Ricky Rubio: Looking at a Spanish tapestry

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Photo by Zacha Rosen

Pro basketball at noon? Glossy, garishly colored, vertically striped, add-laden uniforms? Dimly remembered former American college stars? Flag-bearing fans boisterously singing throughout the game? A monolithic, trapezoidal free-throw lane? Scruffy, floppy-haired Spaniards? It all adds up to the Euroleague, the home of FC Barcelona, Wolves' lottery pick Ricky Rubio and a terrific excuse to turn momentarily away from the increasingly disheartening spectacle of the current T-Wolves season, and toward hopeful things.

Rubio Rising

Since the 2008 Olympics, when the remarkably poised, 17-year-old Rubio nearly led the Spanish national team to a Gold Medal against the U.S., American fans have had sparse opportunities, beyond potentially misleading Youtube highlights, to watch the kid play. Many of us have taken a look at his modest Euroleague numbers this season--5.8 pts/game on 38.7% shooting, 4.6 assists/game (his Spanish league stats are all a touch higher)--and become a little concerned that Rubio is not as transformational a player as we were led to believe. I have to say though, that after watching Rubio play 22 minutes against Partizan of Serbia, I am pretty stunned by how good this guy is. Some observations:

Its been noted before that individual assist totals are much lower in the European game than in the NBA. This is mostly because European teams rely far less on the NBA staples of pick-and-roll, isolations, and drive and kick. Offenses tend to be predicated on spacing and team ball movement and are much less dependent on the point guard creating scoring opportunities for his teammates. Thus, Rubio's job in the half-court was mostly to bring the ball up the floor, quickly set the offense in motion and then get out of the way. Indeed, Rubio left much of the shot-creation to his teammate, Juan Carlos Navarro, whose array of dynamic, floating runners and leaning threes make him probably the best Spanish player not currently in the NBA (Navarro played one unhappy season for the Memphis Grizzlies).

As Jonny Flynn has shown us over and over, simply organizing an offense is harder than it looks. Rubio performed this task with poise and confidence. He made sharp, smart passes; he never turned the ball over; his only mistake was a single ill-advised shot, a deep, contested three.  When Ricky was in the game, Barcelona played sharp, rhythmic half-court basketball; for a 19-year-old playing the second-most competitive professional basketball league in the world, I'd say this is a serious compliment.

Better yet: although, as I've said, he rarely looked to create off the dribble, on the two occasions when Partizan switched on a screen, leaving him guarded by one of their big players, Rubio instantly recognized the mismatch and darted to the basket. Both times he held the ball only long enough to draw the defense. On the first occasion, he drove underneath the hoop before wrapping the ball around a defender to teammate Fran Vazquez in perfect position to score (as it happened, Vazquez dropped the pass, recovered it, and was then fouled). On the second, he hit the rolling Erazem Lorbek with a deft behind-the-back pass, setting up the Slovenian for an easy layup.

I understand that attacking Partizan's Aleks Maric off the pick-and-roll is not quite the same thing as being trapped by Nene or Varejao or Marcus Camby, but still: how many times have we seen Flynn hesitate in this exact situation, compulsively dribbling the possession away, allowing weakside defenders to ready themselves? Or worse, settling for an off-balance, contested jumper? After nearly a full season of T-Wolves follies, Rubio's recognition, simplicity and decisiveness were pure music.    

But things got really heavy when Barcelona ran the floor. If Rubio was egoless and deferential in the half court, in transition he became an attacker. A perfect one-touch, 3/4-court lob to Navarro for an easy layup; a no-look, one-handed bounce pass to a streaking Vazquez on the wing; a cross-court chest pass to Gianluca Basile for a transition three. He knew when to attack and when to wait, when to dish and when to hold the ball. I am not exaggerating when I say that every single time Rubio handled the ball on the break, his team scored. It looked really beautiful and really easy.

Now realize: NBA teams will dare Rubio to test his shaky jumper; they'll go under screens and clog the lane to prevent him from driving (this highlights the need to pair him with a dynamic wing scorer as Barcelona has done with Navarro--hi Evan Turner!). And although he plays solid, ball-hawking defense, its unclear whether he has the strength and lateral quickness to be a great on-the-ball NBA defender. But did you notice? His great strengths--his ability to enable a flowing, ball-moving offense; his combination of skill, pace and poise on the break--are the precise strengths required of a point guard by Kurt Rambis's triangle offense. Is it 2011 yet?

Odds and Sods

If you're looking for interesting little Wolves' tidbits in the news, this was a good week for you. On Truehoop, there's a chat with Idan Ravin, also known as "The Hoops Whisperer," a trainer brought in to work with our Wolves, and a little informed speculation on the team's long-term plans. Check it, its more interesting than it sounds. 

About halfway down the page here, is Marc Stein's quick interview with Jonny Flynn. Flynn is refreshingly open here about his struggles.. Learning the triangle, he says, is "like learning a foreign language." So we have noticed. In contrast to Kevin Love's recent frustrations, though, Jonny seems pretty optimistic that this whole, painful season will make him a better player. Hope so.

Finally, (I'm a little behind the curve on this one, sorry) Steve Aschburner discusses Darko and the "100 percent" certainty that he will return to Europe next year. It's fair to say that Darko is a little bitter.

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