Two years after the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted him fifth overall, it appears Ricky Rubio is headed for the NBA. Now comes the more important question: Can Rubio play? Precocious talent made Rubio a lottery pick, but his disappointing 2010-11 campaign for FC Barcelona renewed doubts about Rubio's unique skill set.
While Rubio may be a mystery to most American fans, he already has a long track record of performance as a professional in Europe. In "Pro Basketball Prospectus 2010-11," we found that the Euroleague ranks second only to the NBA in terms of level of play -- higher than even the toughest NCAA competition.
The same method used to compare leagues serves as the foundation for translating Euroleague statistics to their NBA equivalents, a method very similar to the one used by ESPN Insider's John Hollinger in the past. Based on the track record of nearly 50 players who have crossed the pond in both directions, we know that players coming from the Euroleague to the NBA tend to see their steal rates and usage decline dramatically. But because of stingy European scorers (or their generous American counterparts), they actually tend to increase their assists.
Combining Rubio's translated performance the past two seasons with the average development of players at the same age, and assuming he plays the same 30.4 minutes per game that Timberwolves starter Luke Ridnour played last season, Rubio projects to have the following stat line:
8.9 points per game
4.6 rebounds per game
7.3 assists per game
1.8 steals per game
For a rookie point guard who will turn 21 just before the season, those would be excellent numbers. Rubio is unlikely to be effective as a scorer -- Ridnour averaged 11.8 points in the same minutes -- but this projection would put him just outside the league's top 10 in assists per game and comfortably in the top 10 in steals.
What Rubio's conventional stats fail to do justice to is just how extreme the strengths and weaknesses of his game truly are. For that, we need to dig into some more advanced stats:
What Ricky Rubio's numbers project to look like in his rookie NBA season.
2P% 3P% FT% TS% Reb% Ast% Stl% Usg TO%
.358 .267 .886 .493 .084 .104 .026 .167 .224
The biggest weakness of Rubio's game isn't hard to spot: He struggles to shoot the basketball, at least when confronted by defenders (though Rubio is an excellent free throw shooter). Turning to a more conventional number, Rubio is projected to shoot 31.7 percent from the field. Just two players in the last four decades have shot so poorly in a season with at least 250 attempts: uber-bust Nikoloz Tskitishvili and journeyman Erick Strickland.
Rubio's 3-point shot was showing signs of improvement before this season, when he cratered to 22.4 percent (11-of-49) from beyond the arc in Euroleague play. Not coincidentally, this marked the first year FIBA moved the international line back to 22 feet, 2 inches from its previous distance of 20 feet, 6 inches. In time, Rubio may grow into a capable 3-point shooter from the NBA line (23 feet, 9 inches). But finishing inside the arc has been a more persistent foe. Only one NBA regular (Steve Blake of the L.A. Lakers, at 32.7 percent) shot as poorly on 2s in 2010-11 as Rubio's projection.
Turnovers also figure to be a problem for Rubio as a rookie. It is possible to succeed while turning the ball over on more than 22 percent of your possessions -- Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo all fell into that category this season -- but Rubio's decision-making is still a work in progress.
So if he can't shoot and turns the ball over, why is Rubio worth the trouble? The answer lies in the rest of his stat line, where Rubio excels. Once we account for European scoring, Rubio's vaunted court vision is easily evident. Just 11 point guards handed out an assist on at least 10 percent of their teams' plays in 2010-11. Eight of the 11 have been All-Stars at some point, and the others are career starters.
Reviews of Rubio's individual defense are mixed, but there's no questioning his abilities as a thief. Rubio's translated steal rate would put him just outside the league's top 10. Rubio will also help the Timberwolves on the glass, where he hasn't gotten enough credit. If he indeed grabs 8.4 percent of all available rebounds, as his translation indicates, Rubio would lead all point guards. The Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook was tops in rebounding from the point guard spot in 2010-11, grabbing 7.7 percent of available rebounds.
Based on Rubio's Euroleague performance, he should be able to help Minnesota as a rookie by upgrading a position that was a major weakness in 2010-11. Ridnour was stretched playing 30 minutes a night, especially defensively, and Jonny Flynn proved a terrible fit for coach Kurt Rambis' triangle offense. A Rubio-Ridnour combination would be much more effective.
Rubio remains an unfinished project. To live up to the expectations of greatness, he must substantially improve his shooting and continue to develop his ballhandling. That's where his Spanish track record is more troublesome. The notion that Rubio took a step backward this past season appears overstated statistically. Besides the drop in 3-point shooting, his Euroleague statistics suggest the biggest change in his game was that he had the ball in his hands less frequently in Barcelona's unfriendly offense. Granting that, Rubio has failed to make as much progress as expected in the two years since he was drafted. He is largely the same player, yet without the same benefit of youth.
That's why, as Chad Ford wrote last week, the time is right for Rubio to come to the NBA. Given all the Timberwolves have invested in Rubio, the team must aid his development by putting him in an offense that plays to his strengths, with transition opportunities and regular pick-and-rolls.
If Minnesota does that, Rubio may well prove worth the wait.