A lot is happening in the life of Ricky Rubio. The Timberwolves point guard is entering his fourth season in the NBA, and the first without head coach Rick Adelman and sidekick power forward Kevin Love. Replacing Love are players who’re more athletic but less skilled and far less developed. The new narrative surrounding the team has naturally cast Ricky as its next leader.
But the story is more complicated than one young man’s ascension to leadership.
Rubio and his agent Dan Fegan are in a stage of negotiations for a contract extension with the Wolves; the deadline is October 31st. If they don’t strike a deal, Ricky will play this season knowing he will become a (restricted) free agent, next summer.
On top of that off-court distraction, his jump-shooting struggles warranted the hiring of a special shooting coach.
And perhaps most importantly, all of this is happening in the wake of a franchise crossroads where — largely out of necessity — the team is rebuilding around youth instead of seriously competing for a playoff berth. Even though it seems natural that the Wolves will become Ricky Rubio’s team, it might not happen. Rubio was notably absent from the team’s offseason marketing campaign. How he fits into a fresh rebuild remains to be seen, and his future as a player is cloudier than many would have expected a short time ago.
Let’s begin with the “dots”; the issues and factors that surround Rubio as Timberwolves point guard, and then analyze how those dots could be connected for different purposes.
Rubio’s Contract Situation
First of all, Rubio will earn about $4.7 million this season. That much is certain.
The question is what about after this season. Rubio and the Timberwolves have less than three weeks to reach a deal, else they have to wait until next summer when he will be a restricted free agent. The latest report is that the Wolves have offered him the handsome sum of $48 million for a four-year contract. Rubio–almost certainly at the direction of his agent–is demanding a five-year “max” salary. The Wolves are unwilling to give him this deal right now, which almost every pundit agrees is beyond his market value.
This means that Rubio will probably play this upcoming season with an (effectively) expiring contract, and the knowledge that his performance on the court will go a long way in determining his financial and residential future.
Can Ricky Learn to Shoot?
For all of his strengths as a basketball player, Rubio is one of the league’s worst shooters. And the Wolves have taken notice.
Flip Saunders recently hired Mike Penberthy to serve as a special shooting coach. It is widely understood that the primary goal is to help Rubio improve as a shooter.
Before Friday’s preseason game at Target Center, I had an opportunity to observe Penberthy and Ricky on the court for a few minutes. In watching these two work together, the inescapable sports analogy that came to mind was the golfer on the driving range with his swing coach. Instead of warming up for the
round game and grooving his swing stroke, Rubio was taking advice and thinking about his mechanics.
Ricky made his fair share of shots — don’t get me wrong — and some of them had good form. But he was clearly thinking about technique during the session. Penberthy was instructing him on specific changes. Once, Penberthy stopped him to correct his footwork before catching to shoot, to improve his rhythm. Many other times, he pointed straight up, to encourage Ricky to shoot the ball higher, with more arc. The two had ongoing dialogue, suggesting to me that other tips were being communicated.
This session stood in stark contrast to Chase Budinger’s, which immediately followed. Budinger is a solid, but not special NBA shooter. Working with a regular assistant coach, he just caught passes and swished jumpers. There was no discussion and there was clearly no conscious thought going into each J. Every one had the same form and a high percentage of them swished through the net. Bud was just finding his groove before the game, the way that a golfer would with a seven iron before a tournament round.
Penberthy has said that he hopes to work with Rubio next summer, “twice a day for 100 days.” He also said, perhaps more importantly, that through his teaching Ricky will get worse before he gets better. That suggests that these instructional sessions will occur regularly throughout the season. It also says — quite explicitly — that we should not expect to see much improvement on this front, this season. At least not right away.
And hey, that makes sense. Steph Curry might be the greatest shooter ever, and his dad tells the story of how his son was so frustrated while learning to jump shoot that he nearly quit the game. So for Rubio, some short-term sacrifice might pay dividends in the long run.
Looking Forward…Emmanuel Mudiay & Next Year’s Draft
As a Wolves fan, it’s never too early to begin looking at possible futures. And I recently did just that.
Jeff Goodman of ESPN posted an early mock draft (Insider), and two things stuck out about his Timberwolves projection:
1) They were drafting very high (third) which suggests the Wolves will be very bad this year; and
2) They selected a point guard, Emmanuel Mudiay.
About the prediction, Goodman wrote:
The former SMU signee is set to play in China for the Guangdong Southern Tigers. Mudiay is a big, strong and athletic point guard who will likely put up impressive numbers because, frankly, the league isn’t all that good and he’ll be able to overwhelm opponents with his athleticism. Minnesota is hardly enamored with Ricky Rubio at the position — and he’s certainly not worth max money. Mudiay and Andrew Wiggins would be fun to watch.
Setting aside the Rubio comments for a moment, Mudiay is an interesting prospect.
