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Some Thoughts on Ricky Rubio at the FIBA World Cup

Don't obsess over the shooting. Ricky Rubio has been fantastic for Spain in this World Cup.


Spain takes on France today in a World Cup quarterfinal at 3:00 pm CDT, and the game will stream on ESPN3. If there is a way for you to watch, I recommend you do so. Spain has been arguably the best team in the tournament so far, and notably for Wolves fans, Ricky Rubio has been a big part of it.

We've been justifiably concerned with Ricky's shooting woes so far in his NBA career, and that has led us to obsess over any possible signs of improvement and despair over the lack of it. Unfortunately, it's hard to see any improvement in the shooting numbers during this World Cup, as he has not made a three pointer in the competition, and has looked no different (at least to my eye) in his shooting form.

On the other hand, he's only attempted 4 threes, and in fact only 20 two point shots (making 9) in six games so far. Combined, he's averaged only four field goal attempts per game at the World Cup; a sample size from which it is impossible to make any judgment.

It simply is not his role to take shots for this Spain team, which is replete with scorers both inside and out--guys like the Gasol brothers, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, and Jose Calderon. Of course, when the Wolves reconvene for the upcoming season, we are hoping to see a more aggressive Rubio in terms of scoring--the Wolves are going to need it. His ability to provide that while maintaining his high standards in other areas will be something to watch during the season, but isn't something we can discern from his FIBA play.

That said, it is also true that this is his best and most influential performance in a Spain jersey during a major tournament in his senior career. And that's something that should make us happy as Wolves fans.

Ricky Rubio's first major tournament as a member of the Spanish national team was the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He was 17 years old, and joining a team that was in large part the same group that had won the World Championship in 2006. Raul Lopez, who hadn't been with the team in 2006, but was in his prime, and Jose Calderon, an established star, were centerpieces in the backcourt, but even so Rubio made an impression.  Spain won the silver, losing a tough game against the U.S. in the final, where Rubio's harrassing defense was a factor.

Since then, he's taken part in every major tournament for Spain except for the 2012 Olympics, which he missed because of his torn ACL. He's been in and out of the starting lineup as the coach that took over after the 2008 Olympics (Sergio Scariolo) seemed to go back and forth on who he preferred as point guard. Spain has had an embarrassment of back court riches over the years, which has made fitting everyone in difficult.

The current coach, Juan Orenga, who took over for last year's Eurobasket, has installed Rubio as the starter for this tournament, ahead of Sergio Rodriguez, who at 28 year old is in his prime and a star at Real Madrid. That doesn't mean a ton of playing time, however, as Rubio is still averaging just under 20 minutes a game. In part this is because a number of blowouts have limited the need, but also because the Spanish team is deep in star guards, so much so that one of them (Rudy Fernandez) starts at small forward (of course, their lack of a real small forward plays in as well).  In addition to starters Rubio and Navarro, Rodriguez, Calderon, and Sergio Llull all demand playing time, which limits everyone's minutes.

Despite playing only 19.8 minutes a game, however, Rubio is having a huge impact on the tournament, arguably as much as any single player, though it's hard to say given his star-laden team. He leads the competition in assists and steals per game even given the playing time, and is averaging an astounding 11.8 assists and 7.4 steals(!) per 40 minutes, both of which are Cup leading figures by significant margins.

He also is tied second (with Marc Gasol) in raw plus-minus, behind only James Harden who has played an extra game. He is tied first with Gasol in plus-minus per game, again, in limited minutes. Of course, this has a lot to do with how good Spain is as a team, but even so he is out front of his teammates, and even the U.S. players in plus-minus stats. Spain has outscored it's opponents by 159 points in this tournament; Rubio's raw plus-minus is 144.  His primary backup, Sergio Rodriguez, has a net 0 plus-minus, and Sergio Llull, who has actually played more minutes than Rubio despite not starting, is a +41.  Of course, Rubio benefits from starting the game with the best (maybe) players on the roster, but even so, he's dominating proceedings.

This coincides with my eye test: When Rubio is on the floor, the team plays at a noticeably higher tempo, with more aggressive defense leading to transition points, big runs, and in the end, blowouts. The truth is, Rubio is doing what he always does--affecting the game at both ends, disrupting opponent offenses, leading the break, finding open players off the pick and roll.  He's just doing more of it. Which is a good thing.

It's easy to get lost playing for a team as talented as Spain, and Pau Gasol has rightly gotten a ton of attention for his inspired play at the World Cup so far, but Ricky Rubio has been a big part of both Gasol's and the team's success.

Don't get hung up on the shooting. Ricky's ability to score in the NBA is an issue that can wait until we actually see the Wolves play this season. The sample is way too small to draw any conclusions from this tournament. What we can see is that he's emerging as a major factor on the international stage, and it's a joy to watch.