TrueHoop: Then & Now & Later

Then & Now & Later: Ricky Rubio

October, 8, 2014
Oct 8
10:15
AM ET
Foster By DJ Foster
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Ricky RubioAP Photo, Getty ImagesOnce viewed as a maestro with the ball, Ricky Rubio will get a real shot at proving his PG bona fides.
"Then & Now & Later" is a scouting profile series that analyzes the perception, development and future potential of young players in the NBA. We first tackled New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis. Next up: Ricky Rubio.

THEN


Like most teen sensations, Ricky Rubio combined the old with the new.

Although Rubio was not even 18 when he burst onto the scene at the 2008 Olympic Games, there was something familiar about the guard from Spain. The Beatles haircut, the wizardry with the ball, the sad eyes. It was as if "Pistol" Pete Maravich was reincarnated to play in a league actually ready for him.

Time was definitely on Rubio’s side. Developing familiarity with international prospects was at one point nearly impossible -- maybe you’d see a guy in the Olympics or in one-off exhibitions, but fans were mostly living and dying with what scout Fran Fraschilla had to say.

Rubio broke that mold, in part because he had been playing professionally in Spain since the tender age of 14. Add the emergence of YouTube and it's easy to see why the basketball world fell in love with him. Rubio's creative passes and showman’s flair went "viral" before the term had really entered the lexicon. Well before the Minnesota Timberwolves selected him with the fifth pick in the 2009 NBA draft, it was clear that his star was on the rise.

But the hype quickly deflated. Rubio opted to stay two additional years in Spain before coming over for the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, and during an otherwise promising rookie campaign, he tore his ACL. But even before the injury, it was still relatively clear that Rubio came largely as advertised: a risk taker with plenty of flash and natural instincts, albeit with an incomplete skill set.

With three NBA seasons under his belt now, it’s still tough to fully comprehend the contradictions that seem to define Rubio’s career.


NOW


On offense:
Let’s not sugarcoat this: Rubio is one of the least efficient scorers we've seen in a long, long time.

In fact, in the past 35 years, no player with at least 5,500 total NBA minutes played has ever put up a worse career effective field goal percentage than Rubio's 40.1. Just think about all the challenged offensive players you’ve ever seen play in the NBA and realize Rubio has shot worse than almost every single one.

And although it may be tempting to blame Rubio’s slow-release, quasi set-shot jumper for those numbers, his primary issues stem from his inability to score at the rim. Rubio's career 32.3 percent 3-point percentage won't bowl anyone over, but it’s serviceable and somewhat indicative of what he can do with his feet set and time to fire.

It’s Rubio’s complete lack of elevation that betrays him on drives to the rim more than anything else, though you’ll see him get the yips and miss wide-open attempts quite a bit as well. A floater or runner in the paint would help tremendously to avoid challenging shot-blockers directly, but Rubio prefers to string out drives as long as possible for potential passes. It's a game of chicken with big men that Rubio navigates well, but the end results often look a lot like a car wreck.

But his offensive game has a yin and yang to it. Rubio isn’t a scorer and shows very little creativity around the rim, but it works in his favor as a distributor. Because defenders know they can give him plenty of space, Rubio’s passing windows are massive and usually pretty clean. He’s an artist with the ball working largely uninterrupted.

That's not to imply that Rubio isn’t capable of threading the needle or working in tight confines. No one can attest to Rubio's ability to fire in passes more than Kevin Love, who spent the past three seasons receiving the full attention of defenses and still finding wide-open layups because of Rubio’s vision.

With that said, it still feels like Rubio and Love were a missed connection. Rubio's seasons spent in Spain and the injuries to both players sapped up valuable time together, and when the two really began to click (Minnesota was ninth in offensive efficiency last season), it was still too late.

There’s reason to be optimistic about Rubio’s development offensively, though, even with the loss of a player with the vacuum effect of Love.

The Timberwolves had a 112.5 offensive rating when Rubio was on the court last season, which would have been the league’s best had he been able to play every minute.

Even though he can’t finish and he’s shooting blind on his jumper (31.6, 31.9, 30.1 percent in his first three seasons), Rubio has shown he can run a highly effective offense with his other senses, so long as there’s talent around him.

