Player Analysis

Williams, Rubio and the rookie question

As I write this, the Timberwolves are supposed to be playing the Atlanta Hawks. At this exact moment (I did the math), Ricky Rubio is supposed to be throwing his first behind-the-back pick-and-roll blindfolded alley-oop (on a 13-foot rim) to Derrick Williams. But this is not happening. So for now we’re stuck with the mystery, with the hope and the fear that always attends the beginning of a bright, new NBA career.

When it comes to Williams, that mystery is fairly typical. Even when a player does things in the college game that are generally considered remarkable, it always requires some vision to picture them in an NBA context. There are things about Derrick Williams that we know: there are questions of upside and position; there are issues of size and quickness; these are things we have discussed at some length. But projecting a player into this new basketball world remains an act of generous imagination. This is why the rookies seem so haphazardly dispersed by #NBARank. Derrick Williams is, evidently, the 196th best player in the NBA. Nobody knows what that means. This is how it always is.

But with Ricky Rubio (ranked 204th), that mystery is fraught with even more enigmatic questions. Questions like: is it possible for a person to suddenly forget how to play basketball? And: why does Ricky’s jumper look exactly like my jumper when I’m wearing a tight-fitting jacket and haven’t shot a basketball in three months? I will not even cite Rubio’s stats from Eurobasket. They’ll just make you feel bad. And they won’t even tell you anything about just how bizarrely adrift Rubio looked on the floor. He shrank from the hoop. He refrained from any substantive involvement in the offense. When he slowly and awkwardly gathered himself to shoot, he appeared to be using only deep dread to guide the ball to the rim. Here’s how David Thorpe, a great lover of Rubio, put it in a recent 5-on-5:

2011 has been a nightmare for him. His offensive game has sunk to incredible depths because passing is tough to do when no one needs to guard you. He now reminds me of a major league second baseman who suddenly can’t make routine throws to first base. His shot and his scoring feel are gone. And that has brought his confidence down severely in all areas. I never would have predicted it, but it has happened.

You know things are getting bad when the oblique Chuck Knoblauch references start flying. As recently as June, we were still fairly optimistic that escaping the Euro game’s constraints and entering the point guard heaven that is the NBA–lots of open floor, lots of pick-and-roll, and we didn’t even know yet about Rick Adelman!–would reverse young Ricky’s alarming decline. And there’s still plenty of room for optimism.  But it’s also hard to imagine a player with such frayed confidence, with such timidity suffusing his game,  suddenly blossoming in the world’s most competitive league. Aw, that was kind of a bummer. Maybe this will help you feel better:

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0 thoughts on “Williams, Rubio and the rookie question

  1. Confidence is a really big deal, and it’s good to have Adelman on the sidelines to help him out. But hey, he still had good rebound, assist and steal numbers even when his offensive game became offensive. Those help the team win quite a bit.

    Don’t give up yet. I can still visualize that behind the back, blindfolded, alley-oop to Williams on a 13-foot rim, and it was sweeeeet.

  2. Great piece. I tend to think that the fact that his team didn’t “need” him to score diminished his urgency to fix what began as a minor hitch combined with a mental slump. If he was in the same situation back at DK Joventut, he would have had to fix his scoring for his team to remain dominant. At Barca he was able to slip by playing D and not turning the ball over. He did a pretty adequate job contributing in those areas. JC Navarro was scoring and their offense was not built around the Rubio P&R the way it was at Joventut. The lack of urgency allowed something small to become something big and he never had the time to adjust before the scrutiny and pressure to win pressed him down. I am looking forward to finding out how resilient he is, if we ever play ball this year.

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