Pure Passer, Shot Creator

Ricky Rubio Scouting Report

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.

Editor’s Note: Statistical data for this post was researched on basketball-reference, NBA.com/stats/, 82games.com and My Synergy Sports.

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.

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7-footer, Catch&Score Finisher

Willie Cauley-Stein Scouting Report

Willie Cauley-Stein would have surely been a lottery pick on this year’s draft and last one’s too. Yet he’s returning for his junior season at Kentucky. This is as uncommon as it gets these days. According to rumors, Cauley-Stein comes from a family with financial stability and doesn’t need to hurry to start receiving NBA paychecks. And if he really likes the environment at Kentucky and wants to stick around a little while longer, there is nothing wrong with it.

Cauley-Stein is prepared to play in the NBA right now, though. He is a prototypical Tyson Chandler prospect; a rim protector who can catch-and-score out of the pick-and-roll on the other end.

The 21-year-old has great mobility for someone his size (seven-feet, 244 pounds), which makes him a great asset defending the pick-and-roll. John Calipari had Kentucky showing-and-recovering and at times switching against the ball-screen and Cauley-Stein was very good, particularly impressive when forced to guard smaller players in space. He can’t bend his knees much but got in as much of a stance as he could and displayed lateral quickness to stay in front and contain dribble penetration through contact. He played with active hands and his three percent steal rate ranked 10th in the SEC.

His biggest impact on defense came out of his shot blocking, though. Cauley-Stein showed excellent instincts rotating off the weak side and great timing elevating to contest shots. His 12.3 percent block rate led the conference and he averaged only 4.5 personal fouls per 40 minutes.

His toughness is what concerns most regarding his transition to the next level. A strong but smaller opponent like Cory Jefferson was able to push him around in the post, but his rebounding is the most head-scratching aspect of his game. Cauley-Stein collected just 13.4 percent of opponents’ misses last season. It’s important to put those numbers in context; he shared all of his minutes with either Julius Randle or Dakari Johnson, two great rebounders on their own. But Cauley-Stein too often wanted to rely on his athleticism to control the glass rather than boxing out opponents and keep them from getting position below the rim.

Kentucky played far better defense with him rather than without him on the floor, though. The Wildcats gave up only 91.5 points per 100 possessions in 880 minutes with Cauley-Stein in the lineup and 100.1 overall, the difference between the ninth- and the 78th-best defenses in college basketball, according to Ken Pomeroy.

When Kentucky forced misses, Cauley-Stein flashed his athleticism as an option in transition. He sprints down the court far faster than most players his size at this level of competition due to his long strides. On the break, Cauley-Stein can go from the top of the key to the rim in two steps.

Kentucky didn’t run many pick-and-rolls in the half-court but when it did, Cauley-Stein either preferred or was coached to slip screen, prioritizing diving down the lane quickly rather than drawing full contact. He showed great hands to catch the ball on the move, was a target for lobs the few times Kentucky’s guards managed to get him the ball there and flashed decent touch to finish at rim level. 74 percent of his shots were within five feet of the rim and he finished them at a 73 percent clip.

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His athleticism also translated in the offensive glass, where Cauley-Stein is able to rebound outside of area due to the combination of his leaping ability, timing chasing the ball off the rim and seven-foot-two wingspan. He grabbed 11.5 percent of Kentucky’s misses, which ranked seventh in the conference. Second chance opportunities are gold and as a result, Kentucky averaged 122.8 points per possessions with Cauley-Stein on the floor and just 112.4 overall.

Away from the basket area, Cauley-Stein is a far less positive presence. His frame helps him set good position in the post but his moves are all unpolished at this point and his hooks are low percentage attempts, as he made just 37.7 percent of his 77 shots away from the rim. He struggles when double-teamed or crowded and turned it over on 14.3 percent of Kentucky’s possessions when he was on the floor, which is not necessarily low in the context of his 14.7 percent usage rate. Cauley-Stein is not an option to short his rolls and find shooters in the perimeter at this point and also missed over half of his free throws last season.

Editor’s Note: Statistical data for this post was researched at Upside & Motor, kenpom.com, basketball-reference and hoop-math

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.

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