Rubio leads rookie group making quick impact
The early success of Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Ricky Rubio seems to demonstrate how a lost-in-translation process is alive and well in the NBA.
By the way, it should be noted that, in this instance, translation has nothing to do with language.
Regarding the point guard from Spain, we're interested in how Rubio's skills are translating to the top basketball league in the world.
"I have to admit, I'm a little surprised," said one NBA talent-evaluating executive. "I mean, he had obvious strengths all along, but the impact he's already had . . . I didn't expect it this soon."
Could Rubio, who is giving the Timberwolves 11 points (including 45 percent from 3-point range) and 8.3 assists per game, be a glaring example of how the sinister examination of what someone can't do overshadows the things the same person can do?
"That's what makes what we do so difficult sometimes," the talent guy said. "You never really know until they get to the league and get out on the floor. Even then, a player may need more time than a team sometimes is willing to give him before being able to figure out how to use his strengths to be productive."
Translation: Thinking of the glass as half-full might generate more evaluation success than the alternative.
So instead of chewing on the numbers Rubio posted while playing for Spain during last summer's EuroBasket event and labeling him a bust (go ahead and search that premise online), we advise a more objective approach. By now, hoop junkies should know FIBA and NBA games are conducted quite differently and that Rubio's passing skills would (here's our word) translate at basketball's highest level.
"Hey, the guys in our business aren't completely nuts," the talent guy said. "We knew he could pass and was pretty long and competitive as a defender. And he did go fifth overall (in the 2009 draft). Any reservations were because a lot of people wondered if he could shoot well enough to keep defenders honest.
"Well, we have to remember that's one skill you can improve upon. But the ability to see the floor . . . I mean really see it and understand the flow . . . and deliver the ball to the right place at the right time should be recognized as an NBA skill that gives anyone who can do that a place in this league."
And how does Rubio's quick start affect talent sharpies going forward?
"I can tell you that — even though he was pretty popular already — a lot of people are liking (Tony) Wroten even more," the talent guy said, referring to the University of Washington freshman guard. "He has rare passing skill. Good but not elite athletically, forces things against compacted defenses you see in college and a not a great shooter. But . . . "
In addition to this season's rookie class (which Rubio leads in efficiency), we see New Jersey's MarShon Brooks (the No. 25 pick in 2011), Phoenix power forward Markieff Morris (13th), San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard (15th) and New York's Iman Shumpert (17th) registered at three, four, five and seven in NBA.com's current rookie efficiency list.
True, players selected later often begin their careers working for decent teams (not Brooks, in this case) and don't inherit the pressure to do as much right away.
While we should heed the talent guy's advice and not dismiss the young players drafted ahead of the outliers on this list, it also seems wise to understand how these rookies have outperformed expectation.
Although they're all improving on what they weren't great at to begin with, certain strengths are translating. Brooks (offense), Leonard (defense) and Shumpert (defense) reached the floor by doing at least one thing at an NBA level.
They're staying on the floor by upgrading skills.
MORE ON MORRIS
The Suns' rookie was selected by the Phoenix personnel crew because he offered toughness (the favorite word used on his behalf by general manager Lance Blanks) for a team that could use additional grit near the rim.
But Morris has elevated much of the expectation, thanks to making 3-pointers at a 52 percent clip.
Right, Morris was better shooting 3-pointers at Kansas than most casual observers noticed; his scoring, however, has provoked higher hopes from Suns fans, whose early perception was coaxed by published judgments crediting Markieff with being nothing more than a "safe" pick.
This ability to make the kind of shots that typically are produced in the Phoenix system has inspired questions as to why he's not playing more than 21 minutes per game.
Well, questions from at least from one advance scout who has checked out several Suns games in person and on video.
"I'm sure he (referring to Suns coach Alvin Gentry) is hoping Channing (starting power forward Frye) can get on a roll and space the floor," the scout said, volunteering an explanation as to why Morris is not spending as much time with the Suns' first unit. "You want to rehab confidence in all of your core players."
Gentry, who recently reminded reporters that finishing a game should be more important than starting it, probably shouldn't just throw the job to Morris and drastically cut Frye's minutes. But Morris, for now, is providing the "stretch" aspect that typically defines Frye's calling card by making 3-pointers. Beyond that, Morris — despite frequent fouls that are traced to inexperience as well as seeming officiating bias against rookies — is a physical post defender, can play with his back to the rim on offense and is the rare Phoenix player who rebounds outside his area.
The same rookie rotation/positioning mistakes made by Morris often are exceeded in number by the veterans who share his position.
"The more he plays, the faster he'll help them win," the scout said of Morris. "Coaches and players want to win now. I get that. That's how it should be. But while he's learning on the job, I don't think the Suns will win any less if he's going 30 minutes than they will if his minutes are rationed."
BUY THE NUMBERS?
Sunday's loss at San Antonio was the Suns' fourth consecutive defeat, dropping them to 4-8 and into a three-way tie with Minnesota and Golden State for the coveted 11th seed in the Western Conference.
With four more tough road stops on their current trip, let's look at their statistical predicament.
After flirting with a defensive upgrade, the Suns now are 23rd in the league for guarding efficiency and 28th in defensive-rebounding percentage. Their offensive efficiency rank has climbed to 13th, but the once-blistering Phoenix pace remains a pedestrian 21st.
"They just don't have enough fast players to beat teams up and down the floor," an advance scout working for an Eastern Conference team said. "They're running a lot more sets now."
Gentry frequently has reminded us the focus on defense should not be interpreted as a companion commitment to a slower pace on offense. The problem, according to Gentry, is the failure to grab defensive rebounds.
"They were pretty awful at that last season, too" the scout said, "but still played faster than they are now."
Here's another number: 15,487.
That's the average attendance at US Airways Center through seven games. The Suns averaged 17,567 last season and 17,648 the season before that.
It should be pointed out that their first seven home dates included the New Orleans Hornets, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers and New Jersey Nets.
The witnesses average should increase after dates with conference heavyweights. Unfortunately for turnstile concerns, the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics won't be visiting USAC this season.