Rubio is a rambler and a gambler -- and a defender

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2012 - 6:57 AM

Ricky Rubio's court vision and basketball sense no longer are secrets. Neither, perhaps surprisingly, is his defense.

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Once again, Rubio’s long arm helps get the job done in the battle with Cleveland’s Ramon Sessions at Target Center on Jan. 6. Along with those arms, the rookie sensation has great hands, his coach says.

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The NBA's international man of mystery just a month ago, Timberwolves rookie Ricky Rubio's court vision and basketball sense no longer are secrets.

Neither, perhaps surprisingly, is his defense.

Rubio's reputation for fancy playmaking far preceded his arrival on these shores, but nobody knew how those active hands, gambler's sensibilities and suspect foot speed on display professionally in Europe all these years would translate at this level on the court's opposite end.

Through his first 12 games, Rubio is eighth in the league in assists (8.3 per game) and tied for sixth in steals (2.0 per game), numbers that clearly make him the leader among rookies in each category.

Yes, numbers don't always tell the entire story. The Wolves' 4-8 start, for example, is just one victory better than this time last season, but they are also allowing 14 points fewer per game than last season's incomprehensible 107.7 point average and have allowed fewer points on the road than any NBA team.

And among the many reasons for the difference -- coach Rick Adelman's arrival and organized defensive principles, to name two -- is Rubio, who seems more comfortable, more active, more influential pressuring the ball as each game goes by and his minutes and responsibilities seemingly increase with each passing one.

It helps that he has such long arms for a point guard who stands about 6-3.

"It helps to have played professional ball since he was 14, too," teammate Kevin Love said.

Already, New Orleans coach Monty Williams suggests Rubio, once he fills out that scrawny body these next few years, could, because of his height and those arms, redefine a position at which he has been compared a time or two to the man who last redefined it, two-time league MVP Steve Nash.

"He defends better than Nash, better than most point guards coming into the league right away," Williams said. "I watch him on film and he has been surprising because I didn't think he was that good, I didn't think he'd be that good this early. He's going to fill into that body and he'll be able to guard some 2s [shooting guards], maybe even some 3s [small forwards]. He could very well change that position."

As Williams notes, it is still very early. Rubio has played only a dozen NBA games so far.

"He has exceeded a lot of people's expectations," said Washington and former Wolves coach Flip Saunders. "There were a lot of question marks coming over, and he has done a really, really, really good job. He's a good rookie, but he's not an All-Star yet."

At 21, Rubio is an NBA rookie who played his first Spanish pro game in 2005 and started in the Olympics three years later at age 17 -- "I don't consider him a rookie," Williams said -- but even his new coach didn't know what to expect on the defensive end.

"Everybody told me he had great hands," Adelman said. "What I really like about him is he's not afraid to challenge people, not afraid to get in there. That's half the battle. He's a lot more solid than we thought, very good at [defensive] rotations, very good at getting back and being in the right spot. Of all our guys, he has probably done that as well anybody.

"He has got a real basketball IQ. He really understands the game."

Rubio also has a gambler's soul that has created three, four, three and five steals in his past four games. That's an average of 3.75 in those four games, the past two in which he started NBA games for the first time and played more than 40 minutes each.

"The only thing is, he likes to be adventurous at both ends of the court," Adelman said. "And if it works out, great. ... He likes to gamble."

Twice this season, Rubio has chased down an opponent and blocked a fast-break layup from behind with those long arms.

That's what NBA coaches define so scientifically as "want-to."

"I try," Rubio said, shrugging his shoulders when asked about his defensive transition to the NBA. "I've been a pro there in Europe for a long time, so I know how to defense, what a pro coach wants. You can't make any mistake. You have to be ready for all. That help me a lot to make this step easier."

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