 28 percent from three. However, he was still shooting a very good 82.1 percent from the free throw line, which I have long argued shows that his shooting stroke is good and adds to the confusion of why he doesn’t shoot better from the field.
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Well, Ricky is now shooting better from the field, elevating his field goal mark to 43.4 percent. While that is still slightly below the league average of 45.2 percent this season, it is still better than James Harden, John Wall, Kemba Walker, and Damian Lillard. With the possible exception of Walker, each of those guards are considered elite offensive players.
Ricky’s three-point percentage has seen an even larger increase, rocketing up to 39.3 percent on 3.3 attempts per game in the past 17 contests. Although Ricky falls just short of the magic number of 40 percent from deep, that percentage ranks ahead of Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Lillard, and sharp-shooter Anthony Morrow on the season.
In addition, Ricky has hit three treys a trio of times over the past 17 games. In his first four seasons combined, Ricky hit three three-pointers in a game just twice.
Maybe it’s the increased spacing with LaVine on the floor. Maybe it’s the result of more transition opportunities. Maybe it’s just plain old improvement. Regardless of why, Ricky has been a legitimate threat from beyond the arc lately.
Furthermore, Ricky is hitting a gaudy 92 percent from the charity stripe in that time frame. Bad shooters do not hit over 85 percent of their free throws, as Rubio is doing this season. The stroke is there; what’s been lacking is confidence and perhaps enough repetition from beyond the arc to build muscle memory.
With luck, Rubio will finish this season and head into the off-season completely healthy for the first time in years. He has been working with shooting coach Mike Penberthy when time has permitted this season, and the plan is for Rubio to put in a ton of work with him during the off-season.
That tweet is from February 10th, the same day this streak started. Coincidence? I think not.
This tweet is just from a few days ago on March 21st. Rubio is serious about working on his shot and Penberthy is one of the best in the business.
If Rubio can show that his percentage isn’t just a case of a smallish sample size and continue to shoot like this for the rest of the season, just imagine what his shot will be like next year with a full offseason of working with Penberthy under his belt.
Rubio doesn’t need to be an elite scorer to be a great point guard like Russell Westbrook, Wall, and Lillard. The Timberwolves have a trio of young stars that can handle the scoring load. What Rubio needs to do when he doesn’t have the ball is space the floor for those players and punish defenses by hitting open shots when they help off of him.
There is no doubt that Ricky’s shot is improving. The next step is maintaining a high percentage over the course of a season. With the recent improvements and a full offseason of work with Penberthy looming, Rubio seems to be on his way to doing just that.