MINNEAPOLIS — Even after five years on the international circuit together, Ricky Rubio still finds ways to make Jose Calderon marvel.
“He always surprises,” said Calderon, Rubio’s Spanish countryman and the Dallas Mavericks’ starting point guard. “Every night, he’s always got something out there and just shows you how good he is and how, I think, he’s getting better every day.”
From the time Rubio joined Spain’s 2008 Olympic team at the ripe age of 17, Calderon received an in-close account of the schoolyard passes and sneaky-good on-ball defense that are now Timberwolves trademarks. So constant is Rubio’s flair for the sensational, a simple kick-out or swing pass that leads to points — no matter how effective — fails to register as outside the norm.
“It almost seems like he has to throw it between somebody’s legs or throw it behind his back for people to be like, ‘Ah, that’s Ricky,'” Minnesota forward Kevin Love said.
The steals are becoming commonplace, too. Entering Friday’s game at Denver, Rubio’s got 30 of them — more than any other NBA player. Last year, he tied Chris Paul for the league lead in takeaways per game (though Rubio played 13 fewer contests due to ACL recovery that leaked into the season).
But those numbers aren’t fully indicative of Rubio’s defensive contributions. Tipped passes, clogged passing lanes, and general disruption are equal parts of his game.
“I wish we charted deflections,” Love said. “He gets so many — not only steals — but just hands on balls that lead to people, whether it’s different guards or big men, speeding up their game and that goes into a poor shot.”
Yet these have been the central facets of Rubio’s skill set since he first played pro hoops as a 14-year-old. Calderon, Spain and now the rest of the NBA are now trained to think “distribution and defense” at the mention of Rubio’s name.
“He has amazing vision, no matter what,” Cleveland point man Kyrie Irving said. “He gets his assists, no matter what.”
Minnesota’s last three games, though, have offered a glimpse into his potential evolution into a complete point guard — one that passes (check), defends (check) and scores at a consistent rate (still room to grow).
How’s this for a three-game compilation in blowout victories over the Lakers and Cavaliers sandwiched around a two-point setback to the Clippers: 54.5 percent shooting, a perfect 4-for-4 on 3-pointers, 40 assists, 10 steals and 11 points per game.
Exactly what Adelman and Flip Saunders desired when they asked Rubio this offseason to become more of a point producer. It’s all about control, the current Timberwolves coach said.
“We wanted to keep him pushing the ball, but then pushing the ball doesn’t mean you’re going 100 mph at a time trying to attack, attack, attack,” Adelman said. “It’s using the flow, where sometimes you push it up and you get us into something. I think he’s done a really nice job of doing that that. Again, it always helps when you’re making shots.”
That goes for Rubio and his teammates.
A 35.9 percent shooter through his first two NBA seasons — both shortened by the 2011 lockout and then his ACL tear in March 2012 — Rubio labored in that department during Minnesota’s first six games. He made just 28.1 percent of his field-goal attempts and went 3-for-13 from beyond the arc, often rushing open shots.
“Shooting, I feel more comfortable,” Rubio said. “It’s something that has to come. I’ve been practicing hard. In the beginning of the season, always, it’s a little tough to get your rhythm, but once the game’s coming, you just find your rhythm and stick with it.”
Settle Rubio down a bit, and he’s capable of going off for a triple-double (12 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds against the Lakers) or shooting 5-for-7 from the field while setting up more than a third of his team’s successful shots (Cleveland). The Clippers defeat was more traditional Rubio, as he tallied 10 assists and five points while delegating to Love (25 points) and Kevin Martin (30).
In less than 30 minutes against the Cavaliers, all 16 of Rubio’s assists led to 3s or buckets in the restricted area.
“It certainly helps when you throw the ball to somebody and make the shot,” Adelman said after practice Thursday. “But last night, he made some great passes inside to people. It’s a combination. You have to have everybody doing their job.”
Indeed, assists don’t happen without some help at the tail end. Unlike last season, Rubio has a healthy Love and free-agent additions Martin and Corey Brewer to work with.
Nine games into the season, the guy Andrei Kirilenko dubbed “Tricky Ricky” last year is driving an offensive machine. Minnesota’s 108.2 points per game rank second in the league, and they’ve failed to break the century mark just twice.
Love’s 27.1 points per game are second in the NBA, and Martin ranks sixth with 24.6 an outing.
“They’re making shots, you know?” Rubio said. “They’re helping me to look good. I’m just trying to run the offense of the team. That’s a thing, as a point guard, you have to control, you have to know where your teammates are at, and you just have to get them easy looks, because they’re shooting very well.”
Rubio’s never had much trouble doing that. But add in even the notion that he’s capable of hitting a shot himself, and it opens up the floor that much wider.
It’s an art form Rubio’s still learning to add to his repertoire; three games — two against the league’s second- (Clippers) and third-worst (Lakers) scoring defenses — don’t exactly guarantee season-long success.
But when Rubio does figure it out, don’t expect his coach, Love or longtime Spanish national team comrades to be taken aback.
“I don’t dwell on the shooting as much as you guys do,” Adelman told reporters after Wednesday’s thrashing. “I don’t. I think it’s just something that’s gonna come. Of course, when you’re playing good and the team is playing good and everything else, it’s a lot easier to do things.”
Said Calderon: “I think he’s more mature every day. … He’s going to be one of the top NBA point guards, for sure.”
And Love: “Ricky is a guy who can fill up the stat sheet. … He’s just our leader. The way he plays is very contagious.”