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Ricky Rubio: We Know The Story, But What About The Fit?

A deep dive into how the returning Ricky Rubio will fit in with this Minnesota Timberwolves team

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

With all the eyes on the Minnesota Timberwolves front office and the top of the draft board, it was the trade that brought Ricky Rubio back to the place it all began that stole the draft night headlines. Whilst Anthony Edwards’ upside and promise as the first overall pick is likely the most important move of the night in the long-term, it was hard to overlook the feel-good story that was The Spanish Unicorn’s return.

We don’t need to break down what it means for Wolves fans to have Rubio back. He was beloved in the Twin Cities from the day he arrived from Spain until the day Tom Thibodeau shipped him to Utah, and that admiration didn’t fade as he plied his trade with the Jazz for the two seasons after the trade and with the Phoenix Suns in the 2019-20 campaign.

The thing that has changed over the past three years is the Timberwolves roster. In Rubio’s last game with Minnesota, he started next to Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Andrew Wiggins and Brandon Rush. Not only are all but Towns gone now, but the entire bench that night have different homes as well. Off the court, Tom Thibodeau is in New York instead of the Minnesota sidelines, and Gersson Rosas is now the man in charge of the front office.

Rubio may be coming back to his original NBA home, but he isn’t coming back to the same team. And he isn’t coming back the same player. So what does that mean? How does he slot in alongside a completely overhauled team and with a front office brass that is still relatively new and ultra-creative? Let’s take a deeper look at the different areas of Rubio’s game and how they apply to the current version of the Timberwolves.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Leadership and Mentality

He arrived in Minnesota as a wide-eyed, happy-go-lucky teenager, but Rubio has grown up and matured, and he returns as a seasoned NBA veteran. In his time away, he has featured in 11 playoff games with the Jazz and was a crucial member of the Suns team that went undefeated in the playoff-type atmosphere that was the Orlando Bubble.

On those teams, he provided a calm and composed head both on and off the court, and he figures to bring that same leadership to a Timberwolves team that currently holds more talent than experience and structure. Not only is Rubio the same likeable character that he’s always been, he is now more accountable and in a position to demand that accountability from those around him. On a team that has mainstays like Edwards, Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley — all of whom have had off-court or mentality questions surrounding them throughout their careers — Rubio’s adult approach to the game and to life outside of it will be warmly welcomed.

Unlike someone like James Johnson or shell-of-himself Kevin Garnett, Rubio is still genuinely productive on the court, helping him lead by example and show the younger pups how to do it by doing it himself. Since departing the Twin Cities, he has played a key role in mentoring scoring guards like Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell, and he has uplifted the games of big men like Kevin Love, DeAndre Ayton and Rudy Gobert. Perfect for a team with Towns and Russell.

Phoenix Suns v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

His impact consistently shows up in the numbers, too. Despite never overwhelming the scoring column of the box score, Rubio is consistently floating around the top of the Player Impact Plus/Minus (15th in ‘19-20) and Real Plus/Minus (39th in ‘19-20) leaderboards, and his teams are always better when he is playing — last season Phoenix was 8.5 points per possession better when he was on the floor, ranking in the 90th percentile leaguewide. With Rubio gracing the hardwood with his flowing locks and his silken smile, the Suns performed as a 49-win team, 15 wins better than what they managed in reality, per Cleaning The Glass.

We will get into what he does specifically to make his team click, but one thing is for certain: Rubio is an uplifter. He is a true multifaceted leader who does it without scowling and without alienating his teammates. He raises the ceiling of a team strictly with the intangibles that occur without even touching a basketball. This Timberwolves team needs that. It craves it. On-court production aside, it’s likely the single most important aspect he brings back with him.

Playmaking

It’s no secret, it’s not news, Ricky Rubio is a playmaking aristocrat. He has ranked in the top-10 in assists per game in six of the last 10 seasons, and has proven himself over and over again as one of the most creative and effective passers of the modern era. As he has matured, he has maintained his artistic flair while cutting down his mishaps, registering turnover percentages lower than 20 percent in each of the last three seasons, a feat he never once produced in Minnesota.