On defense:
For all the space his opponents grant him offensively, Rubio isn’t very gracious in return. He crowds ball handlers, making point guards turn multiple times just to get the ball upcourt. He pokes and prods, moves his feet laterally incredibly well and generally has the annoying disposition you want from your guards defensively. It is decidedly not fun to play against Rubio, which is a major asset in a league swimming in scoring point guards.

Even though his value comes almost solely as a perimeter defender, Rubio can pinch down a bit on the defensive glass and help out, which should come in handy with Love gone.

But Love's departure is not all bad news. Thaddeus Young is a big upgrade on defense, and his mobility and rim protection should let Rubio gamble a little more on the perimeter for steals in an attempt to get a younger, more athletic Wolves team out in transition. That’s a scary proposition, as Rubio already led the league in total steals last season.

Although steals is a dangerous stat to put too much stock into when evaluating defenders, it does provide insight on how capably he is playing passing lanes. Rubio is a great on-the-ball defender in the mold of Chris Paul -- his hands are lightning-quick, and he’s not afraid to take a bump. It speaks to Rubio’s effort and instincts that he’s been this effective despite his youth and a major knee injury.

Some may be sheepish to call Rubio elite on this end since he’s not an overwhelming athlete, but he’s truly been one of the best backcourt defenders in the league. According to ESPN.com, Rubio finished second among all point guards and fifth among all guards in defensive real plus-minus last season. He’s a difference-maker, particularly because he can wear down opponents over the course of a game.


LATER


As is, Rubio is essentially a specialist -- a pass-and-harass point guard.

Those players certainly have value, but having a backcourt who that can’t shoot almost mandates multiple stretch big men in the starting lineup, which can put pressure on a team that isn’t title-ready to perhaps value need over talent when filling the rest of the roster.

That’s something Minnesota will need to consider when negotiating Rubio's next deal, but you’re still paying for potential here. Even though there hasn’t been much foreshadowing in this regard, Rubio could become a much more reliable shooter. Jason Kidd shot over 35 percent from deep in just two of his first 10 seasons, after all, and the 23-year-old Rubio certainly has plenty of room for improvement.

With Minnesota mainstays Love and Rick Adelman gone, Rubio’s evolution this season should be watched with a careful eye. Losing such a well-rounded scorer and brilliant offensive mind obviously hurts, but the added athleticism on the roster will allow Rubio to work on a vertical plane as a passer -- something he’s been able to flirt with only temporarily in the past.

At least for the time being, this is Rubio’s team. Failed contract negotiations or the development of Andrew Wiggins could challenge that eventually, but Rubio will have more opportunity and responsibility than ever before.

It’s hard to predict what Rubio will do with that. His skills are very black-and-white, and his career thus far has existed largely in the gray. He’s simultaneously met expectations and disappointed as well.

But it’s easy to forget that what drew so many to Rubio in the first place can’t be taught or acquired. His vision is a rare and undeniable gift, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll squander it forever by failing to supplement it with more refined skill and scoring, even if he doesn’t need to in order to survive.

D.J. Foster is a contributor to ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network. Follow him, @fosterdj. All stats via NBA.com, basketball-reference.com or ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

Then & Now & Later: Anthony Davis

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
9:30
AM ET
By D.J. Foster
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
DavisGetty ImagesIn just two seasons, Anthony Davis has already become one of the NBA's most dominant players.
"Then & Now & Later" is a scouting profile series that analyzes the perception, development and future potential of young players in the NBA. Up first is New Orleans Pelicans big man and Team USA star Anthony Davis.

THEN


When he entered the 2012 draft after one season at Kentucky, Anthony Davis was considered the undisputed first overall pick. Any concerns about the then-19-year-old seemed to exist primarily in the short term -- a lack of strength and the continued adjustment to a late growth spurt that moved him from the backcourt to the frontcourt.

There was some legitimacy to those worries, particularly in how they would affect his durability early in his NBA career, but it felt as though Davis was being examined through a lens that was a bit outdated.

Davis certainly wasn't the first player to be held to a standard created by players who dominated a previous era, but it almost always happens for athletes who approach 7-foot.

