This is the 16th in a 17-part series profiling each player on the Timberwolves’ roster leading up to training camp.
The NBA’s best turnover-creating point guard alongside Chris Paul. Distribution skills akin to those of LeBron James.
And that was with a bum knee for the first month of Ricky Rubio’s sophomore season.
When he’s been healthy, the Timberwolves’ floor general has mostly lived up to the expectations that came with him from Barcelona, Spain. Whether it’s a between-the-wickets assist, a timely forced turnover, or general command of Rick Adelman’s offense, Rubio’s provided it in bunches.
Alongside Kevin Love, he’s one of the main reasons for hope this franchise is on its way to better days.
Last year: After missing 25 of Minnesota’s first 30 games while recovering from a torn ACL suffered during his rookie year, Rubio returned to wow-factor form. His steals per game ranked tied Paul atop the NBA rankings, and his assist average was knotted with James for 10th in the league.
Rubio was everything the injury-riddled Timberwolves’ 31-51 season wasn’t: exciting, enthusiastic, highlight-reel-worthy and enjoyable. Even with the team tanking, Love undergoing season-ending knee surgery and another summer of discontent approaching, fans came to the Target Center knowing they’d see some fantastic play and a huge bundle of energy from Rubio.
But perhaps the most encouraging sign about his year was his ability to stay healthy. Minnesota was careful bringing him back, and his knee didn’t give him much trouble once he returned to the starting lineup fulltime.
He moved just as well during EuroBasket earlier this month, though his numbers raised some eyebrows. Splitting point guard duties with fellow NBA guard José Calderón, Rubio averaged 7.2 points, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals per contest.
But he did shoot much better than he has in American play, knocking down 46.6 percent of his 2-point attempts and 44.4 percent of his 3 tries.
Last season with the Timberwolves, Rubio was just a 36-percent shooter from the floor (29.3 percent from 3).
This year: Why harp so much on the league’s most pass-happy point man’s scoring numbers? Because president of basketball operations Flip Saunders has all offseason.
It’s the primary area of focus as Rubio moves into year three of his career — what’s hoped to be his first full NBA season. A one-guard in today’s offensive landscape, to put it simply, needs to be a scoring threat. The more attention they can draw from defenders, the more setup opportunities they create for their teammates.
Rubio is already one of the best at that, but a better jump shot and ability to attack the rim harder would make him even better and contribute a few more points for a team that ranked 20th in scoring last season.
Besides chipping in more buckets, it can now be expected that Rubio assume more of a leadership role. He showed signs of a capable guiding force down the stretch last season, but with two years of experience and a good comfort level with Adelman’s schemes, it’s up to him to direct more traffic and, if necessary, step in and put younger players in their place.
It’s all part of the evolution of one of the game’s most unique players. If Rubio can maintain that distinctness while remaining healthy and adding to his game — a tall list of asks, to be sure — Minnesota fans will have even more to cheer about when it comes to their beloved point guard.
From the front office: “He’s gonna have to be a (scoring) threat. Is it gonna happen right away? No. But I know one thing: He’s gonna get there, because that’s this DNA, to work hard and to become better. Ricky’s a great competitor. He doesn’t just want to be a good point guard; he wants to be the best point guard in the league. And he’s gonna do whatever it takes in order to do that. He’s gonna get there, but it’s gonna take a little bit of time.” — Saunders