HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Hitting the new year a game below .500, the Minnesota Timberwolves (15-16) know the work facing them in 2014 dwarfs whatever they accomplished in 2013. Father Time hasn’t been kind in recent seasons to that franchise, and that New Year’s Baby will get whiny awfully quick unless the Wolves get busy and get better, fast.
The same goes for their point guard, Ricky Rubio.
Like his team, Rubio still gets talked of more for his potential than his production or overall play. In fact, the plateau onto which Minnesota appears to have settled owes much to the Spanish plain on which Rubio’s game rests these days. Were he playing better – specifically, posing more of a scoring threat to the opponents that are loading up on Kevin Love and Kevin Martin – the Wolves would be, too.
It’s disappointing enough that Rubio’s offensive game hasn’t grown. What’s worse is that it seems to be regressing. After making a mere 35.9 percent of his field goal attempts in his first two (partial) seasons, Rubio is shooting 34.5 percent in 2013-14. His 3-point accuracy (33.9) is about where it was as a rookie (34.0), after last season’s 29.3. But that means his 2-point prowess (34.7) is in decline.
And here’s the worst part: Rubio appears to be shying away from the very thing he needs to improve. As a rookie, he put up 9.5 shots per game. That dipped to 9.0 after he returned to the court in December 2012 following his ACL/LCL knee rehab. Now? The 6-foot-4 playmaker is averaging 8.1 FGAs, including just 17 in his last four games prior to Wednesday’s contest vs. New Orleans. (Per 36 minutes, the drop is greater: from 10.9 last season to 9.1.)
Look, most of us tend to avoid things we’re not good at or confident about. But this cries out for some sort of resolution for Rubio and the Wolves, maybe an intervention. It’s an impediment to his game individually and it’s a missing link in their attack.
Historically so, actually. Get a load of the NBA’s worst shooters of the past 37 years. Is it merely a coincidence that five of the 10 biggest rim-denters, per basketball-reference.com, played for the Wolves (Rubio, Keith McLeod, Eddie Griffin, A.J. Price, Darrick Martin)? Probably, sure. Then again, Martin was Minnesota’s player-development coach for a couple recent seasons.
The Wolves still cite Rubio’s knee injury in March 2012 for the hiccup in his improvement. He has played only 129 games in parts of three seasons.
“I think physically he’s OK. It’s just trying to get a feel for the game,” Minnesota coach Rick Adelman said last weekend. “He’s a young player who’s figuring out how to be effective in this league. People talk about how he’s not scoring and he’s ‘not doing this.’ But he’s in the top five in assists and in the top five in steals. Y’know, you’ve got to give him some time to get into the other things. It’s just going to take him a little bit longer, I think, because of the layoff at the end of the first year and the start of the second year.”
Adelman knows there is much work to be done. In the summer for Rubio, before and after practices, even in games. Assuming the coach is OK with some on-the-job shooting work.
“Definitely, any guard in this league, you’ve got to be able to knock down shots,” Adelman said. “If he can start knocking down shots from 15 or 17 feet… He’s actually shooting the ‘three’ better than he did last year but he’s got to be able to make that mid-range shot.”
Rubio’s ability to see teammates and make highlight passes ranks near the top in the NBA. But he admits he hasn’t been as aggressive as he needs to be in seeking his scoring chances.
“It’s something that I’ve been working on my whole career,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not. But it’s something that I have to keep my confidence up. Maybe it’s bad because I’m thinking more, as a point guard, to pass first and then my shot is the last thing I think of. It’s something that I have to do better and I’m trying to do that.”
In the chicken-or-egg dilemma between shooting better-and-shooting more vs. shooting more-and-shooting better, teammate Corey Brewer is a believer in the latter. Brewer’s no Kevin Durant but in his first three NBA seasons, he took 8.2 shots per game and made 40.8 percent. Since then, he’s attempting 9.7 and hitting 42.9 percent.
“You start learning how you can score and how you can’t score,” Brewer said. “Especially him, with the ball in his hands, it’s going to make him that much better.”
Rubio won’t turn 24 until October. He has time. But his PER of 15.0 means he’s merely average these days, not the franchise guy for whom Minnesota might have been reserving that special fifth year in a contract extension.
And just as the Wolves aren’t content with being League Pass darlings anymore – entertaining across 82 but done when the networks take over in the postseason – Rubio can’t be satisfied by the highlights he logs on NBA arenas’ videoboards. The points he puts next to them, on the scoreboard, matter too.