Ricky Rubio got a hero’s welcome in Minnesota before playing a single NBA game, and fans there are giddy about him running the high-octane Wolves, a giddiness based in large part on YouTube videos and breathless commentary about those YouTube videos. And so there is a bit of understandable fretting going on as Rubio struggles to do much of anything, at least by the numbers, in EuroBasket. Sean Deveney of The Sporting News sums up Rubio’s work through three games (all wins for Spain, the heavy favorite):
Against Britain [on Friday], Rubio was 2-for-5 from the field with four points and four assists. He was 0-for-2 from the 3-point line and has now missed all seven perimeter shots he has taken in the tournament. He is averaging 3.0 points and 2.0 assists so far, and is shooting just 28.6 percent from the field.
As Deveney notes, Rubio shot just 31 percent from the floor in 20 EuroLeague games with Regal Barcelona last season, so his awful shooting numbers so far in EuroBasket aren’t totally out of line with what we’d expect. His lack of assists and rebounds — he should develop into a solid rebounding point guard — are a bit more disturbing, but the fact remains that it’s very, very difficult to help your team when you’re shooting below 40 percent from the floor. Rajon Rondo can’t hit outside shots consistently enough to earn the respect of any NBA defense, but he shoots close to 50 percent from the floor every season, because he can at least finish at the rim and from the floater range. Rubio isn’t there yet, and his shaky perimeter shooting is going to muck up Minnesota’s spacing next year.
But we knew that. We expected some poor shooting from Rubio in EuroBasket. The low number of assists and general lack of any positive statistics all are what have people worried. That worry is justified, but let’s temper it a bit with this: Spain, for the most part, is using Rubio as a caretaker and nothing more. They are not handing the ball to Rubio in the half court and asking him to create — at least not on a majority of their possessions. They are not running an offense that depends on pick-and-rolls at the top of the three-point arc.
Rubio is exciting, but Spain still runs things through the Gasols, Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez. The bulk of Spain’s plays so far have focused on feeding the interior or running Navarro and Fernandez off screens along the baseline. On those possessions, Rubio might start with the ball in his hands, but his job is to dribble in place at the top of the arc for a few seconds and pass off at the right moment to a cutter. There is skill in that, and Rubio’s timing is great, but Minnesota fans do not want a caretaker who gets out of the way and leaves the end-of-possession facilitating to someone else.
The good news is this: When Spain has gotten out in transition, Rubio’s passing has been as advertised. He can toss pinpoint 75-foot outlet passes and run an effective 3-on-2. And when the half-court sets described above don’t produce a good look at first, the ball often ends up back in Rubio’s hands, and it is in those situations where you can see Rubio’s vision and skill. He’ll toss a skip pass a beat before the average point guard would be ready to throw it, and he’s already quite good at driving into the lane, drawing defenders and finding guys at unpredictable angles. If a simple drop-off pass to a guy near the rim isn’t available, Rubio is really good at hitting targets directly behind him on the perimeter or at diagonal angles that aren’t obvious, even to viewers watching on TV.
This stuff is there. It’s just not a major part of Spain’s offense in this tournament, at least not yet. Rubio (and Jose Calderon, the starter) can only run the plays Spain’s coaching staff calls, and those plays don’t lean on Rubio as a featured player. Things would probably be different if Rubio were a better shooter or finisher, so this is not a “blame the coaches!” thing. Rubio isn’t as good yet as the hype, but he’s better than his EuroBasket numbers would suggest.