Why Ricky Rubio Works for Wolves
December 27, 2011
The view from my seat in the auxiliary press area adjacent to the Minnesota Timberwolves bench at Target Center can sometimes leave a bit to be desired. But on Monday night it provided the perfect vantage point to fully appreciate what Ricky Rubio can bring to the new and unquestionably improved Timberwolves.
The 21-year-old Spanish wunderkind already had a handful of assists to his name and looked like he belonged on an NBA court, making his regular season debut two years after he was drafted fifth overall by Minnesota. It was the fourth quarter – a stanza which featured Rubio for its duration – and the Wolves were clawing back from what had been a 12-point third-quarter deficit to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Rubio hustled the ball up the court with just under 11 minutes remaining, a gaggle of Thunder players in front of him to his left as Rubio moved from left to right from center court towards the 3-point line. Fellow rookie Derrick Williams, meanwhile, sprinted through the traffic toward the basket. The confluence came together perfectly, like an eclipse, where I was lined up directly with Rubio and shared his line of vision. For a split second I saw the tiny crease open where Rubio could squeeze a pass to Williams for a dunk. But by then it was too late, as the window closed as quickly as it had opened.
Fortunately for the Wolves, Rubio had the ball and I did not.
Rubio saw the opening before it was created, and had the ball through it with a quick, one-handed bounce pass the hit Williams perfectly in stride. The 20-year-old elevated and threw down a reverse two-handed dunk that sent the capacity Target Center crowd into a frenzy.
“You can see the court vision he has,” coach Rick Adelman said. “He is really good in the open court and that is why our guys have to learn they can’t walk up the court or jog, they have to run up the court every time.”
If there’s a cure for the morose which has plagued Minnesota fans since Kevin Garnett was traded, Rubio has his thumb on the plunger.
The takeaways regarding Rubio Monday night were three-fold. The first I already mentioned – the fact he belonged. Rubio was comfortable and confident. There was little he could do to slow Russell Westbrook one-on-one defensively, but Rubio’s got plenty of company there. His final line – six points, six assists, five rebounds, no turnovers – couldn’t have been scripted better, at least by a realist.
Takeaway number two is his willingness to take a chance. Sometimes that window Rubio saw before it opened will turn out to be painted shut. The resulting turnover will undoubtedly be ugly, but Rubio obviously doesn’t mind. He understands the reward, both short- and long-term. The immediate benefit of such risks when they work out will generally be a dunk or a layup. But the long-term profit is much greater. Without a pass to be received, the Wolves’ wings could easily become discouraged and choose to jog up court and remain on the perimeter. By taking the calculated risks, the Minnesota’s high-flyers will be encouraged and motivated to constantly run the floor, allowing the team to take advantage of its greatest assets – length and athleticism.
The third takeaway is Rubio’s style and pace. With Luke Ridnour running the fast break, and Jonny Flynn in previous seasons, players like Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley were unable to fully take advantage of their athleticism in the open court off the ball because of the aggressive nature of their point guards. Both Ridnour and Flynn erred on the side of pushing the ball towards the basket, with Ridnour more than willing to take the shot and Flynn often throwing bad passes because of overzealousness and poor spacing. Rubio isn’t slow, but he takes his time. Even on fast breaks, you can see Rubio waiting for plays to develop. He understands spacing and passing lanes and has the patience to let the movement play out while calculating the best response based on his intuition.
This court sense will only improve as he adjusts to the NBA game and his new teammates.
“We just have to give him a little bit of time to work his way in,” Adelman said. “It is going to be an up and down situation for him. All rookies face that. He seems to have an awful lot of hype going his way but I don’t see him buying into that. I just see him as a young man that really wants to learn, really wants to do well and he is just going to get better.”
You can see that, wherever you’re sitting.