The 6’5″ point guard currently ranks second on Chad Ford’s 2015 Big Board. Jonathan Givony’s too. Mudiay is billed as a physically imposing combo guard with high upside on both ends of the floor. After the Nike Hoop Summit in April, Draft Express noted that Mudiay, “continued to flash a knack for making plays in the two man game in the half court,” and “is certain to become a lockdown multi-positional defender.”
You won’t see Mudiay play college basketball this upcoming season, because he signed with a Chinese club after issues at his prep school cast doubt on his NCAA eligibility. (Read Andrew Sharp at Grantland for more on the absurdity of that.) But even if you won’t actually see him play, you will continue to hear his name in any discussion’s about next year’s draft, and its top prospects. By all accounts Mudiay is the real deal.
These different dots — the issues that presently surround Rubio — are connected in myriad ways.
Ask yourself these questions:
1) How do you expect the Timberwolves to do this season? How many wins, and what place in the standings.
2) What — if anything — does that team result say about about Ricky Rubio’s value as a player?
3) Do you believe Rubio is an x-factor in this season’s outcome? By that I mean, do you think his performance has a wide range of possibilities that bear significantly on the team’s success or failure?
4) If you believe that Ricky is an x-factor, what part of his game — if improved — would lead the Wolves to exceed your preseason expectations?
5) (Assuming Rubio does not sign an extension before the season) If the Wolves have a poor season and draft in the upper half of the lottery, should they consider drafting a point guard?
People will answer those questions differently, no doubt. And Answers 2 through 5 are dependent on Answer 1. Consider this:
In case you didn’t know, that is bad. If the Wolves win 26 or 27 games this year, it’ll place them somewhere between 24th and 27th in the NBA, out of 30 teams.
That is the gamblers’ prediction, despite the fact that Thad Young is projected by some metrics to be the league’s 7th-best power forward, and the Nikola Pekovic-Gorgui Dieng combo would certainly rank among the league’s upper tier of center duos. On the wing the Wolves are shakier and their best player is a rookie, but he is also a highly-touted Number One Overall Pick, rookie. The non-point guard positions on this team are not that weak.
Now let’s say that the Wolves disappoint just a little bit compared to the expert prediction, and let’s say that they win 23 or 24 games. To borrow my dad’s favorite negative adjective/metaphor, that’s just horse shit.
If the Wolves barely win a fourth of their games, despite having a strong front court, then the odds that they commit $40 or $50 Million to Ricky Rubio inevitably drop, and the odds that they draft a stud point guard prospect inevitably rise. You already know that they’re not drafting to replace Wiggins on the wing.
In this not-unrealistic hypothetical, Rubio probably turned in a disappointing season where he shot the ball very poorly.
WITH ALL OF THAT SAID:
I’m not trying to sound pessimistic here, because I am not the one who predicts 26 (or slightly less) wins for the Wolves. Personally, I believe that they’ll win about 30 games. I expect some improvement from Rubio because he will play more off of ball screens with fewer wing and high-post entry passes to start the offense. More dribbling and creating shots for teammates should mean a better Ricky Rubio. Despite the talent drop from Love to Young, I think the Wolves will look competitive most nights, particularly when Wiggins and Brewer shoot well from the perimeter.
But despite my optimism relative to Vegas, I also believe that Rubio is taking a dangerous career gamble by not accepting the $48 Million. If the Wolves play how the experts expect them to, it almost automatically means that he is worth less than that amount of money; possibly a lot less. It also means that his current team will be in position to draft an exciting replacement, on a rookie-scale contract, who would logically fit more in line with a traditional “Thunder Model” rebuild better than he does at this stage of his career.
I cannot fault the Wolves front office. They are reportedly putting a significant, but not unreasonable amount of money on the table. Combined with the Penberthy hire and long-view approach to Rubio’s shooting, they are putting their best foot forward in the handling of the current franchise player. And if Rubio signed that extension tomorrow, I’d be thrilled. With a deep commitment from his franchise — like the Wolves are showing right now — I think that Rubio would prove to be worth the salary he is being offered.
But I also can’t ignore the negative, realistic, possible outcome where he isn’t worth it. In that case, his agent will have monumentally redirected the trajectory of his career for the worse. Instead of handcuffing himself to Andrew Wiggins and a suitcase with $50 Million in it, there is a strong chance that he will begin a new phase as a journeyman point guard. His shooting weakness will never again be nurtured like it is now. He will make a lot less money, and he won’t be as good of a player.
Maybe that’s hyperbole, but the causal chain seems pretty realistic if this season goes really poorly.
And with that, comes perhaps the most important point. Ricky Rubio is a smart guy and none of this — these high stakes entering this season — is lost on him. He is about to enter the most important season of his career and the most important year of his young life.
Here’s hoping that his gamble pays off.