Thursday, February 9, 2012

Olé, Olé

Alex Theohardies (@Minne_Pop) continues his coverage of "America's Team," The Minnesota Timberwolves, by taking a look at the impact of Ricky Rubio's first twenty-five NBA games.

Olé, Olé
An Analysis of Ricky Rubio’s First 25 Games in the NBA

by Alex Theoharides

Tuesday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves played the Sacramento Kings without their superstar (and resident face-stomper) Kevin Love. At game time, their record was 12 wins and 12 losses. It was their first opportunity to break the .500 mark this late in the season since the days of Kevin Garnett. The Sacramento Kings are not, by any means, a great basketball team. However, they are a young and talented group capable of beating any team in the league. If the Wolves had lost the game, most fans and writers would have been willing to write the loss off—after all, without Kevin Love on the court the Wolves were forced to play without a single, consistent offensive scorer.  

In just his 25th game in the NBA, Ricky Rubio proved talented enough to lead the Wolves to a victory without their star (to be fair, he was helped by the emergence of recently dominant center, Nikola Pekovic). In 37 minutes, Rubio scored 6 points, tallied 14 assists, stole the ball 5 times, and grabbed 6 rebounds. His assist total would have been much higher had the Wolves wing players been able to hit open shots. The most important statistic, however, was that his +/- for the game was +11. Whenever he was on the court, he controlled the tempo of the game on both sides of the ball. Offensively, he pushed the tempo, head on a swivel, looking for open shooters. Defensively, he forced the Kings’ guards into a handful of turnovers and bad shots. Whenever he was off the court, the Wolves looked stale and out of sorts. Amazingly, at only 21 years old Rubio was the best player on the court and the leader of his team.

For NBA fans that have been watching “America’s Team” this season, Rubio’s success against the Kings wasn’t surprising. Prominent basketball writers have largely placed him near the head of this year’s rookie class (second to Kyrie Irving on most lists). A few weeks ago, David Thorpe of ESPN wrote an excellent profile on Ricky Rubio (Insiders only, so I won’t bothering linking it), in which he focused on how Rubio’s ability to read the defense and make rapid decisions is comparable to Tom Brady’s. High praise indeed, despite Brady’s poor performance against the New York Football Giants. However, the most interesting line of Thorpe’s article came when he opined, “don’t be surprised when some excellent free agent chooses to play for the Wolves because of the chance to play with a point guard like Rubio.” Good players always want to play alongside great passers, a sentiment echoed on a recent Bill Simmons podcast when the living legend himself, Larry Bird, was noticeably excited to discuss how Ricky Rubio’s passing skills could change the one-on-one, shoot first culture of the NBA.  

Despite all the hoopla (pun intended), it’s important to remember that Ricky Rubio has played only 25 games in the NBA. A deeper look at those 25 games provides more information into why Rubio has been so successful, but also where he still needs to grow as a player if he is going to become a true superstar in the NBA.

Marketability - 5 Stars
In just his first season in the NBA, Ricky Rubio has become a fan favorite in Minneapolis and across the country. At Wolves games, he gets a louder ovation during introductions than even Kevin Love; fans are particularly drawn to serenade him with chants of Olé, Olé after every stylish pass he makes. I’ve lived in Minneapolis for the past five years; this is the first winter when I’ve encountered residents actually excited to discuss the Wolves with me. Two days ago it was one of my coworkers. Yesterday it was the mailman. Today, it was an old, and very naked, guy in the YMCA locker room (#TMI?). Clearly, Rubio has made an impact. Check out the Wolves’ attendance figures for the past three seasons:

Average @ home games
Percent Capacity
Average @ Road Games
Percent Capacity
Overall Average
NBA Rank
16, 677

The Wolves have jumped from being near the bottom of attendance in the league to 14th. A large part of that is, of course, due to the continued development of star Kevin Love. But the greater effect has been Rubio’s. Fans are coming to Wolves games to see his passes; moreover, his willingness to pass has made his teammates more willing to move without the ball and to look for open teammates, leading to a more aesthetically pleasing style of basketball. His impact has also been felt on a national stage; with an international star leading the way, the Wolves brand is not only marketable in Minnesota but also across America, Europe and Asia.

Offensive Game - 4 Stars
While stats are far from being the only effective way of analyzing a player’s offensive impact, they do provide information about where Rubio has found success and where he still needs to improve. Below, I’ve recorded offensive data for Rubio’s first 25 games. Beneath Rubio’s stats, I’ve included Jason Kidd’s career numbers to provide a striking comparison of Rubio to a veteran point guard with a similar skill-set.

