2014-15 Season, 2015 Offseason, Player Analysis, Statistical Analysis

Ricky Rubio’s shot and the importance of Mike Penberthy

(Photo: Jim Walsh/MinnPost.com)

This is a tough subject to truly analyze because so much goes into player development that we’ll just never know nor have access to. It’s especially a tough thing to assess because the last Minnesota Timberwolves’ season was a big heaping pile of chaos and patchwork. However, the work Mike Penberthy did during his first season with the Wolves was paramount for the team’s long-term success, especially in the latest rebuilding project.

When you have young players with flaws, the work a development coach is able to do with them is maybe the biggest key to your entire organization. Teams practice so little once the season starts because of the schedule, injuries, etc. but players are doing individual work with the coaches assigned to develop them on a daily basis. Those consistent in-season lessons with video and court work along with the off-season work are what develop the future of your organization.

After watching what the Wolves’ key young players did last season and the pre-game work and overall philosophies of shooting and skills coach Mike Penberthy, it feels like a no-brainer that the Wolves should do what they can to bring him back for the next season.

“I would love to come back and I feel there is a lot of work to be done with all the young talent in Minnesota,” Penberthy said to me when I asked him recently about his situation with Minnesota. “Flip Saunders is a great coach and I’ve learned so much from him and the rest of the staff. There’s a bright future ahead in Minnesota.”

People around the league have taken notice with Mike and his methods of teaching the skill/art of shooting. At a certain point, that notice turns into demand and you start losing an asset at your disposal. It’s something we saw with veteran assistant Bill Bayno pretty recently. With the emphasis in the NBA being shooting and perimeter work, Penberthy’s expertise on the matter is invaluable. And it’s something you can see oozing from him during every pre-game warm-up sessions.

Penberthy is a ridiculous shooter, even at the age of 40 and 13 years removed from his last NBA game. He last played professionally in 2008 in Italy and again in 2011-12 in a new league called the ABA (no affiliation with the original ABA). His jumper still looks as wet as a tropical storm. He goes out there before every game, putting perimeter players through drills that involve dribble moves into shots. He’s reminding them of the rhythm of the move and how it morphs seamlessly into the shooting motion — preaching balance the entire time.

After he’s done working, you’ll see him get shots up of his own; a gym rat you’d never want to challenge to a game of H-O-R-S-E. Doesn’t matter the spot on the floor; the net rarely moves. It’s one of the purest finishes to a jumper you can find in an NBA arena today, and that’s including the players.

The approach Penberthy takes when it comes to teaching shooting is primarily psychological because confidence can trump the shooting motion in a way the shooting motion can’t trump confidence. He’s not totally interested in changing a shooting motion because not all shooting motions have to be the same. It’s about correcting small flaws within the unique motions that can provide simple yet effective fixes without shattering a players confidence by saying, “Everything you do is wrong.”

Simply putting up shots doesn’t really do anything for a player. They have to learn confidence through mentally linking positive memories of making shots or playing well with the muscle memory — a practice Penberthy preaches and almost tricks his players into doing without them really knowing it.

His biggest project in getting this to work has been Ricky Rubio. The Spanish point guard is one of the more divisive players. His worth from the casual observer is simply tied to his lack of shooting accuracy, which ignores his defensive capabilities and his ability to make plays for others. Ignoring those aspects of his game mean you’re ignoring the impact he has on the floor. But that doesn’t absolve him of his poor shooting.

In order for the Wolves to maximize their venture with Rubio as their point guard, he’ll have to become at least an average shooter from the field to force the defense to make a decision in how they defend him. The biggest obstacle in this happening has been a lack of confidence in his ability to shoot because it’s often all he ends up hearing about.

From Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune:

“Ricky’s hindrance has been his mind,” said Penberthy, who will spend time in Minneapolis and on the road with the team, as well as at home in Los Angeles. “When you read all the time that you’re not a good shooter, you start to believe it, no matter how strong you are as a player. You start to doubt yourself. It’s fear of failure, more psychological. That totally translates into your body language and how you shoot. Changing his mentality is a combination of his body language, his mind and his repetitions being correct. We’ve got the repetition side. I’m in control of that.”