Returning to his wintery home, Rubio now has a crop of teammates who are primed to reap the benefits of his spectacular table-setting. The most important, of course, is franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns was likely always going to grow into the offensive juggernaut that he is today, but Rubio helped fast-track that development during Towns’ rookie and sophomore seasons. Rubio’s mind’s eye is constantly fixed on his most talented teammate, and he makes a living off making life easier for them with his passing.

In the 2016-17 season, Towns’ last alongside The Spanish Unicorn, the two-time All-Star graded in the 88th percentile as a roll man finisher in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports. In the years since, his production in that area has dipped significantly, from the 70th percentile in 2017-18, to the 71st percentile in 2018-19 and then bottoming out at the 49th percentile in the injury-interrupted 2019-20 campaign. Now he not only Russell by his side — who is a fantastic passer in his own right — but he has Rubio as well.

There will always be questions about Rubio’s ability to punish teams with his own scoring punch coming out of a ball screen, but there is no denying his mastery when it comes to supplying his partner. Phoenix’s finishers shot 6.3% (97th percentile) better at the rim when their European floor general was on the court, and a lot of that came from his ability to find the rumbling big men in advantageous positions.

What Rubio does is read pick-and-roll defensive coverages at the speed of light and make an assessment of how to punish it just as quickly. Look how quickly he notices and obliterates the hard hedge defense here, he knows that if he can quickly get the ball to the rolling DeAndre Ayton (whose man is up and pressuring Rubio) then only the much smaller and weaker Zach LaVine will be there in rotation. Simple, on-point, and effective.

After years of playing with score-first point men, a matured and more damaging Towns is going to be licking his lips at the thought of passes like that. Not to mention Naz Reid, who should only continue to excel from undrafted rookie to legitimate rotation piece playing alongside a passer like Rubio.

As was evidenced in that last passage, and even more so in this next one, Rubio understands angles like a prize-winning mathematician. There are multiple openings to try and thread this ball to Aron Baynes, but none of them avoid the closing Jarrett Allen or the trailing Kyrie Irving in the same way this gold-plated wraparound bounce pass does.

Rubio’s knack for hitting Towns and his other screen-setting teammates with a variety of passes to shoot out of pick-and-pop scenarios is enough to make the mouth water, but nothing he does offensively is quite as beneficial as the amount of high-percentage looks he is going to get for the already uber-efficient Towns.

For over a year, we’ve constantly heard President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas and Head Coach Ryan Saunders preach about playing with an up-tempo attitude and style, and after transforming the team at the trade deadline we started to see that come to fruition. The Wolves moved from 7th in the league in pace pre-deadline to 1st overall after it. In turn, that helped their offensive rating move up from 23rd to 16th, and the ripple effect, which created more easy looks as they pushed the pace, spiked their true shooting percentage from 25th to 15th, per NBA.com.

In Rubio, they have a pace-pusher supreme. Whether it’s from a rebound, a live-ball turnover or even the occasional made basket, the point guard is forcing the defense to read and react quickly. Constantly. He turns a lazy step or two from a defender into full-blown broken floor situations, then he bends that broken floor to his will and punishes it with his playmaking ability.

This is where the Timberwolves’ other shooters’ ears should be perking up. This is where Malik Beasley is going to turn that shiny $60 million deal into easy money. It’s where D’Angelo Russell is going to relish playing off the ball and letting Rubio do the ball-handling. It’s how Anthony Edwards is going to watch that 3-point percentage climb from the 29 percent he made at Georgia. If you can get yourself spotted up, Rubio will flip a semi-transition opportunity into a made triple at the drop of his magician’s hat.

And if you’re willing to put in the hard yards yourself and fill a lane? Well, you’re eating good tonight. Rubio uses perfect eye and head movement to shift defensive shells the wrong way and hit trailing bigs or streaking wings for easy food at the rim. In a Wolves sense, think of the easy buckets struggling scorers like Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver and even Jake Layman will get by simply beating their man to the spot.

