Ricky Rubio's out with a sprained elbow, opening the door for Kris Dunn

Ricky Rubio's going to be missing some time. (Getty Images)
Ricky Rubio’s going to be missing some time. (Getty Images)

The Minnesota Timberwolves ranked near the top of just about everybody’s League Pass power rankings heading into the 2016-17 NBA season, with hard-charging head coach Tom Thibodeau on hand to turn an exciting young core led by Rookies of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins into a team worth fearing. But a pair of disappointing defeats in which they’d coughed up double-digit leads to the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings got Minnesota’s campaign off on the wrong foot, and now, if the Wolves are going to get things turned around, they’re going to have to do it without their starting point guard.

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After he’d missed practice pending the results of an MRI, the Wolves announced late Monday that Ricky Rubio “will be listed as out indefinitely” due to the sprained right elbow he suffered during Minnesota’s Saturday night loss to the Kings.

Rubio sustained the injury with just under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game, with the Wolves trailing Sacramento by six:

After a missed 3-pointer by Kings guard Ben McLemore, Rubio stationed himself in the paint to try grab the rebound or, failing that, box out Kings center Kosta Koufos. But Koufos pushed Rubio down from behind as the long rebound sailed past them both, and as Kings forward Anthony Tolliver raced in to try to corral the loose ball, he appeared to run into Rubio’s right arm, leaving the Spaniard wincing in pain on the ground as Tolliver retrieved the ball and kicked it back out to McLemore for another 3, which found the bottom of the net.

Rubio would come out of the game at the next dead ball and would not return, finishing with five points, five assists, three steals, one rebound and one turnover in 28 minutes of work. Rookie Kris Dunn, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft and Minnesota’s backup point guard, finished the game for Rubio, albeit with Wiggins taking over lead playmaking duties following Ricky’s exit.

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The good news, as Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press reminds us, is that “indefinitely” doesn’t definitely mean “a long time.”

The bad news? It does mean some time, and starting with Tuesday’s home opener against the Grizzlies, the Wolves will likely have to run the bulk of their offense through Wiggins (who’s still very much a developing playmaker and ball-handler) and the point-guard rotation of rookie Dunn, sophomore Tyus Jones and end-of-the-bench vet John Lucas III, who hasn’t seen NBA action in 18 months.

Dunn finished with four points, four assists, one rebound and one turnover in 20 minutes of work against Sacramento, but missed two key free throws with 37 seconds remaining that could have halved a four-point deficit and gotten Minnesota within one shot of a tie or the lead on the road in the final minute. Still, Thibodeau evidently has enough confidence in the 22-year-old Dunn, who twice won Big East Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors at Providence, to feel comfortable moving him into the starting lineup in Rubio’s absence. From Jace Frederick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

“Next man up,” Thibodeau said. “You don’t get here by accident. If you’re here, you’re a great player. Get in there and get the job done. You have to know what your job is and then go out there and do your job. We have more than enough to win with.”

Defensively, Thibodeau said he’s seen “a lot of good things” from Dunn, adding the more experience the rookie gets, the better he’ll be.

“There will be some ups and downs, but his intensity will cover up for things,” Thibodeau said. “His hustle, playing great defense, running the team. He’s an unselfish player who will hit the open man, and I think he’s starting to understand the NBA a little bit better. It takes a little time.”

And Dunn, for his part, didn’t seem too rattled by the prospect, either. From Kent Youngblood of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

“Butterflies? No,” said Dunn, who scored eight points in 15-plus minutes of playing time in the season opener and had four points, four assists and was a plus-7 in nearly 20 minutes against Sacramento. “I lost my nerves, probably the first game of the preseason. Now I understand what the game is about, I understand my teammates, I understand what the coach wants from me.’’ […]

Dunn sounded confident Monday. “I feel I’ve been getting good minutes, and I’ve been playing in some tough situations,’’ he said. “Those are the types of games I like to play in. So Ricky, if he doesn’t have the chance to play [Tuesday] night, or any other games, I’ll have to step up and be ready.’’

On the surface, replacing the production of a player who has yet to average more than 10.7 points per game, or shoot better than 38 percent from the floor or 34 percent from 3-point land in five NBA seasons, doesn’t seem like an especially onerous task for Dunn. But appreciating Rubio’s value has long required a closer, more nuanced view.

With the exception of his sophomore season, the Wolves have performed significantly better with Rubio on the court than off it throughout his NBA career. And in each of the last three years, the difference in Minnesota’s “net rating” — whether you outscore your opposition over the course of 100 possessions or get outscored, and by how much — between when Rubio played and when he sat was gigantic.

Last season, the Wolves performed nearly 9.5 points per 100 possessions better with Rubio on the floor than off it. Two seasons ago? Nearly 10 points-per-100. Three years back? Twelve points-per-100. Some of that’s due to a lack of killer backups behind him (and at other spots in the Wolves lineup) over the years, but on balance, it points to the kind of beneficial impact Rubio’s been consistently able to produce for the Wolves despite his lack of a credibly threatening jump shot or the athleticism to knife through the paint and regularly finish at the rim.

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A lot of that has to do with what a difference-maker Rubio has been on the defensive end. At 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, he’s got the size and length to be able to bother nearly any opposing point guard, and even to hold up against his fair share of shooting guards when cross-matched. He’s one of the most opportunistic risk-takers in the game, a savvy gambler who knows just when to pounce to try to get his hands on the ball and who succeeds really often; he’s led the league in steal percentage (which estimates the share of opponents’ offensive possessions that you end through pilfering) three times in five seasons.

But there’s also something special about the way Rubio sets the table — his feel for when to speed up to catch a defender unaware, or slow down to allow a sliver of a passing angle to develop, or when to fire a skip pass to a spot where a shooter’s going to be rather than where he is at the release of the ball — that seems to wrong-foot defenses and amplify his teammates’ effectiveness. (I wrote in our Wolves season preview about the multiplier effect he seemed to have on Zach LaVine last season when the high-flyer went from Rubio’s backup to his running buddy at the two-guard spot.)

“The rhythm of his game is a micro-beat off,” ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe wrote this past March, and it works. It opens doors for young Wolves that still can’t quite hunt for themselves and need to be fed. It gets everybody organized while still leaving enough room to create chaos. It gives the Wolves a baseline of competence on which to build, a backbeat over which young talents like Towns, Wiggins and LaVine can start ripping off solos and displaying their individual brilliance.

“Ricky’s madman defensive chops and leadership on the offensive end cannot be overstated,” wrote William Bohl of A Wolf Among Wolves after Saturday’s loss in Sacramento. “At this juncture, he’s the glue holding all of it together.”

For now, at least, a Wolves team that’s had trouble getting much to stick thus far will need to find a new adhesive. If Dunn proves ready for prime time and capable of keeping everything together, he could expedite the changing of the guard that Thibs seemed to have in mind on draft night. If he can’t, though, we may come to a greater appreciation of what Rubio brings, and the role he might yet play in shaping the hoped-for evolution of the Wolves into winners.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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