During March, as the Timberwolves’ slim playoff hopes faded and fans began thinking more about the NCAA tournament, the draft lottery and better days ahead, the franchise’s potential point guard of the future had a terrific month.
Facing numerous doubts, he displayed the kind of court vision, leadership, savvy and shooting acumen that teams covet from a modern NBA point guard.
The best part is that he is guaranteed to play for the Wolves next season, at a relatively modest price, as long as the organization wants him.
Wolves fans: let me introduce — or re-introduce — the point guard of the future: Ricky Rubio.
It might have taken almost six seasons, but Rubio just had the kind of month that makes one think he could finally be a complete NBA point guard.
In March, Rubio shot 47.2 percent from the field (including 43.9 percent from three-point range) while averaging 17.8 points and 10.4 assists per game.
If you are advanced statistic-inclined, his true shooting percentage for the month – taking into account free throws as well as field goal efficiency — was .602. For the season, only four point guards have a higher mark: Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul.
That’s not just a good month. That’s a Row The Boat elite month.
Rubio’s numbers actually picked up starting in late February, after the trade deadline. It was a brilliant deadline deal, actually. Instead of swapping Rubio for spare parts or a vague dream about the past — as would have been the case with a rumored deal for the Knicks’ Derrick Rose, who over the weekend suffered another major knee injury — the Wolves were able to trade old Ricky for new Ricky.
And his first game in April on Saturday did nothing to diminish those thoughts — which might sound strange, given that Rubio went just 1 for 10 from the field.
But here’s the thing: he took 10 shots. It was the 14th consecutive game in which he’s attempted at least 10 field goals. In his first 41 games this season, he tried 10 field goals or more exactly four times. For his career, he’s averaging 8.5 field goal attempts per game.
Every basketball player is going to struggle shooting the ball on given nights. What was telling about the first game in April is that Rubio kept shooting even as the misses piled up.
In one unmemorable but still noteworthy moment, Rubio dribbled quickly up-court near the end of the first half and hoisted a three-pointer off the dribble in an attempt to get the Wolves a coveted extra possession. That he missed the shot is not as important in this case as his willingness to take it.
See, you don’t have to be a great shooter to make defenses respect you. Maybe you don’t even have to be a good shooter. You just have to be a good enough shooter who is willing to take shots. Even if that still brands you as the player opposing teams are willing to let shoot, they can’t flat-out ignore you.
Earlier this season, and for much of Rubio’s career, you could flat-out ignore him most of the time as a shooter. He either lacked the confidence to shoot or he didn’t think it was a core part of his job as a point guard, or both. And the numbers reflected it.
Now you’re seeing a fascinating intersection of Rubio being willing to shoot and being confident when he does it. The results in March are not what we should expect forever. But they signal that Rubio, at his best, is a great all-around offensive point guard — which means that Rubio, when he’s average, is more than good enough.
Whether he emerged out of exasperation over all the trade talk, out of opportunity because of shots suddenly available with Zach LaVine out for the season, out of the natural evolution a player can undergo — or perhaps some combination of all three — Rubio looks and feels like an entirely different player.
Or, rather, the exact same player who can now shoot — the very thing for which so many Wolves fans have been waiting.
Of course, the Wolves were officially eliminated from the playoffs Saturday, meaning fans are once again in “wait until next year” mode. Minnesota has missed the playoffs 13 consecutive seasons – the second-longest streak in NBA history behind only the dismal Clippers of the 1970s and 1980s, per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann.
Rubio has been here for almost half of those seasons. But almost all of that was old Ricky. If the Wolves are going to halt this streak before it reaches the Clippers’ record of 15 playoff-less seasons in a row, the Wolves’ point guard of the future – new Ricky Rubio – could very well play a huge role.