Yes, Ricky Rubio Needs To Be a Better Shooter and Scorer But How Much Better?

Steve McPherson —  August 28, 2013 — 6 Comments

Kidd_Rubio

As noted by Phil Ervin over at Fox Sports North (as well as Kelly Dwyer, Tom Ziller and nearly everyone else involved in covering basketball—thanks, August!), Flip Saunders was recently on KFAN 100.3 saying that Ricky Rubio needs to make shots. “Being a bigger scoring threat,” he said about the goals for Rubio’s third season, “being able to knock down shots, which will make the game much more easier for him.”

This is not news for Wolves fans, and probably not even for NBA fandom at large. What was often discussed in media row last season, though, was just how much better the Wolves really need for Rubio to be at scoring the ball, whether through shooting or finishing at the rim. After all, he would of course be a better, more useful basketball player if he could shoot the ball like Steph Curry, finish like James Harden, defend like Kawhi Leonard, block shots like Anthony Davis and celebrate like Kent Bazemore, but not every player is going to be a Swiss army knife of talents, nor should we expect or need them to be.

The question is: What reasonable benchmarks does Rubio have to hit in order for the game to open up for him? Consider the inverse type of case: Although some would certainly demand it, it’s not necessary that Russell Westbrook give up on finding his own shot in order to improve his playmaking or for him to become a playmaker first and foremost. A measure of improved ball distribution would help the Thunder, most likely, and similarly, a measure of shooting improvement can help Rubio.

The model most often held out for Rubio is Jason Kidd (he of the “Ason Kidd because he has no J” moniker early in his career) and it makes sense. Here are their per-36 numbers from their rookie and sophomore seasons on Basketball Reference:

Kidd_v_Rubio

Now, for context, it should be noted that Kidd played almost twice as many minutes and started more than twice as many games as Rubio, who has already had to return from a very serious injury and didn’t look in any way like himself for a good chunk of the season. Rubio has also dealt with a lockout-shortened season and injuries to important players on his team. Kidd played on Dallas teams with the dynamic duo of Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson (no, seriously: look it up), although those teams only managed records of 36-46 and 26-56. And of course, we’re talking different eras with different defensive rules and all that jazz.

But they don’t look all that different. Kidd bests Rubio in points, rebounds and assists, but not by a ton. They’re more or less even in steals and Rubio shoots slightly worse from the field but better from the line and attempts more FTs per-36 while taking fewer 3-pointers.

If we go to the advanced stats, their PERs are comparable (16.5 for Kidd to 15.5 for Rubio), as are their true shooting percentages (.470 vs. .480) and their win shares per-48 (.067 vs. .078). Given the weight that has to be given to playing twice as many games—no matter the circumstances—I think you can safely say that Kidd was better following his second season than Rubio is right now, but not by a mile.

In his third season—which was not going all that well in Dallas—Kidd was traded to Phoenix and things immediately got better for him. In his first full season there he was named to his second All-Star Game (he was voted in as a rookie) and started a string of three consecutive years leading the league in assists while the Suns’ win total improved by 16 games.

Importantly, Kidd himself improved, ticking over certain benchmarks in his stat line. His true shooting percentage tipped over .500 (where it more or less stayed—career average: .507), his win shares per-48 edged above .100 (career average: .133) and his field goal percentage reached .416 (career average: .400). Maybe most significantly, his net rating (the difference between his offensive and defensive ratings) flipped from a -6 to a +4, en route to a career average of +5. That first season, the Suns finished 56-26, the inverse of Dallas’ record two years previously.

Now of course we’re talking about an entirely different team, but Rubio’s nearly going to have an entirely different team this season with the addition of Kevin Martin and (hopefully) a full season with Kevin Love and Chase Budinger. The global point here, though, is not really about team success so much as Rubio relationship with his own game, and Kidd’s career—10-time All-Star, 5-time All-NBA First Team, 4-time All-Defensive First Team—came without him becoming a deadeye shooter. He didn’t rack up an entire season of solid 3-point shooting until 2009-10 with Dallas when he hit 42.5% from downtown. And even then he shot nearly the same field goal percentage as 3-point percentage.

