The idea of a pass-only point guard is just about an anachronism in the modern NBA, and not because of some ham-fisted sense of selfishness amongst these young whippersnappers. No, it’s an anachronism because teams badly need point guards to be scoring threats, especially as defenses become quicker and smarter as the league evolves. No longer can point guards walk the ball up the court in time to dump it inside before disappearing to the weak side to linger; modern defenses demand movement, and a point guard that can finish a play in a pinch.
Ricky Rubio, entering his third season, prefers to finish his plays with an assist. Assist percentage calculates the percentage of possessions a player uses up that end in an assist, and Rubio has ranked in the top ten in each of his first two seasons despite working as a literally thrown-to-the-Wolves rookie in his first season, and working with limited passing options in his second season while recovering from an ACL tear. It’s a fantastic trait that makes him one of the NBA’s more thrilling players to behold.
The team would like to behold a bit more scoring, though, as Rubio enters a season without the excuse of rookie misgivings, injury, or lacking personnel on his side. New Timberwolves President Flip Saunders isn’t exactly laying down the law, but he would like the career 35.9 percent shooter to starting hitting at a greater rate. From Phil Ervin at FOX Sports North:
"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."
"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."
"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."
With that in place, most younger players aren’t allowed the luxury of starting 78 out of their first 98 NBA games while still shooting less than 36 percent from the field. Rubio’s numbers are an incredibly rare case that throws way back to the 1940s and 1950s, a time when point guards (and all positions, really) routinely shot for a terrible percentage from the field. A throwback case, in this realm at least, is not a good thing.
Rubio is not without his merits. As mentioned above, he is a slick passer, dishing 7.7 assists per game in just 31 minutes a contest over those first two seasons, with all those mitigating influences working against him. He led the league in steal percentage (the percentage of opposing possessions he ends with a steal), which accounts for pace and minutes, and tied for the league lead in steals with 2.4 a game. And midway through 2012-13 Rubio starting showing signs of becoming that expert slide-step defensive artist that he worked as during his rookie year, prior to the ACL tear.
On top of that, he is an effusive leader, and someone teammates enjoy playing with. Stats aside, the impact of that cannot be overstated.
The guy needs to hit shots, though.
I’m not sure it’s going to happen any time soon. Rubio isn’t just working with below average marks (31.7 percent) from behind the arc, he’s below average in the midrange, while shooting a terrible percentage around the rim. And though Ricky had the duel excuses of youth and inexperience on his side while working overseas prior to his time with Minnesota, it’s worrying that the poor shooting percentages from his international play have carried over to the NBA.
Saunders pins the blame on Rubio’s creature comforts – relying on the pass when things get tough – and poor form as the reason for all this, while pointing out that Rubio “will really work at” learning how to become a more efficient scorer, but this is going to be a tough pattern to change. We’re dating back to 2005 when we study Rubio’s professional production, and gaps like these aren’t easily overcome.
This isn’t your typical, “even [place eventually-capable jump shooter here] couldn’t shoot when he entered the league”-case. We’re talking about a 35.9 percent career shooter that still has miles to go to even work his way up to Brevin Knight’s league.
(Brevin Knight, the guy who routinely ranked near the top of the list in terms of assist and steal percentages. Sorry for doing this to you, sports fans.)
He’s 21, he’s a fine talent, and he’s willing to work. Ricky Rubio has a long hole to dig out of, though.