Ricky Rubio, a candidate to become the most gifted passer in European basketball history, has fooled the Real Madrid defense again. They're protecting against the drive -- he is clever enough to beat his defender with the dribble -- but he spots his big man, Jerome Moiso, making a move that would be called offside in soccer; Moiso's cutting behind everyone and making his way for the hoop.
Rubio lets the lob fly -- an arcing ball, hoping to find his DKV Joventut teammate. The stadium holds its breath. If you buy a ticket to see Rubio, you are waiting for moments like this.
Alas, it's not to be. Whether the pass is a little short, or Moiso's arms are, it's no matter -- the defense gets their first.
It wouldn't be the last time. In this game, just last week, Rubio and Moiso -- a good player despite having neither the hang time nor the hands of the NBA's best big men -- coordinated in this precise way to create four turnovers.
Scouts gush about Rubio's ability to pass. At finishing, however, all agree there is work to be done.
(Photo by Vincent West/EB via Getty Images)
Rubio had other turnovers, including a carry and a couple more failed lobs.
Some people say Rubio is like Jason Kidd. And it's true! Jason Kidd and Ricky Rubio both attempt lots of tough passes, and therefore they are both always among the league leades in turnovers.
It's nothing at all if you consider this is an 18-year-old playing well in one of the top leagues in the world, against players six and seven years his senior. The right answer is to smile at his uncommon vision and willingness to pass and assume the execution will improve with age, teammates, and NBA floor spacing.
Making the right pass is all about getting perfect balance between boldness and caution. Think about how teenagers drive. Is there any chance he'd have this down at age 18?
Check back with us in two or three years, when these are all dunks.
In talking to a dozen basketball insiders on two continents (agents, front-office personnel, scouts, trainers) every single person would love to have Rubio on their team immediately. But everyone also cautions that his current form is nowhere near complete, and almost certainly won't be ready to carry an NBA team right out of the box.
At DKV Joventut Badalona, Rubio plays for a team with low budget and crowds smaller than some Division II colleges (and, it's worth noting, with George Karl's son Coby, who can expect his cell phone to keep ringing with NBA people seeking scouting reports on his young teammate). In this setting, Rubio's five-plus turnover nights are unfortunate.
Under many NBA coaches -- always fearing for their high-paying jobs -- such nights would end ugly. One or two of those failed lobs could get Rubio to the bench faster than you can say "Sergio Rodriguez."
That's quadruply true for those running downtrodden NBA teams like the Clippers or Grizzlies, who could find themselves counting on Rubio to save the franchise and their jobs for owners eager for results.
That kind of offensive inefficiency can get NBA coaches fired. On the other hand, high lottery picks who can't get on the floor can get GMs fired.
You see the conundrum here?
The people around Ricky Rubio are eager for him to end up with an NBA team with a long-term plan in place. Stable ownership, good coaching staff, and opportunities to play without the pressure to produce immediately. The people around Ricky Rubio are smart -- because bright though his star may shine, Rubio is like one of those wines that you purchase now, but wait a few years before enjoying.
Driving home from the draft lottery late Tuesday I was a little overwhelmed by one thought:
I don't know enough about Ricky Rubio.
I must have heard 100 smart people sing his praises that night.
He's the one player with real buzz. A guard who is almost unassailed as the second best prospect in the 2009 NBA draft.
But what does he do? What are his NBA skills? On what basis do we believe he's a truly special basketball player? Is he really good enough that he can be picked high without even working out against his contemporaries? What could I see Ricky Rubio do that would make clear how it is he's a better bet than Brandon Jennings, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Jonny Flynn, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, Patrick Mills, Nick Calathes, Eric Maynor, Sergio Llull, A.J. Price, Nando de Colo and the like?
At the lottery, everybody said the same admiring things about his feel for the game, handle, vision, leadership ... but sometimes these ideas leap from mind to mind without ever touching ground. I found myself looking around the room and wondering: How much have you even seen Rubio play? What kind of vetting has he had?
Ricky Rubio will turn 19 in October. He has missed all kinds of games with injuries. He has played his entire early career in Spain. Almost everyone who makes the big decisions for NBA teams lives in the U.S. He has not done draft workouts.
There are limits to how many NBA people could really know his game well.
The basic public dossier, which is long on good news:
- In August 2006, Rubio led Spain to an under-16 European championship with an insane (51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists, seven steals) double-overtime performance.
- He has led a small-budget Spanish team to the title in the world's third-toughest league, and a ULEB Cup, while playing the toughest position on the floor against grown men, many with NCAA or better experience.
- YouTube proves he can make amazing passes.
- He played 28 minutes against Team USA in the Olympic gold medal game, finishing with some memorable defensive plays to go with six points (one of three from the field, four of four from the line), six rebounds, three assists, three steals, and two turnovers.
- He is committed to defense, active, long and he leads his league in steals.
- He's listed at 6-4, which is good size for a point guard in any league.
To the Video: Always Thinking
Synergy Sports' video scouting service has a setting that lets you watch every assist, or pass that could have been an assist, all in a row. As of this moment that file is 164 plays long, and it's magic.
If you had a sports bar, you could just play this video on a big screen TV around the clock, and your customers would be happy. It's blatantly greatness at work. And in that sports bar, every few minutes some drunk guy would point at the screen and say: He's 18!
And that drunk guy would be right, unless it was one of the older clips when he was only 17.
When Rubio has the ball, something sizzling and unexpe
cted could happen at any time, and it often does. He not only makes passes that make you say "wow" but he also does everything imaginable to cleverly get teammates open and then deliver them the ball. He catches defenders snoozing. He beats his man and gets into the paint, and once he gets there, the ball could be going one-handed to the far corner, gently lobbed at the rim for the big man, shoveled at the last instant to an open teammate, or anything else.
