Rubio stays healthy all year but needs to improve weaknesses

Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio ranks fourth in the NBA in assists (8.6 per game) and second in steals (2.3 a contest).

Brad Rempel

MINNEAPOLIS — Nary a Timberwolves stakeholder is bound to look back on 2013-14 with particular fondness.

Minnesota increased its victory total, sure. But missing the playoffs, blown leads and close losses resound as the overarching themes for this year’s campaign.

Just don’t tell the club’s burgeoning point guard any of that.

Amid the scorn, question marks and shortcomings, Ricky Rubio says he’s proud of his individual growth this season.

"It’s a process to learn," Rubio, who will wrap up his first fully healthy NBA season Wednesday when the Timberwolves host Utah, told FOXSportsNorth.com." You don’t come in this league and play good right away. There’s ups and downs, and you just have to learn how this league goes."

There were plenty of both this year for the 23-year-old boy wonder.

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First and foremost in his mind, he played the entire campaign. An ACL tear in March of his rookie season cost him the final 15 games that year. Still recovering, he missed 25 of the Timberwolves’ first 30 contests last season.

So starting all 82 games this season represents a personal victory.

"I’m proud of the work I’ve put on to get my knee healthy and not just my knee, everything else, because it’s tough to be nine months out and come back and play right away," Rubio said.

The passing wizardry and defensive highlights that helped draw sellout crowds his first year in the league haven’t gone anywhere. With one game remaining, Rubio ranks fourth in the NBA in assists (8.6 per game) and second in steals (2.3 a contest).

March 30 at Brooklyn, he surpassed the franchise record for steals in a season.

"He’s always had a great knack of stealing the ball," Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. "Great hands and anticipation, and he’s a gambler when he does it sometimes. But I think his activity alone is probably that’s why he has (the record) . . . because his hands are great. His anticipation is great."

But those are parts of Rubio’s game that have been present since his days as a teenage professional star in Spain. His biggest necessary area of growth, Adelman and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders contend, deals with producing points efficiently.

And in that regard, Rubio has a long, long way to go.

Sometimes hesitant, other times too brash, Rubio remains a 36.9 percent shooter for his career. This season, he’s shot 38.2 percent from the floor and averages 9.5 points per game — 27th among starting NBA point guards.

Not exactly the stuff of max contract extensions. Technically, Minnesota is allowed to offer him one this summer and make Rubio its one "designated player" coming off a rookie contract that can be signed to a five-year deal.

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But the fifth pick in the 2009 draft hasn’t done enough to merit that and instead will likely sign a regular, four-year extension this summer. If he doesn’t — or if the team would rather test him than commit to him — he could play out the final year of his current contract and become a restricted free agent next summer.

The Timberwolves and Rubio’s agent Dan Fegan can negotiate during the July 1-9 Moratorium and sign a new deal starting July 10. There’s a sense that Fegan will demand a markedly high salary, one Minnesota won’t be willing to yield.

Rubio made $4 million this season and is due $5 million next year if he doesn’t sign a new deal this offseason.

"He’s been a little bit up and down," owner Glen Taylor said. "I think it’s gonna be difficult for anyone to sit back and say exactly the type of player that he can be yet. I just don’t think we’ve had the consistency during this year that we saw him having at the very beginning, but the last part of the season makes you very hopeful that he’s got a lot of improvement in him."

To Taylor’s point, Rubio has averaged 14.3 points on 42.7 percent shooting during eight games this April. He has the potential to put up such metrics for an entire season, provided he’s given time, Adelman says.

"I think it’s going to come," the coach said. "I think everybody wants to see the perfect player all the time. There’s a lot of guys that come in this league that aren’t perfect players and over the course of years they develop things."

Rubio remains convinced he can continue to do just that. This summer, he’s been asked to add some muscle to his 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame and focus on improving his conditioning rather than simply achieving it in the wake of his ACL tear.

He and Saunders plan to get together for some private shooting instruction, too.

"I’m gonna work on everything," said Rubio, who plans to represent Spain in this year’s FIBA World Cup. "This offseason, I’m gonna take it to improve as a player and to move forward, be more strong if it’s possible."

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