Fantasy Focus: Ricky Rubio
Think back to the 2008 Summer Olympics held in Beijing, China. The men’s basketball team won the gold medal. Spain captured the silver; Argentina got bronze. The USA’s “Redeem Team” did exactly what they set out to do…that is, attain redemption for the team’s third-place showing in the 2004 Olympics at Athens.
Many of us still carry certain images from that event. Remember Yao Ming walking hand-in-hand with a nine-year-old earthquake survivor representing China in the Opening Ceremonies? Or the tasteless photo of the Spanish basketball team? Fans won’t forget how the USA team gathered midcourt to celebrate their gold win.
It was in Beijing that most Americans were introduced to 17-year-old Spanish guard Ricky Rubio. Amazingly, he had turned pro in Europe at age 14.
It’s not that Rubio set the world on fire with his statistical accomplishments in the Olympics - 4.8 points, 3.0 assists, 2.1 steals, 4.0 rebounds, and a most unimpressive .280 FG% – it was the way he played. More than just great passing, stealing and lane movement, the teenager demonstrated over and over again that he, simply put, understood the game.
Suddenly the NBA was abuzz about this young player who exhibited such rare court vision and mature control of the game. His quick hands and defensive skills appeared inexplicably seasoned.
The inevitable comparisons soon followed…to Magic Johnson, to Pete Maravich and to Steve Nash, with a little Chris Paul and Manu Ginobili mixed in. The prospect of a 6’4” crafty pass-first point guard captured the imagination of those hungry for a fresh-faced budding superstar.
One of the league’s very best at the position, Paul, heaped serious praise toward his opponent following the Olympics. Paul noted that the two were quite alike in that they both play unselfish ball, putting team before all else. He described how Rubio’s long arms make him dangerously good at stealing and passing the ball.
The expectation was that Rubio would keep improving in Europe before making the eventual leap to the NBA. Following a stint with DKV Joventut in the 2008-09 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves picked him fifth overall in the 2009 draft. Buyout considerations, among other issues, kept him in Europe, and he spent the next two years playing for Regal Barcelona of the Spanish ACB League. At long last, the Wolves announced Rubio’s impending move to the NBA last June.
However, in an unexpected and evolving twist, the anticipation of Rubio’s entry into the NBA had already started to fade, seemingly commiserate with his falling stats since the 2008 Olympics.
Glance through Rubio’s regular-season averages over the past three years in Europe:
2008/09: 2009/10: 2010/11:
22 games 34 games 34 games
23.0 minutes 20.0 minutes 23.0 minutes
10.0 points 6.6 points 5.3 points
1.7 field goals at .374 1.0 field goals at .479 1.1 field goals at .378
1.0 threes at .432 1.1 threes at .420 0.6 threes at .270
3.4 free throws at .804 1.5 .free throws at .797 1.4 free throws at .770
2.6 rebounds 2.6 rebounds 3.4 rebounds
6.1 assists 4.4 assists 4.4 assists
2.2 steals 2.0 steals 1.7 steals
3.0 turnovers 1.8 turnovers 2.1 turnovers
Euroleague performances with Barcelona didn’t vary much from the above numbers.
Keep in mind he battled foot injuries last year. Also keep in mind that he lost his starting role last season, and the reason appears clear.
Rubio has serious difficulty scoring points.
There are no easy answers as to why he struggles with shooting. It could range from mechanics, practice habits, pressure or lack of confidence to the kind of coaching or direction he receives in Europe.
Without a doubt, his shooting deficiencies will be addressed when Minnesota’s coaches get their hands on him.
Still, it was disheartening to hear Pau Gasol indicate he was hoping to see “more of an improvement” and “more of a difference than he made” from Rubio following Spain’s victory at 2011 EuroBasket.
One look at Rubio’s stats during the championship event (1.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 steals in 15.5 minutes), and Gasol’s comments seem to make sense. To top it off, Rubio had just one free throw and went 1-for-15 in three-pointers.
His performances over the past three years have led to considerable speculation that he will not pan out particularly well in the NBA.
Digging deeper though, there are two very important details that cannot be overlooked. First, the European game is quite different from the more wide open NBA game which is better suited to Rubio’s talents. Another quick point guard, Brandon Jennings, illustrates how numbers in Europe do not necessarily translate to the same numbers in the NBA. He averaged 5.5 points (with similar shooting percentages to Rubio’s) in 17.0 minutes during his season in Italy. The next year, he averaged 15.5 points in 32.6 minutes for the Milwaukee Bucks. Second, Rubio’s role in Minnesota will be much different than his role in Barcelona where he was stuck behind national treasure, Juan Carlos Navarro.
Hard to believe, but Rubio led his team in assists (4.4) last season. In fact, he was fifth in the Spanish ACB league. Navarro averaged 16.4 points, but just 2.7 assists. (Jennings had 2.2 apg in his Euro stint) Even stranger, Rubio was tied in third place for total rebounds (3.4).
For those thinking about drafting Rubio in fantasy basketball, the immediate questions center on his shooting abilities. Is he worth the risk? Will his contributions in other categories absorb, even outweigh, the potential dismal shooting percentages? Will he thrive or dive in now-foreign schemes? Perhaps he’ll develop in the vein of a Rajon Rondo-type where scoring is nice but better left to others? Unfortunately, the answers are anybody’s guess at this point.
Some have already labeled Rubio a bust; we call him a sleeper pick.
What truly works in Rubio’s favor is the pairing with new Timberwolves coach, Rick Adelman. Shortly after the hiring, Adelman explained his belief in giving young talented players (lockout rules prevented mentioning Rubio’s name) freedom to play up to their areas of strength. He’s all about building confidence and focusing on the development of natural skills.
Adelman will unquestionably work on Rubio’s shot.
He may well find his place behind Luke Ridnour to start the season, but he’ll get every chance to show off his playmaking abilities and sound defense. His name is going to generate interest and ticket sales, and he may play significant minutes.
Take a look at his Per 40 Minutes averages last season: 9.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 2.9 steals, 3.7 turnovers.
Rubio, now 21, is preparing for the NBA experience. Understanding the physicality he will face in the NBA game, he’s focused on adding bulk to his slight frame (180 lbs) via weight-lifting. He’s been mingling and working out with other NBA players. Recently he played pick-up ball with Danny Granger, Joakim Noah, Enes Kanter and Omri Casspi.
Expect plenty of opportunities for Rubio to find the open man; fortunately he’s going to have many choices with Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams eager to score. Also expect him to bother opponents with ball-snatching capabilities. The rest should work itself out over time, but Rubio’s worth gambling on in the upcoming fantasy season.