Off. Rbds
3-pt %
Usage Rate
Ricky Rubio
11.2 pg
9.1 pg
0.4 pg
3.2 pg
20.3 %
Jason Kidd
13.1 pg
9.2 pg
1.3 pg
3.0 pg

I’ve never been a particular fan of Kidd; however, he has had an immensely successful NBA career. When he played for the New Jersey Nets, his impact on the court was extremely close to Rubio’s. Both players are at their best when they’re leading fast breaks; they both have the ability to anticipate plays well before they develop; they are both spot shooters with low field goal shooting percentages. If, at some point in his career, Rubio can lead the Wolves to consecutive NBA Finals like Kidd did with the 2001-02 and 2002-03 Nets, his career will have been a great success.

Looking beyond the stats, Rubio’s best offensive skill is his ability to run the offense. A quick YouTube search will produce dozens of highlights of his ability to dish the ball to open teammates. However, he still needs to learn that making a beautiful pass is less valuable than making a successful pass. Rubio often tries to force the issue, feeding teammates who either aren’t ready for his passes or aren’t skilled enough to use them successfully, resulting in his relatively high rate of 3.2 turnovers per game. Fortunately, he’s a willing learner, as evidence after the final buzzer sounded for the Wolves victory over the Kings, when cameras focused on Rubio and Wolves’ coach Rick Adelman huddling to discuss what Rubio should have done differently on the Wolves’ final offensive possession of the game. Many young players would resent such feedback, Rubio sought it out.

Rubio’s shooting is his most glaring offensive weakness. Grantland writer Sebastian Pruiti did an excellent job breaking down Rubio’s shooting technique in his most recent NBA Rookie Rankings. In the article, Pruiti included this nugget for stat-heads, “According to Synergy Sports, this season Rubio is shooting 51.7 percent on unguarded catch-and-shoot plays. He scores 1.517 points per possession in these situations, which makes these next statistics somewhat surprising: Rubio is shooting 0 percent on guarded catch-and-shoots (he's only attempted eight of them) and 32.2 percent off the dribble.” The problem, Pruiti surmises, is in Rubio’s footwork. If you watch Rubio play, it’s extremely apparent that he shoots differently on spot up shots than he does off the dribble (Check the footage: Rubio Spots Up, Rubio Off the Dribble Jumper).

When he shoots spot up jumpers, Rubio employs a stiff set shot technique common to many other European players such as Portland’s Nicolas Batum. He doesn’t take many spot up shots, but when he does he is surprisingly successful; the major drawback being that he can’t get his set shot off when he is closely guarded. Meanwhile, when he shoots off the dribble Rubio’s form is far more typical of the average NBA shooter. He pushes the ball forward, bends his knees, explodes off the ground and attempts to release the ball at the top of his jump. The problem is this is still a fairly new technique for Rubio. As a result, many of his jump shots still appear to be off-balanced. As he has more time to work on his game with NBA instructors, I expect his technique and shooting success to grow.

Defensive Game - 3.5 Stars
The most surprising aspect of Ricky Rubio’s game is how disruptive of a defender he is—almost a poor man’s Rajon Rondo. At 6 feet 4 inches, he has long arms, quick hands and quick feet. He is particularly adept at anticipating a player’s movements and stepping into the lane to take charges. Again, Rubio’s numbers are very similar to Jason Kidd’s career averages.

Defensive Rebounds
Ricky Rubio
4.1 pg
2.4 pg
0.2 pg
Jason Kidd
4.1 pg
1.6 pg
0.3 pg

One of the most telling aspects of Rubio’s defensive game is that he rarely gets in foul trouble. According to, he is 5th in the NBA in steals per foul and 30th in Defensive plays per foul. Despite his success, points guards (such as Houston’s Kyle Lowry) have been able to overpower him at times, and in the off-season he will need to spend time in the weight room to become a stronger defender.

Intangibles - 5 Stars
The most impressive impact Rubio has had on the Wolves is from a leadership perspective. Although he is only 21 years old, he has been playing professionally since he was 14 years old, and he has long been one of Spain’s marque international players. Rubio is used to winning close games, and he is used to playing with and against older, stronger players. On the court, he never seems to be fazed by anything that happens to him or to his teammates. He has already formed a strong relationship with his coach, teammates, opponents and officials (he can often be seen discussing the rationale behind calls with refs), and he appears to be extremely willing to learn both from the Wolves staff and from his on-court experiences.

The best indicator of Rubio’s intangibles is the Wolves current record of 13 wins and 12 losses. He plays his best, most assertive basketball in the fourth quarter of close games, and he’s not afraid to take big shots in big moments. As Ricky Rubio continues to improve his game, there is little doubt that he will become a perennial All Star and winner in the NBA. Let’s hope the Wolves find a way to keep both Love and Rubio in Minnesota for the long term.

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