Ricky Rubio has magical vision. He sees things–spaces, angles, movements–before they are able to be seen. This vision, and the savant’s ball skills that he’s honed since he was a child, make him that exceptional kind of point guard, the kind that can create new, unexpected shapes and situations on the basketball court. There were times this year when coverage of the Timberwolves became little more than a catalog of the mystical things Rubio could do with the basketball. We know all of this already; and we know the galvanizing effect, the deep inspiration, that Rubio bestowed both on his fans and his teammates, not to mention the extreme demoralization that took place after his season-ending ACL injury.
Strange, then, to realize some cold realities. Despite his massive assist ratio (36.3) Rubio’s PER of 14.64 was only 36th best in the league among point guards. The Wolves’ offense performed no better with him on the floor than off. Indeed, Rubio’s humble backup Luke Ridnour had a much more significant positive effect on the Wolves’ offense than did Ricky himself. These numbers are not a fluke, nor are they difficult to explain. Ricky Rubio is a terrible shooter. His effective field goal percentage (.398) and true shooting rate (.476) are both morbidly bad. He was noticeably terrible at the rim (47.1%) and in the midrange game (31.4% between 10 and 23 feet) despite being begged by opponents to shoot from that distance. (Incidentally, at 34% he was no worse than average from three and shot well from the line too.)
Much of Rubio’s early, highlight machine success stemmed both from the rest of the league’s unfamiliarity with his game and from his uncharacteristically good shooting start. But once Rubio’s shooting regressed back to the mean (which is to say: became terrible again) and teams discovered the olde “give Ricky ten feet of space” defense, Rubio’s life became significantly more difficult. Defenses sagged into the lane, clogging those interior passing lanes that had enable so many successful pick-and-rolls early on. (It’s worth mentioning here that the rest of the team’s poor outside shooting didn’t help matters. Once it became clear that Wes Johnson and Martell Webster were not going to consistently hit spot-up threes, it became that much easier for opposing defenses to gum up the interior pick-and-roll.)
By now most of us know that Rubio’s most significant tangible contribution to his team’s success came on the defensive end. It’s long been said that great defense begins on the perimeter. If your team’s guards and wings can slow or prevent penetration, the matrix of help and rotation that makes up the substance of NBA defense becomes infinitely easier. Rubio was an object lesson in this truism. His length, energy and persistence on the ball allowed his teammates to maintain an aggressive, rather than simply reactive, defensive posture. And after Rubio left the stage and opposing guards began to romp into the teeth of the Wolves’ D, everything fell apart. The Wolves were a remarkable 7.3 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Rubio was on the floor. That’s no joke.
So Rubio’s future, while certainly inspiring optimism, has always been a little uncertain. Would he be able to cut down on his turnovers and improve his shooting? Would he mature from a good defender into an elite, Rondo-esque ball swarmer? All of these questions are, of course, now cast in starker relief by his knee injury. We don’t know how long it will take him to play again and how long after that he will recover his former rangy quickness. Rubio will miss out on that summer of hoisting a thousand jumpers a day. He’ll again miss out on a Rick Adelman training camp. Despite everything, and despite his resplendent good nature, we’re all still waiting on Ricky Rubio.