One basketball insider says that when there is a fast break, he just about always knows where the ball is going to go. Unless it's a Rubio break, in which case he sees dunks and layups for teammates that are simply not evident earlier in the play. That's vision.
Also worth noting from those highlights: The Joventut big men running their asses off. They know they'll get the ball, thanks to Rubio. Getting big men out on the break is an important skill.Sometimes 18-year-old prospects don't have any skills that are truly NBA ready. Not a problem here. He has elite ideas about what to do with the ball.
He also has an elite ability to think through the game when he does not have the ball. Thanks to extraordinary anticipation, he's a persistent threat to pick off the ball on defense ... he's constantly out-thinking savvy opponents, closing angles, cutting off passing lanes, and anticipating what could be coming. He has uncanny ability to strip the ball without fouling.
Be a Finisher
Rubio is normally projected as the dream point guard to run a fast-breaking NBA team. I watched play after play of Rubio running the break. Very often it ends nicely with an assist, as described above. But when it does not, it's trouble. Here is a real sequence of what happens when he does not get an assist: Made layup, miss, fouled, made layup, turnover, turnover, turnover, made floater, fouled, miss, turnover, turnover, made layup, turnover.
His best passes are top-grade, but his finishing approaching the rim is not ready for primetime, despite his handle and size. He made 42% of his 3s in the ACB this year, which is tremendous and a big improvement for a player with a reputation as a bad shooter. He can beat his man at will. But inside the arc he made only about three of eight shots per 40 minutes. In five EuroCup games, his effective field goal percentage (regular field goal percentage, plus an extra half a point for 3s) was 35%.
Most of his offense for Joventut has been as the ball-handler in the pick and roll. Again, this generates tons of great assists. But when there is no assist to be had, a typical sequence goes like this: Made floater, missed layup, missed 3, turnover, missed mid-range jumper, airballed 3, turnover, made layup, turnover, made layup, missed 3, missed 3, fouled, missed flip shot, made layup after a fantastic crossover, blocked shot turnover, fouled on the perimeter.
You get the idea. At age 18, natural though he may be as a passer, he is far less so as a bucket-getter, despite a size advantage that will dissipate somewhat in the NBA. Like his turnovers, this need not inform his long-term potential. But it's a near-term weakness that NBA defenses will exploit. It would only be fair to give Rubio a year or two to evolve.
I can't find a single NBA scout or front-office person who is worried about his inability to finish -- his age is more than a good enough excuse. Also helping his cause, he gets to the line like, and makes free throws nicely. He also has that improving 3-point shot.
But it's worth noting that in the NBA, this kind of production tends to get you benched, or your coach fired.
An OK Athlete
One of the most obvious concerns about Rubio is that he does not appear to be as strong as most NBA players. He's not as strong as many of his current opponents, in fact. But in the ACB -- a very good league -- it's almost entirely mitigated by his mind: He's always trying something.
Also, the NBA has a spotty record on helping players develop fine skills. But one thing nearly every team knows how to do is add muscle.
Another thing worth noting: An NBA fast break is a very fast thing indeed. And while Rubio is athletic enough, many of the NBA point guards he'll face are among the fastest men on the planet, and outright speed will never be Rubio's best asset. When you play a DKV Joventut fast break in slow motion, you don't see that one body moving faster than the others. His speed advantage is really more related to better anticipation and general craftiness.
That's no death sentence: It's also true of, for instance, Steve Nash, who is a two-time MVP mainly for his work running the fast break. But it's something that Nash overcomes it with the most amazing balance, hand/eye coordination, vision and pure shooting skill in the NBA. Rubio is bigger and has a different set of skills -- certainly he could find his own way through. But he's certainly not like some other prospects -- Lawson, Mills and the like -- who can count on leaving defenders behind at will. That trims his margin of error somewhat.
A Long-Term Play
There are lots of ways to go wrong with a very talented young player. Play him, and you risk messing with the confidence that makes him great. Long minutes, right out of the gate, could, in a nightmare scenario, create turnovers, missed shots, booing crowds, fired coaches, bitter teammates and all that kind of stuff. Few owners, fan-bases and coaches have the patience to see the big picture if he spends a few years getting acclimated.
Unlike the vast majority of point guard prospects in this draft, Rubio has been given the opportunity to run a team. He can make mistakes without getting benched. He has the keys to the car. (When you judge his body of work on YouTube, that's a big factor. If Rubio gets to try 15 crazy passes a game, he'll end up with five great highlights.) In many respects, this is a blessing: He has had court time.
But on the other hand, it could make sense for him to play on a team that doesn't need a starting point guard immediately. Will he be OK with that? Is playing time on the list of concerns -- along with good ownership and a strong market -- that could push Rubio to consider returning for an extra year in Spain?
One NBA front office executive suggests Rubio would be blessed to land on a team with an aging veteran like Nash or Kidd, -- he'd get to play understudy, and the wins would keep coming to keep the fans, owners, coaches and media happy.
There is a saying that everybody wants to make a quick nickel, instead of the slow dime.
The NBA is a short-term business, especially on the kinds of bad teams that get high lottery picks. For the most part, teams that have won their last game are considered to be on the right track, while teams that have just lost are doing things wrong.
A prospect like Rubio is a special test case in patience. His extraordinary youth, supreme gifts, demonstrable professionalism and potential to be a game-changer come with a grab bag of identifiable shortcomings at the position with the most demanding responsibilities.
What he will be this year might not justify the hype and his high draft position. What he might be in a few years could make him look li
ke a steal.
We can only hope he lands on a team that embraces with the pace, and potential, of his evolution.