MINNEAPOLIS — Coming off a nasty ACL injury and working with a maligned roster of role players torn from their comfort zones, Ricky Rubio concocted an almost unthinkably effective 2012-13 campaign.
His 2.4 steals per game tied Chris Paul for first in the NBA. His 7.3 assists per game tied LeBron James for 10th — uncanny, considering Minnesota’s top three scoring threats (Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Chase Budinger) missed enormous chunks of playing time.
His flashy passes dazzled fans, and his glowing grin — even in the face of a 50-loss season — spread positivity throughout a Target Center that otherwise reeked with disappointment.
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Yet Tricky Ricky’s new boss wants more.
“That’s his next step in the evolution of the point guard position,” recently hired Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders told KFAN 100.3. “Being a bigger scoring threat, being able to knock down shots, which will make the game much more easier for him.”
While Rubio, at times, makes it look easier than anyone, Saunders has a point. Pass-first one-guards are a dying breed in today’s NBA, mostly because they’ve all learned how to score.
Not Ricky. Not yet.
In two seasons, the native of Spain has averaged 10.7 points per game, which would rank 39th among qualifying point guards during that span had his torn ACL not cost him the second half of the 2011-12 season and the first quarter of last year. He’s shooting just 35.9 percent from the field and 31.7 from 3-point range.
Like all of us, Rubio’s a creature of habit, Saunders said. When things get tight, he turns to the most effective area of his game.
“As a young player, when you get in stressful situations — and what I mean by that is competitive situations — you always revert back to what you do best,” Saunders said, “and what he does best is pass the basketball, make other players better. In pressure situations, that’s what he’s gonna do. He’s not gonna shoot or do the things that he’s not as comfortable with.”
Rubio’s point production has actually increased since he came over from Spain; in six years of overseas play, he averaged double digits just once (in 2007-08 during Liga ACB play).
He’s always been a passer with the occasional flair for a slicing layup or soft, 10-foot floater. Saunders’ conversations with him this summer have centered upon developing his jumper, both his technique and the quickness of his release.
“He’s kind of in between a set shot and a jump shot a lot of times,” Saunders said. “That happens a lot when you’re younger and coming up.”
Saunders uses the comparison of Magic Johnson, who entered the NBA in 1979 with distribution skills that surpassed his knack for NBA-level scoring. By the end of the 12-time All-Star’s career, he’d scored 19.5 points per game and put together a Hall of Fame résumé.
It’s too early to tell if Rubio, who’s currently training with Spain in Eurobasket 2013, has those kinds of years in him. He’ll still be asked to excel in his setup role, no matter how much he works on his shooting.
But if he can add a bit more scoring touch to his already-impressive repertoire, Saunders will be a happy man. And a happy team president means a better raise when Rubio starts renegotiating next summer.
“In order for him to get to the next level, that’s what he’s going to have to improve on,” Saunders said. “And he will improve on it. He will really work at it.”