Hartman: Saunders says be patient with Rubio

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2014 - 10:46 PM

The point guard hasn't shot well, but the Wolves boss points out similar NBA players who became All-Stars.

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The Wolves' Ricky Rubio has struggled with his shooting, but Wolves boss Flip Saunders says to be patient with the 23-year-old point guard.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

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With Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio recently getting some criticism about his play, Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders has come to his defense.

Rubio has had a frustrating season. He usually is a brilliant passer, but his shooting and decisionmaking — especially down the stretch of close games — has often been poor.

Saunders says he still believes fully in Rubio, and that the Wolves need to be patient with his offensive development.

“Here’s the thing,” said Saunders, a former point guard himself. “Ricky is 23 and he’s still somewhat young and he’s only played 100 games in our league. Is he not shooting the ball well? There’s no question. Has he at times made what some might call questionable decisions? Yeah. But there’s some things you can’t teach, and you can’t teach his offensive instinct and his passing ability.”

Going into Sunday’s game with the Spurs, Rubio was sixth in the league in assists at 8.2 per game and his 12.4 assists per 48 minutes trails only the Clippers’ Chris Paul at 15.5. He was second in the league in steals at 2.67 per game and was sixth in rebounding among NBA guards at 4.7 per game.

But Rubio’s 34.6 field-goal percentage is the worst among qualified NBA players this season and is on pace to be one of the worst shooting percentages in NBA history. His scoring average also has dipped by nearly two points per game, from 10.7 last year to 8.8 this season.

Rubio’s other major issue has been his performance in the final minutes of close games. According to NBA.com, in the final five minutes of the 19 games where the Wolves were either ahead or behind by five points, Rubio has been averaging only 0.6 points per game on 12.5 percent shooting, something that has to change.

Saunders said Rubio is aware of what he has to do to become a complete star in this league.

“He does have to learn how to knock down shots and knock down 15-, 20-foot shots and score around the basket on layups,” Saunders said. “So what is going to separate him from being a good guard to maybe being an All-Star-type guard is how he works on those [things].”

Saunders also took issue with people questioning Rubio’s work ethic.

“There have been people that have questioned, ‘Well, does he work out in the summer?’ ” Saunders said. “I can tell you this: He shoots and spends more time in that gym shooting than just about anyone we have. It’s not for a lack of trying. He just has to keep on working on it and hopefully it will kick in.

“It’s similar to what happened with John Wall down in Washington, who I [coached]. … We encouraged him to shoot and he shot poor percentages, but eventually he learned how to shoot and now he’s averaging over 20 a game and he’s an All-Star guard.”

Saunders also drew a parallel with former MVP Steve Nash, who, at the age of 24, was coming off his third season in the league in 1998-99 when he shot only 36.3 percent from the field and averaged 7.9 points per game after being traded from Phoenix to Dallas.

“People were about ready to give up on Steve Nash,” Saunders said. “He got traded to Dallas, Dallas was ready to give up on him and they didn’t know if he was ever going to play. [By 2004-05], he’s the MVP of the league. I’m not saying Ricky is going to turn into that, but as a young player I think you have to be somewhat patient.”

Musgrave connection

Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who is reported to be coming in for a second interview with the Vikings this week, could keep offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave if he were hired.

Zimmer was the defensive coordinator in Atlanta in 2007 when Musgrave was the quarterbacks coach there from 2006-09. Besides working in Atlanta and Cincinnati, Zimmer was with the Cowboys from 1994-2006 as a defensive backs coach and then defensive coordinator.

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