While much of the focus on the Wolves this season has been on the development of young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, point guard Ricky Rubio recently has arguably demonstrated himself to be the most important piece of the lineup.

In Tuesday’s 115-114 victory over the Pacers in Indianapolis, Rubio hit three free throws with 3.4 seconds left to give the Wolves the lead. Then on the game’s final possession, he helped double-team Pacers star Paul George, who was forced to pass to Monta Ellis, and Ellis missed a rushed, last-second shot.

It was another in a growing list of great Rubio games. He finished with 21 points, 10 assists and five rebounds.

It’s amazing to think that just over a month ago, there were serious questions about whether Rubio would finish the season with the Wolves. Rumors surrounded him near the NBA’s Feb. 23 trade deadline, but the team denied that any talks got close to becoming a real deal.

In fact, Wolves owner Glen Taylor said the team wasn’t actively shopping Rubio at any point.

“We weren’t serious about trading him, but I will say that we had a number of other teams that called us up and asked us if we would trade him,” said Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune. “The coach [Tom Thibodeau] didn’t want to and I didn’t want to, so we never got into any serious discussions.”

What about all of those Rubio-to-New York rumors?

“New York called us at one time and asked if we would trade him, and we said no,” Taylor said.

Rubio, since that trade deadline passed, has played the best basketball of his career. He’s shooting the ball well and with confidence while still being a great playmaker and defender.

MVP-level stats

In the Wolves’ 16 games since the trade deadline, Rubio is averaging 15.8 points, 10.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game.

There are only three players in the NBA posting those averages during that stretch of time: Rubio, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Harden and Westbrook happen to be having two of the greatest statistical seasons in NBA history, and Rubio is showing how capable he is of playing a great all-around game.

What’s really surprising is that during that same stretch, Rubio is second among the three in field-goal percentage at 44.9 percent (Westbrook is at 42.7, Harden at 46.6), leads the trio in three-point field-goal percentage (Rubio 39.5, Harden 34.3, Westbrook 32.3) and leads in free-throw percentage (Rubio 92.0, Westbrook 88.0, Harden 83.8).

The career knock on Rubio has been that for all of his high basketball IQ and passing ability, he simply cannot shoot. But he has turned that story around this year, posting career highs in field-goal percentage (40.7) and free-throw percentage (88.7).

Rubio has made 56 of his past 57 free-throw attempts. He also has made 46 consecutive technical foul free throws, the longest streak in the NBA.

Contract a plus

Another reason why the Wolves were smart to keep Rubio — and why they’d be smart to keep him in the future — is because of his reasonable contract.

Rubio is signed through the 2018-19 season and is scheduled to make $14.1 million next season and $14.8 million the following year.

With the Wolves needing to re-sign players such as Wiggins, Towns and Zach LaVine to max or near-max contracts in the next two years, it’s going to be extremely helpful to have Rubio signed on his current deal.

Maybe by 2019, the Wolves will be ready to have Kris Dunn or Tyus Jones take over at point guard, but Rubio will be only 29 years old then.

If he continues to play at his current level, Rubio could lead the Wolves long into the future.


• Maybe there’s some benefit to the Wolves’ recent six-game losing streak. Before Wednesday’s games, they had the eighth-worst record in the draft lottery, which will feature a loaded group of college players.

• Congratulations to my close personal friend Bert Blyleven for being honored with the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association. The award recognizes former players for their accomplishments on the field and contributions to the game after their playing days conclude. I’ve known Blyleven since he was 19 years old and joined the Twins in 1970, and he’s a deserving winner.

• The Gophers baseball team opened its Big Ten schedule with a three-game sweep of Ohio State in Columbus. It’s the first time since 1990 that the Gophers have swept a series from the Buckeyes, and they are on a six-game winning streak. Luke Petterson is leading the offense, hitting .397 with 12 RBI and 10 runs scored. Jordan Smith is providing some power with a team-leading four home runs, 16 RBI and 14 runs scored. On the pitching staff, reliever Brian Glowicki has a 0.59 ERA in 12 appearances with 16 strikeouts in 15⅓ innings. Terrin Vavra, son of Twins bench coach Joe Vavra, is starting at shortstop and hitting .260 with 14 runs scored.

• Former Breck and Gophers hockey player Blake Wheeler is having a great season with Winnipeg. His 68 points (23 goals) are tied for 12th in the NHL. Wheeler needs 11 more points to break the career high he set last season. … The Gophers have had 19 players in the NHL this season, and the Wild has had three play for the team in Erik Haula, Mike Reilly and Jordan Schroeder. Now they’ve signed Gophers captain and Lakeville native Justin Kloos to a two-year entry-level deal.

• Former Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski has caught on with Fox Sports as a commentator for the MLB season. Pierzynski will work his first game April 5 between the Yankees and Rays with Kenny Albert and Ken Rosenthal.

• The Gophers men's cross-country team had a great showing at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Kampala, Uganda, last weekend. True freshman Hamza Ali finished 52nd overall (and third among American runners) in the under-20 race with a time of 26 minutes, 14 seconds. Gophers coach Steve Plasencia served as head coach for the U.S. men’s junior team.

• Niko Medved, the former Roseville grad and one-time assistant to former Gophers basketball coach Dan Monson, is now head coach at Drake.


Sid Hartman can be heard Mondays and Fridays on 830-AM at 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com