This is the 13th in a 14-part series evaluating each Timberwolves player’s performance during the 2013-14 season. Find the entire series here.
Gains and growing pains.
Ricky Rubio detractors claim he’ll never be the top-tier NBA point guard the Timberwolves drafted him to be. Those in the 23-year-old’s corner, starting with Rubio himself, say he’s well on his way.
After his first full season in the league, there are reasonable arguments for both.
On one hand, he continued his reign as one of basketball’s most entertaining playmakers, on both ends of the floor. He also proved his durability, playing in all 82 games after suffering an ACL tear his rookie year that kept him out for the beginning of last season.
But Rubio’s flaws also shone forth. Until the season’s latter half, he showed little signs of being a viable scorer. His jump shot and rim-finishing acumen still need improving. So does his defensive decision-making; he generates turnovers, but his opportunism can also lead to easy buckets for the opposition.
It leads into a pivotal offseason of negotiations that will shape Rubio’s future with the franchise. His camp will likely push for something close to a maximum extension of his rookie contract.
But does the former fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft deserve it?
Rubio’s inability to shoot consistently drew the ire of observers all season, serving as one of the most prevalent and volatile talking points of the Timberwolves’ 10th consecutive campaign without a playoff berth. The overall totals, to be sure, aren’t exactly becoming of a starting NBA point guard. For the season, Rubio averaged a career-low 9.5 points per game (but remember, he played 82 games instead of 40 or 50) and shot 38.1 percent from the floor. His scoring average ranked 27th among starting NBA point guards. But Rubio also improved in ways that don’t immediately jump off the board. His 33.1 percent 3-point clip is up four percentage points from last year, and from Jan. 1through season’s end, he scored 10 points per game and made 40.2 percent of his field goals (though his 3-point mark dropped to 32.5 percent during this time).
Sometime soon, the excitation that comes with watching "Tricky Ricky" string a pass through two defenders for an easy Kevin Love or Corey Brewer dunk will wear off — especially if he doesn’t develop more of a scoring presence to complement it. But the flash didn’t fade much this past season. As he’s done since his days as a teenage professional in Spain, Rubio electrified Target Center crowds with his deft setup tactics. His career-high 8.6 assists per game ranked third in the league and staked him to two triple-doubles, the second and third of his career.
Rubio further cemented his reputation as a pesky defender, but his willingness to gamble also proved costly at times. The numbers look good — 2.3 steals per contest, second in the NBA only to Chris Paul — and Rubio exhibited the feistiness on the ball and effort off of it many players of his caliber choose to forego until the postseason. But sometimes, he overdid it. Coach Rick Adelman harped on Rubio all season for lunging at too many potential takeaways and refusing to scrap the risk-reward style he’s always exhibited.
Thanks to the NBA’s rookie salary rules, Rubio’s entire 2013-14 journey circles back to one question. What kind of extension is he worth? His agent Dan Fegan and the Timberwolves can begin negotiating July 1 and have until the end of October to reach a deal, lest Rubio play out the upcoming year on his contract and become a restricted free agent in July 2015. Selected two spots after Rubio in 2009, Stephen Curry received a four-year deal worth $44 million back in 2012, and word around the league is Fegan will clamor for something similar. But Rubio’s improvement has not been pronounced enough to merit such a sum. Minnesota’s front office must also decide how long it wants to even commit to Rubio; if no deal is reached this summer or fall, they can still retain his rights for two more seasons. Extend him, and it signifies more of a long-term accord and corresponding belief he can truly turn corners in the lacking parts of his game.