The mental aspect of it is something Rubio has had to get past, especially when it comes to hearing about it. Rubio’s ability to concentrate on the work (his work ethic is incredible), making it proper work through Penberthy’s tutelage, and finding an acceptance of what he’s good at doing and having it bleed into the rest of his game are all things the Wolves have tried create by pairing him with Penberthy.

Rubio has learned that the quality of the work is just as important, if not more than the quantity he does. His work with Penberthy is something he’s eagerly accepted. Perhaps he could’ve shown off greater results had he not injured his ankle 4.5 games into the season.

From James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

Do you get tired of people talking about your jumper?

I was. I was at one point. But like I say, I learned how to not get everything too personal. I know I have to work on my jump shot, and I’m doing it. It’s not that I’m not aware of it. I know, but it’s not easy. If it were to be easy, a lot of players would be playing in this league, you know. I have a lot of gifts, I know how to be a point guard. And know I have to learn other stuff. So it’s a process. It’s not going to be easy. And maybe I’m never going to get it, but I’m going to try. I’m going to try hard every day and nobody can tell me that I’m not working hard because I know that I have to work on that.

I don’t know if you have an exact number, but how many shots do you get up when you’re healthy?

I shoot a lot. But at the same time, I thought that I was getting a lot of repetitions at one point and even doing a lot of repetitions didn’t help me. And at one point it’s more about quality than quantity. Still you’ve got to shoot a lot but at one point it’s no more about the time you put in, it’s the quality of the time you put in. So I’m trying to learn every single practice. I’ve been working this past year with [Wolves shooting coach] Mike Penberthy and I really like the way he works. I really improved my shot the last year. I couldn’t show it because I was hurt, but my jump shot was feeling good. And I feel pretty confident that working ahead with him is going to really help me.

To ask when Rubio is going to improve his jumper is to not understand that it took a big leap from the 2013-14 season to this past season. The areas in which Rubio was able to improve came from Penberthy’s mental work and the script he had to follow under Flip Saunders. For as much flak as Saunders’ offense brings about (from myself included), it calms things down for a player like Rubio.

Rubio has the freedom to make plays for others, but there are plays within what they run in which he’s told to take a certain shot. Mostly, it was a shot coming around the corner on a pick-and-roll with Rubio going toward the left side of the court and pulling up for a midrange jumper. The dreaded midrange jumper is not good for most players to take, but it’s one Rubio excelled at this season. He never had to think; he only had to shoot because that’s what the play called for.

Here are his shot charts via ShotAnalytics from the past two years:


The biggest things you notice are the change in the area of success on 3-point shooting, the improvement in midrange shooting, and the huge drop-off Rubio had around the rim. The drop-off around the rim seems too extreme not to be related to the balky ankle he played on for the majority of last season. Even though he was a bad finisher around the rim before that, dropping to roughly one-third of your shots going in around the rim just screams injury.

The shooting around the rim is also the biggest reason Rubio’s field goal percentage fell last season. Yes, his 3-point shooting fell from an almost manageable 33.1% to just 25.6% from 2013-14 to 2014-15. But did you notice his midrange jumper (16 feet to 3-point line) went from 30.8% two seasons ago to 40.4%? And his 10-16 foot shot went from 17.4% to 45.5%.

That’s part of the encouraging progress Ricky showed in his first season with Penberthy as his shot doctor. And it wasn’t the only area in which Rubio improved with his shot.
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Of the 130 players in the NBA to take at least 90 jumpers off the dribble in 2014-15, Rubio ranked 80th in field goal percentage. Granted, he took a lot fewer jumpers but he had a higher field goal percentage in jumpers off the dribble than John Wall (36.4%), James Harden (36.4%), Damian Lillard (35.4%), Russell Westbrook (35.2%), and Kyle Lowry (35.0%).

Of the 235 players in the NBA to take at least 150 jump shots total in 2014-15, Rubio was 170th in field goal percentage. Once again, he took a lot fewer jumpers, but he had a higher success rate on those jump shots than Russell Westbrook (34.6%), Kyle Lowry (34.2%), and Kobe Bryant (33.9%). Not all jumpers are created equal with the defensive attention they garner, but in a vacuum that’s still a pretty interesting list of (in)accuracy.

Moving forward, Rubio’s jumper improved greatly. He shot 8.7% better on jumpers off the dribble (what he’d primarily take in the flow of the offense) and 5.7% better on all jump shots. Even if he just kept that rate of success on jumpers and turned around his shooting around the rim to where it was before the ankle injury (49.1%, which is still really bad), Rubio’s field goal percentage in this scenario would increase to 38.4% over the course of the season.

