Ricky Rubio is too slow.
Ricky Rubio can't shoot.
These were just two of the frequently referenced criticisms of the precocious teenage point guard from Spain when he was drafted by Minnesota in 2009. But just a few weeks into his belated rookie season, he is now being compared to a two-time NBA MVP.
"He has a Steve Nash ability to see the floor, to find his teammates," Minnesota Timberwolves assistant coach Bill Bayno told The Huffington Post. "He's a pass-first guy who is very deceptive. He sets up his passes with his eyes."
Not only has Rubio quickly quieted his critics, but he has piloted the T-Wolves with the calm and guile of a veteran player. Like a talented NFL quarterback, he can "throw his receivers open." While forwards Anthony Randolph and Wesley Johnson have struggled in the half court, they have thrived with Rubio running the fast break, where he possesses first-rate speed and an almost unparalleled ability to deliver lobs. According to Synergy Sports Technology, his 5.7 assists-turnover ratio (through 17 games) ranks him as one of the better guys in the league, while his 8.5 assists per game is sixth best and puts him ahead of All Stars Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
But perhaps nobody has been more impacted than power forward Kevin Love, who is averaging a career-best 24.9 points per game and attempting more than five three-pointers per game, which is at least two more than he attempted last year. With Rubio and Love forming a formidable pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop combination, Love has excelled as one of the premier shooters in the game at his position.
Because he primarily plays below the rim at six-feet-eight, Love relies on Rubio to create a chunk of his open looks. Rubio's sudden burst warrants high hedges from opposing big men. An excellent decision maker, he consistently makes the correct read to find his teammate hovering behind the three-point line or by the elbow, where he is equally lethal.
"The way he passes the ball and how he sets guys up and finds guys is just phenomenal," Love told The Huffington Post last summer. "I'm hoping it's going to be a deadly combo."
Even so, it's not Love's shooting improvement that has been the most surprising. By averaging nearly 11 points per game and shooting a healthy 37.1 percent from three, Rubio has quelled question marks about his stroke, and in turn has put pressure on opposing defenses to guard him from a distance.
"This is probably the best he's shot the ball," Bayno said. "He just put the work in."
Let us not forget: This is a kid who debuted in Spain's prestigious ACB League at the age of 14, but drew stark criticism for his meager scoring and assist averages just last season.
On the defensive end, Rubio remains a work in progress but he has shown more potential than some expected. While his lack of elite lateral foot speed is a slight concern, he has proven to be a terrific help defender and extremely crafty for such a young player. His great size, coupled with long arms and sneakiness, creates a bevy of steals and deflections.
"His defense has been the big surprise," Bayno said. "He is tough and he uses his length to get deflections. He has great high hands. His [basketball] IQ is off the charts. He's affecting the game defensively better than anyone on our team, taking charges on the ball. He comes up with big loose balls and he's probably our best on-the-ball defender."
In that regard, Minnesota's defensive rating (through its first 16 games) is nearly 14 points better with Rubio on the floor, and its net point differential with him off the floor is minus 12.6, which stands as one of the most drastic clips in the league.
The Wolves' offensive rating (the amount of points scored per 100 possessions) without Rubio in the lineup is a mere 96.5, according to one Western Conference scout, whereas the rating jumps to a robust 101.7 with Rubio in the lineup.
"I think the kid can be great; if not the best guard in this league down the road," Bayno said. "He has no fear; he plays with no fear. He's a highly coachable kid. But I think the sky is absolutely the limit for him. He has a natural, natural gift. I think he's a future All Star with the chance to be an MVP in this league."
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