Eric Bledsoe recently signed a five-year, $70 million contract with the Phoenix Suns and someone brought up on twitter that deal could be a barometer for the talks between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Ricard Rubio I Vives, who is eligible for an extension until this year’s Halloween deadline. It’s been speculated agent Dan Fegan will push for Rubio’s five-year max, a thought most have considered ridiculous. Three years into his NBA career, Rubio has become sort of a polarizing figure; his passing is idolized, his defense is underrated and his shooting numbers are laughed at. With his play as a part of why the Timberwolves failed to reach expectations of playoff contention last season, Rubio’s true impact remains in doubt.
It is evident his top skill is shot creation for others. Rubio is an incredible passer, not just off dribble penetration but especially passing ahead in transition. He is great in the open court, hitting running targets in stride, especially on lobs. In the half-court, Rubio has played his entire NBA career on Rick Adelman’s corner offense where he has exhibited good speed attacking off down screens to get to the middle of the lane and draw help-defense, which he takes advantage off by unexpectedly dumping the ball off to big men floating around the basket area or hitting baseline cutters. He sees passing lanes one second ahead than most people. His ability to hit shooters on target remains underrated.
Rubio is best suited for a fast-paced system, one that is transition-oriented and emphasizes early offense in the halfcourt. He will be fantastic if he ever plays for Mike D’Antoni. His quick first step helps him get good separation off the ballscreen and he has shown impressive patience if forced away from the lane, always keeping his dribble alive if the window for the pocket pass isn’t there. Turning it over on almost 22 percent of Minnesota’s possessions when he’s on the floor is not ideal but comes with the territory for players who are risk takers looking to put teammates in scoring position. Bad passes accounted for 79 percent of his 221 turnovers.
Even though playing in a system that didn’t maximize his talents, Rubio ranked sixth in assist rate and Minnesota averaged 109.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and 98 when he hit the bench, the difference between the best and the second-worst teams in offensive efficiency. That’s particularly impressive when you consider Rubio is as poor a scorer as advertised. According to basketball-reference’s Player Season Finder tool, no player in the three-point Era with as many attempts has shot worst over their first three seasons in the league. Rubio has hit only 36.8 percent of his 1573 shots in 5733 minutes.
The biggest issue is his finishing against length. Though a good athlete, Rubio elevates very little off the ground and doesn’t hang in the air much. He attacks with good speed on straight line drives and has a tight handle when forced to dribble from side to side, proving himself able to get to the basket at a very high rate; 43.5 percent of his shots were taken in the restricted area, the fifth highest among point guards last season. But Rubio has done very poorly converting the greatest look in basketball when challenged by quality rim protection, hitting only 48 percent. He struggles in particular when forced to finish with his left hand against any sort of contest. 10 percent of his total shots were blocked.
Rubio scores terribly at the rim but not significantly worse than other notoriously poor finishers like Damian Lillard and Dion Waiters. But the difference is those two players are great jump-shooters, especially off the bounce, while Rubio is also bad off the dribble and merely capable off the catch. He hit just 28.8% of his 205 pull-up attempts last season, often shooting on his way down. When you watch Rubio shoot off the catch, it is noticeable how his mechanics and elevating are two separate motions in his release rather one smooth action. He hit just 35.4 percent of his approximately 139 catch-and-shoot attempts. While players like Derrick Rose, Andrew Wiggins and Caris LeVert struggle with their shots by elevating too much, it seems that Rubio does better when he leaps the higher he can in rhythm, as he gets a higher arc on his shot.
But even as a really limited scorer, Rubio remains a far more positive presence to Minnesota’s offense than otherwise. It’s important to contextualize his on-off splits by remembering JJ Barea and Alexey Shved didn’t play well last season but most of that 11-point differential is Rubio elevating his team’s play in a manner maybe only 10 other guys in the league could do better. He, himself, could do better if he started hitting layups and open shots at an average rate but he has not yet failed to consistently engage the help defense when he drives to the rim, so the passing lanes are still being created.
Rubio started to get more recognition for his above average defense last season, to a point where he is a bit overrated now. He was great in isolation, holding opponents to 33 percent shooting, which was a top 35 mark. Rubio is a big player for his position (six-foot-four height, 180 pounds, long wingspan) but most importantly, has great lateral agility that permits him to stay attached and give up little separation to most opponents.
He is very iffy defending the pick-and-roll, though. Rubio was either coached to or strongly preferred going under the pick consistently, too often wanting to rely on his speed to cover ground, which didn’t yield many positive results as he ranked outside the top 150 in scoring allowed per possession off pick-and-rolls. He was very active playing the passing lane to manufacture turnovers, leading the league in steal percentage, but many felt Rubio was overaggressive and gambled an awful lot chasing those steals.
The Timberwolves prevented scoring only marginally better when he was on the floor in comparison to when he sat, though context is also important here; Rubio shared the vast majority of his minutes with Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, perhaps one of the five worst duos in rim protection.
Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.