When a point guard comes into the league, for example, lacking the ability to run a pick-and-roll like John Stockton doesn't mean he isn't strong in that area. But when a big man doesn't have post moves like Hakeem Olajuwon, it's considered a weakness.

The supposed "death" of the great post player in today's NBA is the result of those unrealistic standards, combined with defenses getting quicker and smarter with how they help and collapse.

Truth is, the required skill set for frontcourt players is as wide ranging and nuanced as ever before, but where the emphasis is placed in the initial scouting process can lead to some bandied misconceptions.

Davis is a good example of that. When he first entered the league, he drew comparisons to a supercharged version of another wiry high draft pick: Marcus Camby.

Coincidentally, Camby was about 10 years ahead of his time as a mobile defender and high-post operator, but he spent most of his career underappreciated because of what he wasn't -- a big, dominant low-post scorer like Shaq or Hakeem.

With Camby considered his worst-case comparison, you can understand how high the initial expectations were for Davis upon his arrival in New Orleans. Greatness would be a disappointment. He'd have to be transcendent.


NOW


On offense:
How good has Davis been? Only Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, David Robinson and Bob Pettit recorded a higher PER in their second seasons. No player in NBA history has ever posted a higher PER (26.5) at a younger age (20).

The rise in production from Davis’ rookie campaign (13.5 points a game) to his second season (20.8 points a game) wasn't the result of a major increase in strength or change of body type like you might expect, but instead an improved level of skill.

That was most evident in Davis' expanded shooting range. As a rookie, the Pelicans big man hit just 25 percent of his attempts from beyond 16 feet. In his second season, that number skyrocketed to 36.2 percent.

While there's room for further improvement, calling Davis "raw" offensively at this stage is a serious misnomer. You can understand why some might reach that conclusion, as Davis is all limbs and often looks awkward when on the attack. It's almost disorienting to see someone so long and so athletic lunge toward the rim in such an unconventional manner, but Davis' soft touch is his saving grace.

There's a lot of subtle skill present here that often gets overlooked because of the highlights and freakish displays of athleticism, and it doesn't help that Davis was on national television only once in a blue moon before his Team USA appearances.

Whether it's nature (shying away from contact because of his frame) or nurture (moving quickly to avoid collapsing defenders), Davis has a quick and efficient face-up game. His pet move in that setting is an invasive jab step accompanied by a show of the ball, which is all it usually takes to scare his defender into taking a step back to defend against a potential drive. From there, Davis brings the ball and his foot back home in one smooth motion to fire a perfectly squared-up jumper.

It's not a "Dream shake," of course, but Davis doesn't have the luxury of playing on an island. With the lack of perimeter threats next to him in New Orleans, he's been wise to operate in a phone booth instead of inviting the help defense with long backdowns or multiple dribble moves.

That's part of the reason Davis is so dangerous in transition and the pick-and-roll, for which defenses can't load up as much. He has the kind of catch radius that allows ball handlers to just fling it up in his general direction on lobs, and he's so fast that a hard roll down the middle can gut a defense and create wide-open opportunities.

Because defenses want to prevent giving up dunks and open 3s as much as possible, it’s been a popular technique to "ice" pick-and-rolls Davis is involved in, neutering his roll and turning him into a decision-maker and shooter at 19 feet instead of a detonator at the rim.

In his first two seasons, Davis has only really functioned as a finisher, as his 1.6 assists per game last season is awfully low given his usage rate and the increasing demand on power forwards to act as secondary distributors in the half court.

Despite that, Davis has displayed some good patience in timing his rolls and pops, leaving clear windows for his guards to deliver him the ball. His ballhandling coming out of college was definitely oversold, but his overall offensive instincts are pretty special.

On defense:
Here's where Davis is probably overrated -- a likely result of the attempt to align his rise to stardom with his initially perceived strengths.

That's not to say Davis isn't elite in a few areas defensively. He might be the league's best shot-blocker, avoiding contact to get up and swat shots well after they're released. His rebounding is equally cartoonish, as Davis unfurls his long arms to grab caroms at unfair altitudes.

