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Underrated: Rubio is having the best season of his career

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I remain convinced that Ricky Rubio is one of the most underrated players in the NBA.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Ricky Rubio is having the best season of his career at age 25. Still, an overwhelming majority of onlookers will bemoan his inability to score before mentioning any of the countless positives that have come to define him on the hardwood.

Rubio brings elite skills to the table in every facet of the game besides scoring. Passing, court vision, ball handling, pick-and-roll offense (Towns sure is enjoying that action), and stifling defense at the league's deepest position on a nightly basis. That hasn't changed from past seasons, though it seems a majority of NBA followers remain unimpressed even in the midst of his best season yet.

In his fifth NBA season, Rubio is posting career-highs in PER (18.1), true shooting percentage (.505), free throw rate (.537), free throw percentage (.826), turnover percentage (19.4), and offensive rating (109 points per 100 possessions). He's also registered his highest shooting percentage (.500) from 0-3 feet through 48 games. In the first year of his new four-year deal, he's proving his worth on a young roster in need of a floor general to distribute the rock and set the tone. Over the next three seasons, that contract should only grow more advantageous as the cap could rise as high as $108 million in 2017–18 (via Zach Lowe); his deal will look that much better as time passes. Plenty of players will get paid more than Rubio over the length of his deal, and a majority of those guys likely won't touch his impact on the court.

For example, the impending cap spike was felt before the season even got underway. Toronto paid Terrence Ross $33 million over three years based solely on potential. Goran Dragic, 29, scored a $90 million deal over five years to stay with the Miami Heat during the offseason. $58 million for Omer Asik. $80 million for Reggie Jackson. What about Enes Kanter ($70M), Tristan Thompson ($82M) and Wes Matthews ($70M)? Players are getting paid handsomely with the cap increase in mind and in the new economic environment Rubio's deal looks like an absolute bargain compared to the field.

With the bogus trade rumors, started by a few throwaway sentences by Frank Isola, the internet was briefly sent into the Rubio-trade-oblivion for 24 hours. It seemed like plenty of outlets started questioning his worth. Compared to popular opinion, Rubio might be the NBA's most underrated player. Thus, I think it's time for the nation to reassess the way they discuss his game. Anybody that watches him regularly understands the elephant in the room: he's a terrible shooter who struggles to score, and that's always been the case, but he's still an above-average point guard that makes his team infinitely better at every turn by using the topflight traits he possesses. That point seems to go largely ignored by the national media.

Rubio often makes life a living hell for opposing point guards. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher USA TODAY Sports

I’ve become fully convinced that writers, analysts, broadcasters, and fans — both casual and hardcore — cannot truly understand the value of Rubio if they do not watch the Wolves religiously or completely buy-in to what the analytics say about his tremendously positive impact. With the ball-handling maestro running the show on both ends of the court, Minnesota is a legitimate basketball team. Without him in the lineup, the results are Sixers-esque. His +9.6 net rating per 100 possessions (according to basketball reference) is perfect evidence; the Wolves are +0.7 points when he plays and -8.9 points when he sits (per 100).

"Ricky [Rubio] just controlled the game and ran the show," interim coach Sam Mitchell said after beating the Chicago Bulls at Target Center in front of the best crowd in recent memory less than two weeks ago.

Rubio runs the show on a nightly basis, though his impact won't go noticed on a large scale until the team starts winning frequently. Quietly, however, he's become one of the most underrated players in the league, if not the most, which is a label consistently thrown around in professional sports, but the conversations surrounding the divisive point guard often center around one major weakness (scoring) while ignoring how elite every other part of his game is. Basing an entire evaluation of his value around his inability to score lacks depth to begin with. Plenty of people talk about him like he's utterly replaceable. I always sit back waiting for the positives, but too often they seem like an afterthought. It’s simply: Rubio can’t shoot, Rubio can’t score. A point guard that can’t score in the modern NBA? Please! I hear the same critique over and over again. What about everything he does better than most point guards across the Association? Why is his defensive prowess habitually ignored?

It’s only one advanced metric — and the drop off from Rubio to Zach LaVine or Andre Miller as the point guard is monstrous enough to make him appear to be a godsend every time he touches the floor for the Wolves — but Rubio ranks 18th overall in RPM* at 4.72.

Real Plus-Minus is defined as a player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions, taking into account teammates, opponents, and additional factors.

In short, RPM loves what Rubio does on the hardwood, as does Multi-year RAPM (Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus). Clearly his game translates in this regard.

Rubio currently ranks fifth in assists per game at 8.6 — behind Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, and Chris Paul — and second in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.73) behind only Mike Conley (4.09). He’s third in steals per game at 2.21, but ranks first in steal percentage at 3.7% and smart money is on him finishing first in that category for the third consecutive season. In 2012–13, he posted a devastatingly impressive 4.2 (the percentage of opponents possessions that end in a steal by Rubio when he’s on the court). He’s the league’s biggest thief on the defensive end, but again, his major fault seems to overshadow his defensive ability. Moreover, only six point guards grab more rebounds per game (he’s at 4.4 ). Westbrook (7.6) and Rondo (6.3) are the only lead guards that truly distance themselves from the rest.

The national conversation surrounding Rubio always centers around what he cannot do — shoot and score — rather than his elite defense, the impeccable court vision, how he consistently brings the best out of his teammates, his leadership and passion, the competitive fire that often leaves him searching for words that can do justice as the losing mounts up. He’s an elite point guard in every category but one, and that’s typically the area of focus when a majority of people talk about Rubio.

Thus, I remain convinced that he's one of the most underrated players in the NBA, especially given his contract and the fact that he's having the best season of his career well before hitting his prime.

Let me leave you with a list of the point guards with lower true shooting percentages than Rubio (.505) as of today: Dennis Schroder, D’Angelo Russell, Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Jennings, Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey, Ty Lawson, Pablo Prigioni, Marcus Smart, Elfrid Payton, Jameer Nelson, Shabazz Napier, Greivis Vasquez, Derrick Rose, Norris Cole, Ish Smith, Jerian Grant, and Emmanuel Mudiay.