David Thorpe has forgotten twice as much about basketball than I could ever hope to know. He’s trained NBA players like Omri Casspi, Kevin Martin and our old friend Corey Brewer. He writes extremely smart, pithy pieces for ESPN about the draft and NBA rookies. And as he is an exceedingly generous fellow, he agreed to speak with me about Ricky Rubio even as he taught his son how to bunt a baseball. You’ll be happy to know that Thorpe believes that, freed from his conservative European confines, Ricky will “get back to being the player he was years ago.” Read all about it below.
Why do you think Rubio has had this regression over the past year and a half, two years?
I think it is largely a product of how he’s asked to play there, both with the coach and just the style. I think that its very much a set up kind of offense, even moreso than the average European team. And so he’s just not been aggressively looking for his own game. You know, what makes Steve Nash so effective is that Nash is always looking for himself first, which means you have to honor him. He’s doing it with the purpose of creating shots for someone else; there’s a method to what he’s doing. Rubio is strictly playing to be a passer and I think it makes him very easy to defend and it means that he’s thinking about scoring as a second option. And you really can’t do that when it’s a second option for you.
I know his coach well. I’ve watched his teams over the years and they’re extraordinarily conservative and I think that its not been beneficial to how he needs to play. I think that a month into the NBA season he’ll have himself a 10 point, 12 assist game and people will say, “I don’t know what the problem is” because the NBA is so different from what they’re doing over there.
Assuming that Rambis is still here in Minnesota and that he’s still running the same offense that he has been for the past two seasons, do you think that Rambis’ offense, which asks the point guards really just to start the offense and is more like what Rubio has been doing in Spain, is more likely to hold him back?
Let’s just take it from a holistic point of view. Minnesota plays one of the fastest paces in the league right? I think that is gonna help him right there because he wants to run, he wants to fly. The second thing is that, unlike the Lakers, who employ a Triangle type offense which doesn’t really ask much of the point guard, Minnesota has had point guards that are allowed to just go play. And my hope, for Ricky’s sake, would be that they ask him to play the way I’m describing, which is: go score and when they take away your scoring, that’s when people are open. At the same time, be aware of your teammates and what they’re doing, which is the job of the point guard. And I think he’ll be more comfortable playing that way than the way they did it in Spain.
I think that the big question on him–and its a fair question–is why can’t he make perimeter shots? And I think that part of the reason why is a lack of confidence because he’s never sure when he’s supposed to shoot. And I think that watching tapes of the team and watching Ridnour and Jonny Flynn creating shots–I think that he’ll feel like he can do the same thing because he’ll be allowed to. He’s not supposed to be doing that for his team in Spain. [In Minnesota] he’s gonna be encouraged to look for his play. I think he’ll get back to being the player he was years ago when people liked him a lot.
Do you see any technical things in his shooting that could get better?
Sure, I think he’s got a lot of mechanical flaws. I don’t think his release is consistent. I don’t think he follows through very much. I don’t think that he has a great base to his shot. His balance isn’t great. And a lot of those balance issues comes from not being sure whether he’s supposed to shoot or not. He needs to address that. It doesn’t mean he’ll be able to. Even if you give him the green light it doesn’t mean he’ll do it. But the hope and the expectation is that he’ll be better and that he’ll have more confidence and be able to just let it go.
He’s always compared to Maravich and I don’t think it’s a great comparison because Maravich was such a phenomenal scorer. But he loves to play like Maravich did and just go make plays. And if he’s challenged to do that, I think you’ll see a big improvement with him.
Do you see the same confidence issue with him as far as finishing at the rim?
Yes and I think that’s gonna be the challenge. I think that he’s gonna have to really adjust to these athletes. The speed of guys getting to the rim on help, the ability to go get shots at the rim is gonna be a problem for him. But I think he’ll get adjusted pretty soon. Make no mistake about it: guys can get better going to the rim. They get more athletic. They understand the craft of the shot better. I mean, those are skills that players can improve at. I think that is something we can expect to see improvement at with him.
Do you think his court awareness and anticipation defensively is going to be able to translate to the NBA game?
Sure, I think number one look at Jason Kidd. Jason Kidd is not a better athlete now than Ricky Rubio is now. Kidd gets his hands on a ton of balls now with those quick hands; Rubio’s got great hands. So he’s gonna be a guy that gets steals and deflections and just causes problems for people because of that. I don’t think there’s any question about that.
You know one of the things that could really help him is that if there’s a training camp and Jonny Flynn was there. You’re not gonna find a quicker point guard than Jonny Flynn is. That could really help him to be dealing with that each day (there’s lots of other things that Jonny does that aren’t so good). I think that defensively he’ll be able to do some things right away. His feel for the game is very good and that’s gonna help him a ton. You know he’s a long dude–he’s longer than you realize. And that often helps when you’re longer than people expect because players get lazy with themselves.