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.