That’s without fixing the 3-point jumper that had more accuracy in the past. Even if that goes back to 33.1% from downtown, his field goal percentage overall would be above 40% from the field (40.2% to be exact) and he’d start looking like an average threat on offense. That’s before we get into Rubio possibly approaching more of a league average finisher around the hoop or developing that floater in the lane he’s working on.

It’s not that Rubio is fixed by any means. We still have to see if these improvements hold into next season and we have to see if he can remain healthy like we saw in 2013-14 when he played all 82 games. But a big part of this improvement is combining the work ethic of Rubio with the intelligent teachings of Penberthy. Instead of allowing him to move on and work his magic with another team, the Wolves should be making a concerted effort to show Mike it’s more lucrative to stay in Minnesota.

Mike Penberthy has quite a ways to go before he has the same name recognition and clout of San Antonio Spurs’ shooting/assistant coach Chip Engelland, but he has the potential to be that guy for the Wolves’ organization. Hopefully, they come through on making him their Chip Engelland.

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20 thoughts on “Ricky Rubio’s shot and the importance of Mike Penberthy

  1. Great article!

    I am confident Rubio will improve his shooting and finishing over time. The question is how much he will improve and how much he needs to for the team to be good. As far as the second question goes, Rubio is and has been one of the smallest worries in this respect on the team. He’s almost magical in his ability to transform a team into something much better than it was without him. There are a lot of not very good NBA players who have decent abilities across the board, but aren’t (and never will be) elite at anything. And that holds them down. Rubio is an elite passer and has an elite defensive instinct. This is combined with extreme work ethic and effort, intelligence and pure enjoyment of the game, which becomes contagious. He has great leadership for his age–imagine for a moment that he’s the same age as Adrian Payne to get perspective on this. An aspect of Rubio’s game that I think is overlooked is how fun he is to watch. You never know what he has up his sleeve. He’s flashy one moment, and just when you are worried he’s taking it too far, he’s blue collar and pragmatic. He has razzle-dazzle in his game, and that has both ticket sales/entertainment value, and the ability to change momentum of a game and get the crowd behind the team. There aren’t a lot of players in NBA history with the passing razzle of Rubio. That is replaceable with exactly zero players in the league currently. With an improved (and more suited, at his ‘best’ Love wasn’t suited to compliment Rubio all that well) team and all these skills it almost seems like improved shooting would be gravy. In reality, he does have some work to do, but he and Mike are doing it and the skills and razzle he naturally possess should give him opportunities to knock down easy shots.

  2. I had heard that Penberthy didn’t have a contract from the Wolves for next year? Is that true? Seems like he’s worth the investment with all this young guys.

  3. Penberthy is more valuable than Saunders. Why? This team will tick to Rubio’s timing, we can all agree. Rubio is endlessly noted as historically bad as a shooter. So wouldn’t you want the best shot coach to work with the worst shooter? What happens if Penberthy improves Rubio by 5% for the next three years? That would make Rubio a 42% shooter. The idea of what that would do to opposing teams is real food for thought: defenses would swell toward him, and he could pick them apart far better than he does now. Wiggins would be a 4-year vet, and KAT a three-year vet, and both of them would be making decisions about leaving this organization of perpetual losing. Rubio hitting 42% of his shots makes the Wolves a winning proposition.

    But Saunders will cave in to Taylor’s refusal to invest an extra million or so over three years to keep the shot whisperer. There goes the winning. There shouldn’t even be a discussion about whether to keep Penberthy. He makes Rubio better, perhaps the way nobody else can. What is his true worth? A million bucks a season? Two million? Our idiotic leaders will chew the cud and decide they will make just as much profit by doing nothing as they would pushing the marketplace by overpaying for a parking spot.

    Man, I love this team, and I love the way it is developing. But it makes me sick to my balls to have to swallow the utter doofusness of Taylor & Saunders.

  4. Bring back Mike Penberthy!!!!! Wow Rubio’s shooting improvement around midrange is BIG probably because Saunders made them concentrate on midrange.. But imagine if this year he’s gonna work on floaters.. Of course the rim percentage was bad because of injury.. But the floaters should be next.. I dont think he needs to work too much on 3 pt they usually go in when they leave him open..

