There's no question that there was some rust on Ricky Rubio's game early this season when he returned from his layoff after knee surgery. But the Timberwolves point guard appears to have come all the way back and lately is improving on the sensational standard he set as a rookie.
Through his first 15 games back with the Wolves this season, Rubio was shooting only 23.1 percent from the floor (15-for-65). But over the next nine games, heading into the Wolves' game against Utah on Wednesday, Rubio clearly became more aggressive with the ball and also was making more shots. He was 39-for-88 in those games, shooting 44.3 percent from the floor while averaging 12.6 points per game.
Rubio's shooting was especially solid in the two-game road trip against Cleveland and Memphis, where he went a combined 11-for-20 (55 percent), scoring 17 points against the Grizzlies and 13 against the Cavaliers -- Rubio also dished out 10 assists and had five steals, tying a season high, in that Monday victory.
What has been equally impressive is that while Rubio has become more aggressive scoring, his assist totals have only ramped up, as he averaged 8.6 assists over the past 10 games, compared to 5.1 per game over his first 15. He shot only 3-for-13 in the 97-93 loss to the Jazz on Wednesday, but he fell only a rebound short of a triple-double.
In 41 games last season, Rubio averaged 10.6 points and 8.2 assists while shooting 35.7 percent from the floor. So while it has taken some time to get back to full health, it appears that he is ready to start showing real improvement in his overall game.
Rubio's health better
Following the Wolves' home loss to New York last week, Rubio was asked how close he is to feeling 100 percent.
"Pretty close," he said. "I mean I feel good on the court, but it doesn't feel good when you've lost that many games.
"I'm trying to attack more at the rim. I'm feeling better that I have my game shape back. Because it's hard to get back into that shape, because you're not playing -- and you can do whatever you want on the treadmill, something like that, but when you hit the court it's just different. It took me like almost a month to get there.
"I have more confidence, but like I said, it feels bad when you lose. [My knee] feels sore, like it has been sore since the first day I've got back, but I feel pretty good."
Rubio was also asked what he has to do to get his knee all the way back to full strength, and he had a pretty clear-cut answer, saying: "Keep working and keep playing every game hard."
The Wolves have lost 16 of their past 19 games, but now with Rubio performing more like the player he was before the surgery, they can expect some better play after the All-Star break.
Shooting not the key
Speaking of bad-shooting teams, when Wisconsin defeated the Gophers 45-44 in Madison last month, the Badgers shot a dismal 34.8 from the floor and 58.3 from the free-throw line. They were more efficient from three-point range, going 7-for-22.
It's impressive that the Badgers have an 8-3 record in the Big Ten even though in conference play they are last in free-throw percentage at 58.3 and ninth in field-goal percentage at 39.7. They are sixth in three-point shooting at 38.6.
But while the Gophers have shot better in each of those categories during conference play -- they are fifth in field-goal percentage at 44.9 percent, ninth in free throws at 65.0 percent and fourth in three-pointers at 38 percent -- they have struggled in other areas where Wisconsin has thrived, including team defense and turnovers.
The Badgers, as is typical for them under coach Bo Ryan, lead the league in scoring defense, giving up only 56.6 points per conference game, more than four points per game better than second-place Ohio State. The Gophers are fourth in scoring defense at 63.1 points per Big Ten game.
Another defining difference between the Gophers and Wisconsin is that the Badgers are tied for seventh in turnover ratio at plus-0.09 while the Gophers are last at minus-2.64.
Rodney Williams, the Gophers senior forward who missed the loss to Illinois on Sunday because of a shoulder injury suffered the day before, took part in practice on Wednesday, but the shoulder is still a problem. It will be interesting to see how much Williams will play Thursday against the Badgers and how effective he will be.
Wally Ellenson, the Gophers freshman from Rice Lake, Wis., has played in only 35 minutes over eight games, and he has been sidelined of late because of a strained Achilles' tendon. He might still get a redshirt season, even though coach Tubby Smith and the Gophers pulled him off that list earlier this year. If that doesn't happen, Ellenson made a big mistake by deciding not to redshirt this year, because he wasn't going to play much this season anyway.
Speaking of the Big Ten's plans to extend the conference football schedule to nine or even 10 games, Commissioner Jim Delany is quoted in the Chicago Tribune saying that the status quo of eight conference games "is not even on the table right now."
Vikings assistant coach Mike Singeltary, the special assistant to head coach Leslie Frazier, interviewed for the defensive coordinator position with the St. Louis Rams, but they instead chose Tim Walton, the Detroit Lions secondary coach.
The Badgers football team has had two quarterbacks transfer and start in the past two seasons, first with current Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson, who came from North Carolina State, and then Minnesota native Danny O'Brien, a Maryland transfer who lost the starting job last season. Now they have recruited a third in Arizona Western Junior College transfer Tanner McEvoy, a 6-6, 215-pound dual-threat quarterback. McEvoy, who started his career at South Carolina, said he picked Wisconsin over Florida, Oregon and West Virginia. The Badgers will have five quarterbacks fighting for the starting position. Incidentally, Rivals ranked the Badgers' recruiting class fourth in the Big Ten and 37th in the nation.
Former Twins ace Johan Santana is entering the final year of his six-year, $137.5 million contract with the New York Mets. He said he has felt totally healthy this offseason after being shut down late last year. He has also said that he wants to pitch for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic but will leave that decision to team management.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org