Being able to stir the drink consistently like Rubio is a gift that few players enjoy, and it makes it easy to drop him into a number of situations and lineups without having to build an offense around him. However, he does require some tailoring to truly optimize his talents. Even with his skill set and ability to make players better, it’s not conducive to success to routinely play him in non-shooting lineups, like ones that feature Okogie and Culver at the same time. Rubio needs spacing to work his magic, he needs stretched defenses to find diving bigs and to collapse a defense in the right way, and he needs multiple reliable shooters around him to add substance to his passing flair.

Fortunately for Minnesota, they have a glut of scoring talent outside the two aforementioned wings. In all likelihood, Rubio is going to have a field day as a floor general on this Timberwolves team. And just like we will all be better for watching it, the team will be better for having it.

Shooting

From the moment he arrived in Minnesota all the way up to his abrupt departure, Rubio was plagued by jump shot issues. And while he is still far from the perfect product as a shooter, the 30-year-old has developed more consistency and confidence in his stroke throughout his three years away, and is producing better percentages with higher volume upon his return.

He hit a lull in the 2018-19 season with Utah (31.1% from 3), but that came jammed between his two best long-range shooting performances of his nine-year NBA career. He converted on 35.2 percent of the 3.5 triples he launched per game back in 2017-18 and a career-best 36.1 percent on 3.3 attempts a night last season.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

It’s unclear whether he will be able to pack those passable numbers in his suitcase and fly them into Target Center, but it will be very encouraging for Rosas and Saunders, whose renovated team ranked 2nd in 3-pointers made, 3rd in 3-pointers attempted and 9th in 3-point percentage in a 14-game post-trade deadline sample size. It was clear from the beginning of last season that the head honchos were trying to build a shoot first, ask questions later offensive scheme from their very first day with the Timberwolves, but the roster didn’t lend itself to positive results until the likes of Russell, Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez arrived on campus.

With Russell cemented as a high-volume offensive pillar and Beasley and Hernangomez returning with shiny new deals after a successful restricted free agency go-around, Rubio will need to be able to fit in with the shooting mantra the team has built. Alas, Rubio isn’t going to be punishing teams with jumpers for going under screens, as he is still a nightmare shooting off the dribble. Last season, he connected on just 20.8 percent (11-53) of his pull-up 3-point attempts, better than only Kyle Kuzma and Jimmy Butler among players who shot 50 or more.

What he has learned to do, though, is spot-up around the arc and become reliable enough to make defenders guard him and punish them when they do sag off. According to NBA.com, He made 64 of the 151 (41%) catch-and-shoot trifectas he attempted last season, making him a perfectly plausible option as someone who can play off the ball and not completely bust up a five-out offensive system.

With Towns, Russell, Edwards and Beasley all requiring their fair share of possession, Rubio will have to find pockets of space around the perimeter and convert when he is the final link in the chain. In his first Wolves tenure, he was far too tentative with his catch-and-shoot mentality, but you can see the clear shift in his mindset to where misses don’t impact him between the ears anymore — which sees the makes come more frequently.

In the clip below is the perfect example of what his teammates and coaching staff will expect from La Pistola. There is nothing over-the-top impressive here, it’s not Duncan Robinson running off a billion dribble hand-off actions, it’s not JJ Redick flying around stagger screens in full cry, it’s just simple relocation to get into his star’s line of sight and then knocking down the jumper with confidence. He will get plenty of opportunities to do this with Towns, Russell and the rest of the crew, it’s just a matter of continuing his upward trajectory as a finisher.

Another area Rubio has seen improvements in is his mid-range game. Before plateauing to 39.3 percent last season, he had hit at least 43.4 percent from the long-two range (16 foot to the 3-point line) in his previous three seasons, despite only passing the 40 percent threshold once in his first 5 seasons.

Admittedly, this isn’t a shot that the Timberwolves coaching staff want them to take — only the Houston Rockets shot less last year — but possessing a one or two dribble pull-up out of pick-and-roll gives him a fallback scoring option and making defenders respect it goes a long way to opening up Rubio’s passing game.