  5. Wow i did not know Rubio could improve his midrange shooting like this in just one year.. Rubio only has one problem– shooting, how come Minnesota only hired a shooting coach for him now… they should have hired someone since his first year.. glad Saunders is really doing something to help his players improve.. With Rubio’s work ethic, im sure he can catch up and be an average shooter by next year..

    1. Jim, photo credit was in there when I posted it. Something happened in the coding when I made an edit. It’s back in there now.

  6. I remember (or I think I remember I can’t remember) that Penberthy said that Rubio would digress before he started to improve as he worked with him because what he was learning was not natural for him (but what is natural is not working). I wonder where Rubio is in that process? I cannot believe they guy is not already signed for next year. I just assumed with the obvious improvement we all saw before the ankle injury it was a done deal and he would continue this year. I sure hope he comes back it would be a shame to leave the work already put in behind when there is still so much to do.

  7. I am not worried about Rubio’s FG% close to the rim, which can be attributed to his injured ankle, but I do worry about his 3pt% that deteriorated significantly towards the end of his season.
    In 2013/14, post ASG Rubio’s FG% was 41.5% while is 2pt% was 44%. So I am not so sure that this year Fen work is the reason for Rubio’s midrange percentage% improvement. Even if you’ll adjust his close to the basket 2014/15 percentage (weighted and not weighted) it will not be close to 2013/14 post ASG of 44% for 2s.

  8. If Penberthy isn’t re-signed then management cannot see the forest for the trees (the thinking being “well he improved in so many areas and he will only get better, so why waste the money”). Just like the KAT pick imo, it’s a no-brainer to bring back a worthwhile asset in Penberthy. I’m sure he will be back.

  9. This seems like a weird situation. There have been whispers from some Wolves beat writers about Penberthy wanting to spend more time in his CA home and/or pursue other side projects (maybe just work independently?). I hope he’s back, but it’s interesting that this is being framed by default as “If he’s not back, it’s because the Wolves didn’t want him back.”

    1. I don’t think it’s necessarily framed as the Wolves didn’t want him back, but I think it should be apparent that unless they have a better shooting coach in mind, they should do what they can (within reason) to make it impossible for him to decide to go to another team or do his own thing.

  10. I am not worried about Rubio’s FG% close to the rim, which can be attributed to his injured ankle, but I do worry about his 3pt% that deteriorated significantly towards the end of his season.
    In 2013/14, post ASG Rubio’s FG% was 41.5% while is 2pt% was 44%. So I am not so sure that this year Penberthy’s work is the reason for Rubio’s mid-range percentage% improvement. Even if you’ll adjust his close to the basket 2014/15 percentage (weighted and not weighted) it will not be close to 2013/14 post ASG of 44% for 2s.

  11. I am not worried about Rubio’s FG% close to the rim, which can be attributed to his injured ankle, but I do worry about his 3pt% that deteriorated significantly towards the end of his season.
    In 2013/14, post ASG Rubio’s FG% was 41.5% while is 2pt% was 44%. So I am not so sure that this year Penberthy’s work is the reason for Rubio’s midrange percentage% improvement. Even if you’ll adjust his close to the basket 2014/15 percentage (weighted and not weighted) it will not be close to 2013/14 post ASG of 44% for 2s.

  12. I’ve been to a fair share of Timberwolves games this season since I have company tickets. I saw him working with Penberthy all the time during shoot around. At times, his shot looked pretty good. It looked like he was making improvement. That being said, as soon as it was gametime, his shot relegated back to his line drive jump shot. None of his shots during the game really had any arch to it.

    He is capable is shooting well, but his mechanics are completely different. So different that I don’t think he trusts he can make them during the game. during the game he just shoots that way he has been for the past 10+ years.

  13. In 2013/14 post ASG, and before the arrival of penberthy, Rubio’s 2pt FG% was 44%, and his total FG% was 41.5%.
    In 2014/15 – the year that Rubio worked with Penberthy – Rubio’s 2pt FG% was down to 38.7%, and his total FG% was down to 35.6%.
    Even after adjusting Rubio’s Close To The Basket percentage and his 3pt% to pre injury level, we would still get a FG% of 40.2% which is lower than the 41.5% that was achieved during the second half of 2013-/14 without the help of Penberthy.

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