The Ricky Rubio project: An assessment of scoring
Over the next few days on A Wolf Among Wolves, I’ll be breaking down the play of Ricky Rubio since he’s returned from his ACL surgery last March. When Rubio came back on December 12th against the Dallas Mavericks, we all wondered how long it would take him to regain his form. In an attempt to figure out the turning point for Rubio and how we can track his change, I’ve decided to chart various parts of his game. In some areas, I’ve found improvement and in some areas, the numbers don’t bear out a lot of change. But what I have found — and something everybody has noticed — is a change in his game recently that reminds us of his incredible play as a rookie. Today, I’ll be breaking down Ricky Rubio as a scorer:
We’re starting to see results.
The box scores of Ricky Rubio the past few games have been nomadic, moving all over the place. His aggressiveness on the basketball court has been something that we didn’t see in his shortened rookie season. It’s a new style of play in which he’s looking for his own shot because he knows he has to get the defense to respect the chance that he might try to score. If this threat isn’t there, even in the back of the defense’s mind, then it’s a lot easier for them to sit in his passing lanes and ruin the effect he has on a basketball court.
His aggression isn’t something we saw right away. The flashy passing was there the night of the return against the Dallas Mavericks back in December; however, he rarely looked for his own shot in an attempt to keep the defense honest. This could have been due to a lack of confidence, a lack of conditioning in his body, or a lack of strength in the leg he worked so hard to bring back to a professional athletic environment. But regardless, there had to be a turning point with Rubio that finally brought about the spark we’ve seen through him.
In trying to figure out that turning point, I decided to look at where Rubio missed his shots early on in the season and where he’s missing since his resurgence. The tricky part of that was finding the moment in which the point did in fact turn. Was it when he started cracking 28 minutes in a game? Was it when he could play 32 minutes in a game? Was it when the minutes restriction was lifted from Rick Adelman’s rotation?
My first test to find out when he regained full strength to his legs was to chart every shot he took and figure out the arc in which his shots stopped missing so short on his shots. From layups to runners to 2-point jumpers to 3-pointers, there seemed to be an eye test I noticed of when he started missing long and stopped missing so short. As I charted the shots, I noticed that he stopped front rimming a lot of shots around the same time the minutes restriction appeared to be unofficially lifted. This was the New Orleans blowout victory that actually negated any chance of him running into a minutes restriction.
Here is the chart from Rubio’s first 18 games of the season — the cutoff point I decided on for when he might have regained his legs:
A little explanation: Anything completely past that horizontal plane of the hoop is considered a shot that missed long and everything before it is a shot that was considered short. The majority of the shots that aren’t on the backboard or the rim at all were shots that were blocked, which I decided needed to be counted (explanation on that in a bit). Anything on the far side of the backboard was a shot that missed BADLY long. Almost everything on the near side of the backboard was a shot that missed badly short. The one blue shot on the backboard was a shot that was goaltended.
Here’s a breakdown of the types of shots Ricky took, which ones were short, which ones were long, and which ones were blocked. I’ve also included his accuracy on those shots. Two of the shots during his first 18 games were rushed attempts from distance at the end of a quarter, so I decided not to include those because they weren’t real shots.
Here are a couple of quick observations. Rubio is really bad at 3-point shots and runners. I mean, none of the shot making is really that good. He made barely over 30% of his 2-point jumpers and doesn’t even finish half of his layups. The 3-point shots are something he’s always struggled with, but the runners are simply poor decisions (more on that later). Some of this is alarming, but for the most part, a poor shooter coming back from ACL surgery probably isn’t expected to suddenly be Mark Price or Shane Heal reincarnate.
Let’s now take a look at Rubio’s chart from the blowout victory over the Pelicans through Tuesday’s horrific game. Keep in mind, the first chart was his first 18 games and this upcoming chart is his last 12 games:
Same charting rules apply here. The one thing you might notice right away is there are a lot more makes in that basket, which is a positive. He’s clearly shooting the ball better than he had previously, which could be a sign of stronger legs and better balance throughout. But I wanted to see how many shots were coming up short, as opposed to when he still had a minutes restriction.
As you can see, every type of shot he’s taking has improved. They may be just slight improvements in accuracy (aside from 3-pointers and a runner he shouldn’t be taking), but his shots are coming more frequently and with a better success rate. As far as the percentage of shots still missing short, possibly due to leg strength, there hasn’t been a drastic change. Before the Hornets’ game, Rubio missed 33.3% of his 2-point jumpers short. 57.1% of his 3-pointers were short. I don’t really want to count his runners as being a significant sign of anything in terms of strength because they’re often a wild shot when he hasn’t received the foul he was trying to draw.
Overall, 40% of his shots that weren’t runners or layups were coming up short.
Since the Hornets game, 30.4% of his 2-point jumpers have been short and 36.3% of his 3-pointers have hit front rim. When excluding layups and runners, 31.5% of his jump shots have been short, which is a pretty significant drop but not the reduced rate I was expecting just from trying to remember the action on the court. When he first came back, there were a lot of cringe-worthy jumpers coming from him, but there certainly seemed to be a point where it dropped off.
Let’s take a look at Rubio’s jumper real quick. His problem with shooting has often been two-fold: 1) his shot is flat and 2) his shot isn’t well balanced at times. These are problems he had before the knee injury, but they were exacerbated as he was rehabbing. When your jumper isn’t balanced, you end up shooting with your arms instead of your body. You can’t generate a fluid motion and if your feet aren’t right to start the motion of the jumper, then it throws off your entire body.
