Tom Thibodeau usually doles out praise in morsels. He turned on the faucet when assessing rookie Kris Dunn’s performance Sunday as a fill-in starter for Ricky Rubio.

“He’s been coming on for a while,” Thibodeau said after a 111-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets. “Defensively he’s been good from the beginning. Offensively he’s figuring it out. He understands the speed and size of the game. He wants to make plays for others. Defensively there are a lot of hustle plays he makes. He’ll rebound in traffic. You’re not going to knock him around. Kris has a lot of toughness in him.”

Reading between lines can be a dangerous preoccupation, but Thibodeau’s remarks felt as subtle as a sledgehammer to a thumb when paired with recent reports that the Timberwolves are shopping Rubio.

The most plugged-in national NBA beat writers have reported in the past week that the Wolves are looking to trade Rubio before the Feb. 23 trade deadline.

Those reports are based on information from sources, but typically in these situations, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Rubio’s exit seems almost inevitable. Thibodeau made Dunn his first draft pick as Wolves basketball czar for a reason. He’s not going to sit him behind Rubio any longer than necessary.

Based on Thibodeau’s remarks after Sunday’s game, he clearly feels Dunn has made significant strides in adjusting to the NBA game, so maybe the team feels the time is right.

I’m in the camp that believes the Wolves should keep Rubio the entire season, but if his departure is inevitable, why delay in making that move? Provided they find a deal that makes sense.

Rubio’s tenure here has been a mixed bag of positives and disappointment, hope and frustration. He’s been a polarizing player. Honestly, I’m still conflicted on him this deep into his career.

I admire things he does well while also recognizing that his limitations as a shooter — and its impact on the overall offense — remain a detriment. If he hasn’t fixed that flaw by now, he probably never will.

At his best, he’s an average point guard by today’s standards because the NBA is stocked with elite talent at that position.

Dunn isn’t an accurate shooter either, but he’s Thibodeau’s hand-picked choice. If/when a trade is made, Dunn’s development should be an overarching priority.

One national report noted that the Wolves would like a veteran “bridge” in return, presumably to start until Dunn is ready. Why not find help at a different position?

Another report said the Wolves had trade talks with the Detroit Pistons about a Rubio-Reggie Jackson swap. That makes even less sense.

If the Wolves trade Rubio, they should do so because they want to see how Dunn develops as the starter. Any stopgap point guard wouldn’t accomplish what their plan should be — evaluate Dunn running the team.

As maddening as the season has been with an endless string of blown leads, the Wolves, at 16-28, began the week only 2½ games out of the final playoff spot. I know, Playoffs? Playoffs?

Would Dunn as the No. 1 point guard give the Wolves less chance to contend for a playoff spot than Rubio or another veteran acquired in a trade? Don’t know. I still contend the Wolves are better with Rubio right now, though their record isn’t exactly sterling with him. Contrary to some opinions, Rubio is not solely to blame for that.

Maybe Dunn is ready for more responsibility, and heavy heavy minutes. Giving him the reins would allow the organization to determine whether he remains their long-term answer.

The draft is expected to be loaded with point guards. Several mock drafts project five point guards being selected in the first eight picks.

If the Wolves end up in the lottery again, they could use that pick in a trade or consider taking another point guard if they fall in love with one as an upgrade over Dunn.

Everything seems in limbo right now. Trade reports involving Rubio surface almost daily as Thibodeau praises Dunn’s development. That’s why it seems counterproductive to make a trade that keeps Dunn in the exact same scenario.