Rubio’s shooting continuing to trend to and beyond league-average is anything but a sure thing, but if it does, he should have a lot less problems slotting into this shoot-heavy offense than one might expect. He simply won’t ever be a sharpshooter or someone who can get his own as an off-the-dribble bomber, but it’s not the unyieldingly heavy anchor that it once was. Even more importantly, he will continue shooting and allowing the game plan to function smoothly, which is exactly what the coaching staff and players will expect of him.

Finishing At The Rim

As was the case with Rubio’s shooting weighing him down during his original stint with the Wolves, his ability to convert shots at the rim was always a major downer on his overall effectiveness. Unfortunately, that aspect of his game hasn’t been able to take the same strides forward that his shooting has.

Rubio has played professionally for a long time and while he was clearly more nimble and electric with his movement skills early on in his career, he has never had the wiggle or shake to create consistent open lanes for himself. On top of that, he has never been strong enough to dislodge backtracking defenders to gain more room to finish. He has always had a few tricky finishes up his wizard’s sleeve, but rarely is able to showcase them because he struggles to create enough openings to do so.

According to Cleaning The Glass, Rubio shot just 53 percent (20th percentile) at the rim last season, which was actually the second-best output of his career. Because of his athletic shortcomings, Rubio is often grifting for fouls — which he does very well. He ranked in the 80th percentile for shooting fouls drawn last season, with 11.8 percent of his shot attempts ending in a blown whistle. He finishes well too, registering an 84.1 percent clip throughout his career. This is a big plus for his overall efficiency. However, relying on referees to look kindly on you isn’t a reliable tactic. When defenders aren’t baited into fouls, it ends up looking something like this.

Rubio’s inability to get to and finish at the cup was covered more easily in Utah and Phoenix, with perimeter pals like Booker, Mitchell, Kelly Oubre and Joe Ingles there to put pressure on the rim, but the ground becomes a bit more treacherous with Russell as his new running mate. Russell is deadly in the mid-range and has become a weapon as a high-volume 3-point shooter, but he has never been able to get into the lane and get high-percentage looks on a regular basis. According to Cleaning The Glass, Russell took just 8 percent of his field goals at the rim for the Golden State Warriors last season and just 15 percent for Minnesota, ranking in the 1st and 4th percentile, respectively.

Utah Jazz v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

In the times he and Rubio share a back court, and there will be plenty of them, Saunders is going to have to come up with some creative ways to apply rim pressure. Sure, having a paint Picasso like Towns and a couple of savvy pick-and-roll passers in Rubio and Russell is going to alleviate some of the stresses, and cutters like Okogie, Culver and Layman will do their part, but will it be enough? Many think that playing in an analytics-based system like Saunders and Rosas’ means just jacking up triples, but the reality is that getting to the rim and the free throw line is still the top priority. They’re the most efficient shot on the court, and that’s what analytics is all about.

The top seven teams in field goal percentage at the rim made the playoffs last season, and of those teams, only the Philadelphia 76ers failed to make it past the first round. Creating and converting shots in close is a clear recipe for success, and it’s not something that the addition of Rubio helps in the slightest. With his athleticism continually declining as he ages, it doesn’t seem likely that some shocking turnaround is coming anytime soon.

On-Ball Defense

We all know the Timberwolves have enough offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with virtually any squad in the league, but they have struggled for what seems like an eternity to stop teams scoring. It only got worse after the trade deadline revamping, as they gave up 116.7 points per 100 possessions, good for 27th league-wide. Beasley and Russell both have very obvious warts defensively, and those ghastly numbers came without Towns beside them, who’s had his fair share of defensive criticism hurled at him.

He isn’t going to turn that ship around by himself, but Rubio is a damn good step in the right direction. Rubio doesn’t have jaw-dropping athletic tools or an overwhelming physical profile (although his 6-foot-9 wingspan is a handy bonus), but he wins defensively with smarts, fast hands, hustle and pure will to compete. He typically knows where to be and when to be there and seems to think through every situation. When defending at the point of attack, you see it on display loud and clear.

