In the first eight minutes against Denver, Rubio hit all four of his shots — including pullup jumpers of 19 and 20 feet. He drove twice for layups while dishing out five assists — four of them on three-pointers. By the time he left for the locker room to get five stitches after taking an inadvertent elbow to the chin from Randy Foye, Rubio had either scored or assisted on 22 of the Wolves’ 26 points.
This is the sort of game everybody wants from him, but the kind of game that hasn’t come often enough. And Rubio knows it.
“I’m not worried, because I know what I have to do, and I’m working on it,” Rubio said, fingering the stitches on his chin. “And it is going to come. I’m still young, 23. So I have time.”
For all his strengths as a passer, his shot remains a weakness. Rubio is a career 35.9 percent shooter, having played 151 games and nearly 4,800 minutes in his NBA career. He is in his third season. His first was delayed by a lockout and ended because of a knee injury that also shortened his second season.
Since the league began, 61 players have played at least 5,000 minutes and shot 38 percent or worse, with 59 of those starting their career before 1966, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Rubio has had trouble finishing at the rim, and has struggled with his form on mid-range shots. His player efficiency rating — a metric first developed by current Grizzlies executive John Hollinger when he was working for ESPN — ranks Rubio 27th among the league’s point guards.
Rubio’s shot has been the stuff of endless analysis. He takes too long getting his mid-range shots off. He is too robotic. His shot lacks arc.
Flip Saunders, Wolves president of basketball operations, says he believes Rubio has unfairly become a lightning rod of criticism for a team that has been frustratingly inconsistent. Saunders brought the career stats of three other accomplished former or current NBA point guards — Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo — to a recent interview to offer proof that players sometimes take time to blossom.
“Expectations were put on him when he came here [from Spain] that were above and beyond where he was at,” Saunders said. “Everybody said he’d be a better player over here than he was there. But for anyone to think he’d make a huge jump right away, at that position? Right now point guard is the most skilled, deepest position there is in basketball. It has become what the quarterback has become for football.”
Certainly there are parts of the game Rubio does very well.
He is first in the league in steals and fifth in assists. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau says Rubio has an “innate” ability. “There are times, with the plays he makes, where you sit there and say, ‘How did he make it? How did he see it?’ ” he said.
George Karl, who coached the Nuggets last season and is now an ESPN analyst, calls Rubio “one of the best young point guards right now.”
But while there is praise for Rubio’s passing, his shot ultimately will define his success.
“To become an elite point guard, he’s going to have to learn how to shoot the mid-range shot,” Saunders said.
Steve Kerr vividly remembers a post-practice game he witnessed during last year’s All-Star Weekend in Houston. Kerr, the former sharpshooting guard and Suns general manager, is now an NBA analyst for TNT sports. Rubio, in town for the Rising Stars game, was fooling around with his teammates after a practice when they decided to see who could hit the most shots from behind the basket, over the backboard. Rubio dominated, making five in a row at one point.
“That’s not a shot you make by accident,” Kerr said. “I remember thinking that, eventually, this guy was going to be a good shooter.”
So why hasn’t it happened? Saunders thinks the pass-first Rubio waits so long to consider shooting that he’s often not ready to take a shot.
“He doesn’t locate the rim,” Saunders said. “When he gets by somebody, when he gets to the basket, 80 percent of the time he’s looking to pass the ball to [center Nikola Pekovic] or somebody. So when things break down, he’s, ‘OK, now I’ll shoot it.’ But at that point, maybe he’s almost past the basket and just throwing it up.”
In order for defenders to respect him on the pick and roll, Rubio has to make the mid-range jumper.
“And when he goes to the basket, he has to find a shot he can finish with,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. “Really, when he gets by people, he has to slow down and find a way to score.”
Rubio knows all of this, knows he has to change. But that means changing the player he has always been.
“That’s the way I am,” he said. “ I always look for better options before my shot, and sometimes I should do the opposite. But that’s what brought me here, sharing the ball. And I’m going to keep doing it.”
But Grizzlies coach David Joerger noted that if Rubio’s shot improves, “the passing will end up being easier. You can’t just come down and keep being a setup guy, trying to facilitate,” Joerger said. “You have to make yourself a real threat to score.”
There have been recent glimpses of that. With the team’s top three scorers — Kevin Love, Pekovic and Kevin Martin — injured earlier this month, Rubio came out and scored a career-high 25 points on 8-for-19 shooting against Portland. His strong start against Denver forced almost immediate changes from the Nuggets defense.
Rubio is often the last player off the court at Wolves practices. He frequently calls Saunders and asks him to come down to the gym to watch and offer suggestions. After practices, Rubio shoots three-pointers and mid-range jumpers over and over. And what’s striking is how few he misses.
To Saunders, this is further proof of what Rubio might do if he thinks only of his shot. Saunders looks at Rubio’s nearly 35-percent shooting on three-pointers and his 83.3 percent clip on free throws this season as proof that Rubio’s mechanics are sound — when he’s thinking shot-first.
“I have no doubt he can make a lot of improvement,” he said. “I also don’t think he has a shot that’s broken, fundamentally.”
Almost everyone agrees that Rubio needs to add to his offensive repertoire by developing a running jumper such as the one Spurs guard Tony Parker has perfected. Rubio says that shot is atop the list of his offseason goals.
“He will learn that, a teardrop like Parker makes all the time,” Karl said.
And if he does?
“If he becomes a [consistent] 10- to 15-point scorer?” Karl asked. “He’s a dream.”
‘Weather the storm’
In the meantime, many say the Wolves need to give the young guard time. Joerger noted the payoff in his point guard, Mike Conley, that patience has provided. Golden State coach Mark Jackson emphasizes Rubio’s unique skills — his instinctual passing, his decision-making on the run, his unselfishness — and insists that, unlike those qualities, shooting is a learned skill.
“You’re not going to learn it on a Kevin Durant or Steph Curry level, but you can certainly improve,” said Jackson, once a point guard himself. “I was a guy who didn’t shoot particularly well, but you stay in the gym and you hang around with guys like Chris Mullin, shoot with guys like Reggie Miller. … You’re going to get better.”
When Rubio is on the court, the Wolves shoot 45.1 percent and have a 49.4 effective field-goal percentage (field goals made plus half of three-pointers made divided by total attempts). Without him, those numbers are 41.0 and 45.2. Yes, this is a stat affected by who Rubio normally plays with, but it is also one indication of his impact.
Rubio does not hide behind such numbers. He openly admits he has to “find a rhythm” of how to score more consistently.
“I’m trying to find it,” he said. “I’m working on it, to find it. And it’s going to come.”
Until then, Karl said NBA watchers should appreciate what Rubio does well, and wait for the rest of his game develop.
“Listen, he is going to figure this out,” Karl said. “ He’s young. I think he’s had a tough season; the mental stuff is beating him up a little.
“It’s the perfect storm. He comes back from the injury. There is the stress, the pressure to be good. And then he struggles with his shot. Everybody is overreacting. I think, for me, this is an easy one. Weather the storm.”