Ironically enough, though, this is the side of the floor at which Davis actually can be considered raw. His positioning, as should be expected from an under-21 frontcourt player playing with new personnel every few weeks, has often been shaky.

Davis has a habit of hanging with ball handlers far too long when defending the pick-and-roll, even once his man has recovered from the initial screen. That leaves him susceptible to big men who pop, even if Davis can often contest jumpers he has no business of getting to. Despite that, Davis is susceptible to getting caught in no-man's land quite a bit and playing too upright when he should be making himself wider defensively.

He has the instincts, motor and tools to be a truly elite rim protector and defensive anchor, but opposing offenses have been wise thus far to pull him away from the paint and attack just about everyone else on the roster. With a strong pick-and-roll defender and rim protector in Omer Asik joining Davis next season, though, defenses should no longer have as many alternative paths to the rim.

According to NBA.com's player tracking, Davis allowed opponents to shoot 48.9 percent at the rim last season -- 14th out of 42 players who defended more than 6.5 attempts at the rim per game. Asik, meanwhile, allowed opponents to shoot just 47.7 percent last season with the Houston Rockets.

In Davis' first two seasons, the Pelicans have largely mirrored his frontcourt partner in terms of defensive output. When he shared the floor with a solid defender in Robin Lopez (1,043 minutes in 2012-13), the Pelicans sported a defensive rating of 104.9. But when the Pelicans went smaller with stretch 4 Ryan Anderson next to Davis, the Pelicans were torched for defensive ratings of 115 (697 minutes in 2012-13) and 109.4 (324 minutes last season).

The defensive combo of Asik and Davis should be one of the league’s toughest to crack, and the return of point guard Jrue Holiday will help as well. At the very least, there's plenty of room for improvement, as the Pelicans finished 27th in defensive efficiency last season and 28th the season before.

There needs to be further individual growth from Davis, however, despite leading the league in blocks last season. His Defensive Real Plus/Minus of just plus-0.78 ranked 40th among power forwards last season, so it's fair to say he's nowhere near his peak defensively.


LATER


It’s a testament to Davis' talent level that he's been so productive on an individual level despite such a potentially harmful environment for a young player.

Big men are often molded and defined by how they mesh with their frontcourt partner defensively and their point guard in the pick-and-roll, but because of injuries, Davis hasn't had the chance to build real chemistry with anyone.

Think about it: Davis is entering his third season with a point guard he's played next to for 752 total minutes (Holiday) and a center he's never shared the floor with (Asik). The only real constant has been head coach Monty Williams, who might not be doing Davis many favors by insisting on playing at such a methodical pace.

Ideally, you'd like to see Davis unleashed as a clear-cut No. 1 option. Tyreke Evans used a higher percentage of possessions last season for New Orleans, and Davis ranked just 31st in the entire league in usage percentage. That's just too low, especially since only nine of the players in the league who had higher usage rates than Davis also sported higher true shooting percentages. It would be different if he wasn't scoring effectively, but that's not the case.

At just 21 years old, Davis probably isn't close to his final form yet, which is a terrifying prospect for the other 29 teams in the league. It wouldn't be a surprise if he took "the leap" sooner rather than later.

The third season is when it all came together for Amar'e Stoudemire, who was named to the All-NBA second team, placed in the top 10 in MVP votes and went supernova for the Phoenix Suns in the 2004-05 playoffs, averaging 30 points and 11 rebounds.

Ditto for Chris Bosh, who was also named to the All-NBA second team and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting in his third season.

If Davis and his shooting percentages follow a similar path, and if the Pelicans finally get it together around him, Davis could be in store for an offensive explosion and a potential MVP-caliber season.



It’s exciting to think about what Davis can become over the next few months, let alone the next few years.

He’s already begun to check off so many essential boxes for what teams covet from their frontcourts -- rim protection, rebounding, mobility, spacing -- that it feels like everything else he adds from here is just icing on the cake. Corner 3s? Beautiful high-post passing? Leading the break?

Like everything seems to be for Davis, it’s all easily within reach.

D.J. Foster is a contributor to ESPN.com, Bleacher Report and ClipperBlog. Follow him, @fosterdj.

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