Here’s a jumper from Rubio against the Rockets earlier this year. There is so much wrong with this motion. His feet are too close together, his body is leaning at a weird angle, and it causes his jumper to fall well short of going in the basket. When you compare it to a shot against the Lakers Thursday night, it’s night and day.
His feet are much closer to providing him with a stable base to his jumper. His body looks in control and balanced throughout the entire motion and he’s stepping into the shot. We’ve seen him coming off screens like this into the middle of the floor where he seems comfortable shooting the midrange jumper.
Now let’s look at one of his flat jumpers from earlier this season:
I think a lot of the lack of arc comes from the way he kicks his feet forward on a lot of jumpers. It’s a weird hitch in the wrong part of his body that makes it hard to adjust to and get a normal release point. With his body moving forward, it can keep his hands from pushing the ball up as much as it pushes the ball out. You see a lot of flat jumpers from Rubio because of this. What’s frustrating is watching him go through warm-ups before he came back from the injury on December 12th, Rubio had a lot of arc on his shot. You could tell it was something he worked on.
But shooting jumpers in a relatively empty gym and shooting jumpers against the best athletes and defensive schemes in the world are completely different things. It’s good that he’s made that adjustment in practice; he just needs to make it a regular thing for him so it’s a muscle memory thing in games as well. This is more what you want to see his jumper look like:
There is a definite arc to that shot, which is something we need to see more of from him. Having more arc and balance to his shot will keep it from falling short. Assistant coach often reminds Wolves players that if you’re going to miss, miss long. It shows your body is working better within the framework of your jumper. And if Rubio continues to improve on that, the 8.5% improvement on shots not falling short will grow immensely.
The 8.5% drop-off is big, but it’s not what I wanted to see. Much like Inception, we can go deeper into this issue.
The jumper is longer than usual, but he’s changed his game in two different ways that we didn’t see much in his 41 games last season. Rubio has been looking for his shot a lot more since the turn in his season, but it’s where he’s looking for that shot that is showing strength in his legs and evolution in his attempts to be a scorer.
Last season, Rubio was healthy and not attacking the basket all that much. He had 140 attempts in the restricted area and 94 3-point attempts in 41 games. Rubio also attempted 157 free throws in those games. He was getting into the restricted area for shot 3.4 times per game, taking 2.3 3-pointers per game and just 3.8 free throw attempts. In his first 18 games this season, the shot attempts in the restricted area had fallen to 2.1 (in 11 fewer minutes than what he was used to as a rookie) and the free throw attempts were down to 2.9. If you stretch those out to per 36 minutes numbers, you’re looking at 3.2 in the restricted area and 4.4 free throw attempts per game.
Check out a shot chart comparing his first 18 games and his last 12 games:
He’s shooting much better from midrange, but he’s also getting into the restricted area a whole hell of a lot more than he did even last season. He’s up to over five attempts in the restricted area per 36 minutes and he’s attempting seven free throw attempts per 36 minutes too. He’s much more aggressive driving the ball, which I believe is a big reason you saw such an increase in his layups that were blocked in the charts above. As he attacks more, he figures out what does and doesn’t work against NBA shot blockers.
Last night was a great example of how he’s adjusted to the defense around the rim. Check out these highlights against Dwight Howard:
He’s learning to get the ball to the backboard and rim a lot quicker than he has been previously. He’s also able to rush his shot without getting completely out of control. Occasionally, you see him revert back to bad habits of not being controlled around the basket, but the fact that he’s getting blocked more and converting more shows there is some progress there. And with the injuries to the team, Rubio definitely sees a need to shoot more with his legs back under him.
“Yeah, I feel better physically and that help me to be more aggressive,” Rubio said after the loss to the Blazers. “Try to take more responsibility on offense.”
Rubio’s inability to make shots both is and isn’t a problem right now. I’m not going to try to sugarcoat everything and tell you he’s a good scorer now; he’s not. What he is doing is attempting to score more, especially when going to the basket. This will help open up a lot of things for him with shooting the ball (as he hopefully remembers to work on that arc) and with his passing once he gets into the lane. His inability to make shots is a problem in the sense that the Wolves’ offense is terrible right now. It’s 24th in the league and they need someone to step up. Rubio has obliged there by getting the defense in foul trouble and trying to score around the basket.
Can you imagine a lineup of Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, and the new aggressive version of Ricky Rubio all drawing fouls at the rate we’ve seen them do it? The Wolves already live at the free throw line, but now they could retire and build a guesthouse for their friends and family to come visit them at the charity stripe.
Where Rubio’s inability isn’t a problem is the fact that he doesn’t have a gunner’s mentality. For the most part, he’s attempting to take good shots right now, which will help him learn how to make accuracy a regular thing for him. He rarely takes a 3-point shot he can’t hit. He tends to be taking more jumpers going to his right off of a screen in the center of midtown in the half court, which is a shot he’s consistently starting to hit. He’s attacking the lane and getting to the free throw line, his two most efficient spots on the floor.
The newer stronger version of Ricky Rubio has more of a scorer’s mentality. If gets that but still sticks to his role of setting up the offense once the roster gets healthy, I think we’ll see a new balance for Rubio that makes him a great threat on offense both with passing and attacking. It’s just nice to not be worrying about “when Rubio will be healthy enough to get back to being the player he was last year” anymore. I’d say offensively, he’s surpassing what he showed us last season.
It’s nice to see those results start to turn in his favor.
Next time on the Rubio Project, I’ll take a look at his distributing on the floor and how it’s affecting the team.