Plays like the one below are commonplace for the Spaniard. It’s not easy to contain Kyrie Irving when he starts wheeling and dealing, but Rubio is always thinking one step ahead. He isn’t quick enough laterally to keep up with Irving (is anyone?), but he reads his body movements and beats him to the spot. Then it’s pure pest work, getting up in the six-time All-Star’s jersey, poking at his enemy like a knight with a spear. It ends with a strip and, in typical Rubio fashion, a pinpoint assist.

Everything is thought out to an elite level with Rubio, but it’s his quick hands and top-tier hand-eye coordination that allow him to become a defensive playmaker, rather than just a stopper. He regularly blows up dribble hand-off actions and pick-and-roll actions, ducking screens before hacking away at the ball at the exact right moment. It’s one of the chief reasons he finished 18th in steal percentage last season, and why he is near the top of that leaderboard year after year.

Of course, one man is never enough to raise a team defense’s ceiling considerably, and Rubio’s ability to hang with faster and bigger guards declines slightly as the years go on, but having someone who can slide through ball screens and recover well while still shouting instructions could be vital for Towns’ development in that area. Towns started off very reasonably defensively in his early years, but playing with matador point-of-attack defenders like Jeff Teague, Derrick Rose, Andrew Wiggins and Russell puts even more strain on a slow-footed, overzealous defender like KAT.

It’s very reasonable to expect Towns to make small improvements in his pick-and-roll defense alongside Rubio. However, without a true commitment from not only Towns, but Russell, Beasley and Hernangomez, Rubio won’t be able to make enough of a difference himself to get this team to league-average defensively.

Off-Ball Defense

As his speed laterally and vertically declines, Rubio will likely continue to regress slowly as an on-ball defender. But, with basketball IQ and willingness to keep your head on a swivel being major factors in off-ball effectiveness, Rubio should carry on being an absolute menace as a team defender for years to come. Rubio is more than adequate defending the ball, but it’s off it where he truly comes alive and adds elite-level value to his team. He was like this during his Minnesota days, and has only grown more wily and more impactful as he has matured.

It all starts with awareness, Rubio constantly knows what’s going on around him and never takes a defensive play off to take a breather or zone out. At any given time, you can find his neck snapping around the floor, trying to find an angle or a pocket of space to snuff out a pass or sneak a hand in to poke a ball away. He is like a fly on a hot day, constantly buzzing around your face but always too quick to get ahold of.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder he was once again littering the upper echelons of the defensive metric leaderboards. Among point guards, he ranked 3rd in Defensive Player Impact Plus/Minus and 6th in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus — two of the most reliable metric systems out there in a stats world that struggles to find ways to project defensive efficiency in a single number.

Take this as the perfect encapsulation of Rubio’s pest-like attitude. In the dying seconds of the game, he slides his feet brilliantly and forces Orlando’s Evan Fournier to give the ball up. Just when it seemed like all was going swimmingly for the Magic, who now had Nikola Vucevic with a Devin Booker-shaped mouse in the house, Rubio swoops in the second Vucevic turns his head, nicking the ball and winning the game for the Suns.

Consistently working your butt off is an infectious mindset, and it’s one the Timberwolves need badly. Towns, Russell and Beasley all have the tools to impact the game in a positive way on the defensive end, but they need that willingness to do it every time down the floor. Rubio can not only show them how to do it by doing it himself, but he can verbally express it every day and every game.

The other area Rubio forces turnovers and really excels as a defensive playmaker is in passing lanes. He has always been cerebral at throwing passes, which likely helps him read them on defense and cut them out when they get sloppy. And the best part about Rubio playing passing lanes is you always know he is going to make a good decision when he is leading the transition charge — ensuring maximum fun on the break.

If nothing else, Minnesota will shave a few points off their oppositions total with Rubio playing heavy minutes and for a team who’s struggled to guard a tree, that’s a bonus.

In summary, Rubio is a true enigma, a player who sits in that strange space between creator and role player extraordinaire. He is more than a rotation player but less than a star. And as you examine it closer, he might be exactly what this Timberwolves organization needs.