During a game late last season, Ricky Rubio patted rookie teammate Alexey Shved on the back of the head and imparted wisdom that went went well beyond the Spaniard's 22 years: "Change this face. Be happy. Enjoy it."
The modern discourse surrounding the NBA has been enlightened by sharper metrics, shared ideas and play breakdowns, but basketball at its best is still a sport that can be played and enjoyed with an inherent beauty beyond the numbers. Sometimes, it's a game that just makes us feel alive.
Few players personify that joyous spontaneity as well as the Timberwolves' point guard. It's the reason he can still resonate with diehards even as a young player with several obvious flaws.
No matter. When Ricky Rubio brings the ball behind his back twice before finishing a layup, his paltry shooting percentage hardly registers. Be it half-court alley-oops, behind-the-back passes or assists through a defender's legs or his own, Rubio plays the game with an endearing amount of style and joviality.
That flair was always assumed for a player who drew comparisons to Pete Maravich from his teenage days in Spain. The next step for Rubio is turning into the complete point guard and team leader Minnesota desperately needs to break its nine-year playoff drought, the longest active streak in the NBA.
Rubio has a long way to go, but there are enough encouraging signs to suggest he'll get there. He'll be only 23 years old this season, already with 78 career starts under his belt. His court vision and passing ability are every bit as good as advertised, as he's finished in the top 10 in assist percentage in both of his NBA seasons. He's a defensive playmaker too, capable of getting his team easy buckets in transition. Rubio finished tied for the league lead in steals last season with Clippers star Chris Paul at 2.4 per game.
The stats paint a picture of what Rubio really is: a showman and distributor at heart, yet still a player who needs to learn how to make defenses pay when he has the ball both outside and around the rim. Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said this offseason that Rubio has to score more given the evolution of the point guard position. Even on a team packed with scoring threats if it can stay healthy, Saunders' words would seem to ring true. Rubio made just 43.3 percent of his shots from within five feet last season, 13 percentage points below the mean for a guard.
Some of that can be attributed to his recovery from a torn ACL, an injury Rubio returned from in just nine months. While Rubio experienced the growing pains any player would have coming back from an injury so severe, he got better and more confident as the season went along. What's left is something to build on.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign was Rubio's ability to draw contact and get to the foul line, where he's an 80 percent shooter for his career. In 13 games in February, Rubio got to the line 6.2 times per game and averaged 12.8 points, 9.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds per contest. It was the best stretch of his season and served to illustrate what type of player Rubio can be when he's healthy and dialed in.
Beating teams from three-point range will be another issue. After shooting a respectable 34 percent from deep as a rookie, Rubio made just 29 percent of his threes last season. It's worth noting the addition of Kevin Martin and return of star Kevin Love from injury should mean Minnesota will have multiple threats from outside whenever Rubio is on the floor, but he'll still have to capitalize when teams sag off him on the perimeter.
The return of Love, who played only 18 games last year, should be a huge aide to Rubio's development. The Timberwolves now boast shooters on the outside and size on the inside after re-signing center Nikola Pekovic. It's Rubio's job to tie it all together.
For Rubio, flair has always been more consequential than gratuitous, the type of thing powerful enough to awaken a sleepy arena in a split second. Now he'll have to take it one step further and use his tricks to help his team find wins.