During the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 115-114 road victory over the Indiana Pacers, Jim Petersen and Dave Benz were having a conversation about defenders going under the screen against Ricky Rubio. As we know, Rubio hasn’t been the sharpest shooter we’ve ever seen during his career. He’s gone through stretches in which it looks like he’s headed in the right direction. Mike Penberthy seemed to really make some progress with Rubio’s jump shot at one point. But for every step forward his outside shot has taken, we’ve seen a step or two backwards.
The last month has been different… so far. Rubio is making jump shots. Not only is Rubio making jump shots, but he’s been on kind of a scoring tear — for him. Over his last 29 games, Rubio is averaging 14.2 points and 10.2 assists. He’s shooting 43.6% from the field, 38.1% from 3-point range, and 89.6% from the free throw line. He’s made 41.4% of his jumpers, 43.9% of his jumpers off the dribble, and 40.9% of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.
Rubio is hitting shots like he never has before, and at a certain point that makes the defense go over the screen on your pick-and-roll/pop plays. Or at least, they have to entertain the idea. In Jim Petersen’s opinion, teams aren’t quite buying this as the future of Rubio and something you have to worry about. I tend to agree. Rubio gets a lot of clean looks based on defenders going under the screen on him. In the past, this meant he had a pretty clear vision of the floor as he came around a pick. And he exhibited the patience in this space to make a play for someone else.
Now? He’s making plays for both himself and his teammates. There is rarely a hesitation on pulling the trigger on the jump shot. And if he can force teams to start switching up their coverage with him, it gives the Wolves more options with him dissecting the moment.
Over his last nine games, Rubio’s numbers look even more eye-popping. He’s averaging 18.0 points and 10.0 assists. His shooting splits look like 48.2/42.9/97.6. That’s a 61.3% true shooting. This is Rubio as a threat — a real scoring threat. It is unrealistic and highly optimistic to think he’ll keep something like this up into the future. He’s not going to be an 18 and 10 guy. But being a 14 and 10 guy seems doable. If he can do it with the expectation of having an effective field goal percentage over 51%, it makes him an official scoring threat.
Against the Pacers, we saw him do this quite well. He drew a ton of fouls (something he’s done the last two seasons) and he knocked down jumpers. On the Wolves’ final offensive possession, Rubio received a pass from Andrew Wiggins, turned the corner on a quick Gorgui Dieng pick on the right wing, and drew a foul against Jeff Teague. He ended up hitting all three free throws, which counted as the game-winner. Wiggins and Rubio forced Paul George into a pass that resulted in a late missed shot by Monta Ellis on the final defensive stand of the night.
The interesting thing about that play in which Rubio drew the foul? Teague chased him into the screener. Part of that could be pressing up in the final seconds of a defensive possession, but there was also not effort at all to go under the screen. Because Rubio brings Teague into the screen on the high side of the play, it allowed Rubio to draw the foul when Teague caught his left arm in the cookie jar.
I’m not sure that happens a month ago. Maybe it was a fluke that it happened in that possession, but Rubio made something out of it. Moving forward, how many makes will it take for Rubio to force defenders to go over the screen? How many easy buckets will he get baffling a defense that doesn’t think the shooting will keep up? Or will it subside like we’ve seen in the past and eventually it’s back to the same old thing we’re used to seeing?
That’s the intriguing part of this Rubio run — trying to figure out what it changed in the future. Not only for the Wolves on the court, but what does it change for the Wolves off the court? Is this run enough to convince Tom Thibodeau that this is bridge point guard between the present and whatever Thibodeau believes the future entails? There have been plenty of rumblings about Rubio getting shipped out this summer. And I think some of them are legitimate.
The thing that brings pause to the decision is the assumption that Thibodeau is dying to just dump Rubio to get to the Kris Dunn era. I don’t believe that assumption to be correct. Thibodeau may not believe Rubio maxes out the team’s future at the position, but he also knows that Rubio’s defense, passing, and leadership are big in helping this group grow. So to get rid of him means you’re absolutely trying to obtain real value in return, and that will always be a difficult thing to figure out with Rubio in a trade rumor.
Is there any part of what’s happening with Rubio now believable in the future in Thibodeau’s mind? That could be a fascinating twist to this offseason. Just what are the Wolves willing to believe with Rubio and this second half of the season?
This game wasn’t all Rubio. Karl-Anthony Towns was unreal once again. His 37 points matched George’s 37. With Wiggins struggling on offense for much of the game, Towns and Rubio carried the offense. Dieng knocked down a couple of 3’s and Kris Dunn had one of his better efforts. The defense he played in the first half kept the Wolves from reeling at times, and he was an effective scorer in small doses. The combination of Dunn and Tyus Jones is working right now.
Wolves are still winners of one of their previous seven games, so it’s not like the team is moving in the right direction. There is no linear path for them. The defense we saw following the All-Star break got flipped on its head. But the end of this season is about development, survival, and seeing what they have moving forward.
If Rubio making jumpers and eventually forcing opponents to chase him around picks becomes a thing, just what does that mean for the plan in the front office? It’s crazy to think about, but it’s what spoke the loudest during this game.