So yes: Rubio needs to make more shots (especially at the rim). But he doesn’t need to completely overhaul his own idea of how to play the game or become something substantially different from what he is. Rather than hoping he becomes another Curry, it would be better to think about incremental improvement: If he can get over those benchmarks of 40% shooting, 50% true shooting, and tip that net rating positive (it’s currently a -4 for his career), there’s a good chance that will be enough to keep the defense honest, opening up the floor enough so he can make more of those glittery passes that make him such a fan favorite.

Steve McPherson

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6 responses to Yes, Ricky Rubio Needs To Be a Better Shooter and Scorer But How Much Better?

  1. Great article, Steve. I think Rubio’s scoring will tick up naturally now that he has had an offseason of conditioning to regain his health. As he regained confidence in his athleticism last year, he finished better at the rim. He also got more leg into his jumper as the year wore on. The last piece missing hindering him from keeping defenses honest with his scoring ability is his “Laser J”. Last year, he made a high percentage of shots in which he lofted the ball with good arc and bricked a horrid percentage when his shot was flat. Hopefully a summer working with Terry Porter will finish off the last quirk.

    And I like what you said about a reasonable benchmark, Ricky doesn’t need to be Russell Westbrook or Steph Curry to be great. He just has to become enough of a threat to keep defenses from cheating the passing lanes or stacking the paint.

  2. Steve, love the article. I was thinking about this myself the other day, and with all the threats around him to score, things should open up for him automatically. With Love being the shooter that we all know he can be and sitting out on the left wing waiting for the ball, he will take a defender with him there. Budinger can’t be left alone in the corner or he’ll knock that down, so he takes a defender. Kevin Martin should have a very improved season and be the offensive threat that he was in Sacramento, and he’ll take a defender with him pretty much wherever he goes.

    So that leaves Pek and Ricky free to run the hell out of the pick and roll, and if they over-commit to Pek (which will start happening when he starts to dominate the post by backing down little twigs like Anthony Davis and Chris Bosh) Rubio will have a very serious chance to score big in plenty of games this year. Now, this isn’t saying that he’s gonna put up 20 a night, but he should become a guy that can hit a 3 with consistency when he’s wide open, and can give his defender a head fake on the 3 point line and take it to the hoop, which will either be wide open or will draw a defender and get someone else open. And we all know if that happens, Ricky will be able to find the open guy and hit him right between the numbers.

    I’m thinking a very efficient offense for this team this year. GO WOLVES!

  3. How good is it to know that we don’t have a 6’2 guy and 5’9 guy running at the 2-guard this year?
    Should help Rubio a lot

  4. Good article. I would take Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn back then on offense over what the Wolves had last year. Rubio should have average about 2 more assists a game if the players around him could hit shots. I forsee Rubio averaging more assists a game over the course of his career. I think he will lead the league in assists next year.

    The problem with Ricky is he has no go to offensive move. If he could hit 40%+ from 3s or had a great finishing move around the rim, but he really does not. I am not sure if being better in all areas is exactly what he needs so much as a huge jump in one area. If Rubio was awesome in one area then he would get the opposing defenders flat footed and good things happen. It could also be an awesome pull up jumper like Sam Cassel had or something as well.

  5. I mentioned this in another comment, but Kidd’s numbers at the rim fluctuated wildly even in his prime. Basketball-reference.com only goes back to the 2000-01 season (when Kidd was 27) with shot location data, but up until the tail end of his prime (when he was traded back to Dallas), Kidd was as high as 63% and as low as 49%, and those numbers had no correlation with how successful his team was. Also, while most of his higher volume, higher % seasons from 3 came after he was traded back to Dallas, he was over 35% in 96-97, 99, 04-05, and 05-06.

    Rubio shot 44% and 47% at the rim in his first 2 seasons and 34% and 28% from 3. He’s in range to at least get to lower-level Kidd offensively, while providing a similar defensive and passing presence. They don’t need Rubio to become as good as Kidd to be one of the best PGs in the league; Kidd was the best for at least 5 years and led some questionable rosters to consecutive Finals appearances. Rubio’s unlikely to have to lead a good team in field goal attempts like Kidd did during those Finals years with the Nets.

  6. 7/7 for 16pts in 18 minutes today, 6/12 15pts 5 asts, 2 steals a blocked shot and 3 boards in 23 minutes yesterday. Ricky looks like he is doing pretty well to me.

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