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Rubio's scoring struggles continue

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Three assists, four steals and five rebounds off the bench against Germany on Wednesday. Not bad.

Zero points? Not so great.

Ricky Rubio acknowledged that the only statistic that truly counted was to be found in Spain's win column at EuroBasket. But the soon-to-be Minnesota Timberwolves point guard has failed to find any solution for his shooting woes since arriving in Lithuania. Lately, his lack of scoring has become an expectation rather than an aberration.

Through seven games, Rubio is averaging just 1.6 points in 17 minutes per game. He's taken just nine 3-point attempts and converted none. Such struggles became familiar sights last season to fans of FC Barcelona and elsewhere in Europe, where the 20-year-old lost his starting spot in the rotation and became stuck, hopelessly, in an offensive mire.

The precociousness is still there: the behind-the-back passes, the clever fakes and the long arms that soak up steals. However, some think that the talent that the Wolves thought they were getting when they took the Spaniard with the No. 5 pick in the 2009 draft appears to have stagnated.

Dobbs I would like to have seen more of an improvement, more of a difference than he has made.

-- Spain forward Pau Gasol on Rubio

"I would like to have seen more of an improvement, more of a difference than he has made," Pau Gasol said.

The Los Angeles Lakers forward, like many of his international teammates, remains an admirer, but it has been obvious that opposing players no longer view Rubio as a credible long-range threat. Given room to shoot, he has passed up on repeated opportunities. Rival teams are guarding his passes, not his forays to the basket.

The toils are not a result of a lack of application, according to team sources at FC Barcelona. Rubio can often be found in the gym, shooting ball after ball under the supervision of specialist coaches. In practice sessions in Lithuania, he is often first on court and last to leave. To no obvious avail.

"There just seems to be something mentally that they're battling with," observed one NBA scout, speaking to ESPN.com in Vilnius on condition of anonymity. "Mechanically, it's like he's trying to have a really compact shot that's almost a set shot. I'm OK with that. But he doesn't look comfortable, and that's going to add to the mental side."

Shooting comes down to confidence. What better way to instill that than to see the ball go through the hoop?

"The only way your shot is going in is if your mechanics are good," the scout said. "It's a small circle you have to repeat. Right now, I think his mechanics are in question, which is leading to confidence problems."

Spain's coaching staff and other players make no attempt to disguise Rubio's current fallibilities. They point to his ability to run the break, the court vision to find the elaborate interior pass and the athleticism and speed that will make him much more of an instant defensive presence in the NBA than many other European arrivals in recent times.

The defending European champions have more than enough firepower as it stands.

"We have great 3-point shooters on this team right now," said Toronto Raptors guard Jose Calderon. "All of us can do that so it doesn't matter."

Yet Rubio would not be working so hard to find answers if there were no problem.

Those who have followed his career recalled the excitement generated when his mop of black hair first emerged in Spain's ACB league at the tender age of 14, drawing comparisons to Pete Maravich and Steve Nash. As word spread, NBA personnel began to appear at the games of his first club, Joventut Badalona. The question was not whether he would succeed but just how good he could become.

"His progress was incredible until he was 19," said Barcelona-based basketball broadcaster Ernest Macia, "but it has suddenly stopped."

Or even regressed, he added, which could make Rubio's rookie year in the NBA more problematic than he imagined.

"Directing traffic, he's fantastic," Macia said, "but he cannot intimidate opponents with that shot. It limits his natural talent. Last year in the domestic league, he only made 23 percent of his 3-pointers. It was so poor for a guy who had so many expectations on him.

"He's very conscious of his limitations and that's probably why his confidence has gone down. He's been working with experts, but he knows it will take time for him to make the changes unconsciously."

Spain, which goes head-to-head with France Sunday in its attempt to repeat as Euro champion, will keep faith in Rubio, using him as Calderon's backup and trusting that he can deliver. In a tight fourth quarter against Germany, Rubio contributed two decisive plays down the stretch, including a steal that swung the game and clinched a 77-68 victory.

Speaking afterwards, he was satisfied with his contribution.

"A player knows which part of his game is best and which are his strengths," Rubio said. "Sometimes you have to put these things at the team's disposal to win the game, and that's what I do.

"We have very good scorers on the team, like [Juan Carlos] Navarro, like Pau Gasol. They can score in many ways. Sometimes they need a guy who will pass the ball to them. I try to do my job, what I do best, and play defense and make the team better."

Scoring struggles apart, Spain values what he brings. Minnesota hopes that, in time, there is even more potential to be unlocked.

Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, U.K., whose work appears regularly in British publications.