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Ricky Rubio: The NBA’s most underappreciated star

He could be an NBA All-Star.

He once had 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists, and seven steals in a game.

He is the most undervalued player in the NBA.

Let’s pretend the title has not given it away, and you were reading this wondering who these statements were about.  Would anyone have guessed they were about Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio?

Probably not.  While two of the three statements are obviously opinions rather than facts, the hope is that by the end of this article you will at least consider these perspectives.  Let the case begin.

Believe it or not, Rubio did, in fact, post 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists, and seven steals in a game.  It may not have been in an NBA game, but it was still on a professional stage.  In the last game of the 2006 Under-16 European Championship, Rubio showcased all of his abilities in the international arena by putting on this performance.  Pretty soon, he became a household name, tagged as one of the future stars of the NBA.

Fast-forward ten years, and Wolves fans are calling for an end to the Rubio era, counting down the days before Kris Dunn takes over the role of starting point guard for the Timberwolves.  We should hope they get to keep counting.  Although Rubio may not have been worthy of being selected two spots ahead of Stephen Curry in the 2009 NBA Draft, he was a steal as the fifth pick in the draft.

Speaking of steals, Rubio has quite a knack for reading defenses and intercepting opponent’s passes.  In the 2015/2016 season, Rubio was tied for first among NBA guards with 2.1 steals per game.  Not only does this put him at the top of the league, but of the top ten guards in steals per game, Rubio is the only one who has never been voted to an All-Star game.

Other than steals, Rubio is best known for his court vision.  Last season, Rubio was fifth in the league in assists with 8.7 per game.  On a team that shot a paltry 56.1 percent from inside five feet last season (bottom 10 in the league), it is an impressive feat that Rubio was able to dish out that many assists.  Of the top ten guards in assists per game, Rubio (again) was only one of two who had never been an All-Star.  Not only does Rubio get a lot of assists, but he keeps his turnovers low.  He averaged an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.48 last year – a statistic that puts him right near the top of the league (again).

Although rebounds may not be a make-or-break statistic for a guard, it is worth noting that Rubio was 21st in the league among all guards (both point guards and shooting guards) with 4.3 rebounds per game.  This statistic is just a reinforcement that Rubio can make an impact on all aspects of the game – and his defensive impact has not even been discussed yet.

Defensively, Rubio is perhaps the best on the Wolves.  There is no denying that Rubio lacks the lateral quickness to keep up with athletic guards like Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard.  He is not a lockdown on-ball defender like backup point guard Kris Dunn may one day become.  Yet, the argument can still be made that Rubio is the best defender on the Wolves.

How?  Just look at the numbers.

In 2015/2016, Rubio had the best defensive rating on the team at 105.7 points per 100 possessions.  When he was on the court, the Wolves gave up 2.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than when he was off.  These numbers are not a coincidence. Rubio accounts for 39.1% of the team’s steals during his time on the court.  Watch him on defense, and it is evident that he is always surveying the court, positioning himself relative to the ball, and ready to jump a pass or provide help defense.  Seriously – watch him.  In my twelve years of watching the Wolves closely, I have never seen someone as defensively aware as him other than The Big Ticket himself.

Now, some may argue that Rubio’s defense and playmaking ability does not make up for his biggest flaw – his shooting.  However, the numbers will once again disprove this argument.  Most articles written in the past few years about Ricky Rubio focus on his plus/minus or the Wolves’ record with and without him, and they state that these are enough to show his effect on the game.  While this is a great point, I am going to take a larger view of Rubio’s overall impact on the game.

No, Rubio is not a good shooter – he probably never will be.  He will never throw down posterizing dunks, and he will never be an athletic monster.  The Timberwolves, however, consistently perform at a higher level when Rubio is in the game.  To say that Rubio’s shooting is too horrible to overcome is just ludicrous.  When Rubio is in the game, the Wolves shoot 50.4 percent from the field.  When Rubio is on the bench, that percentage drops to 49.0 percent.  This may be only a small percentage difference, but that statistic alone proves that Rubio’s offensive skills alone make the Wolves a better team and compensate for his poor shooting ability.

The Wolves also score 5.9 more points per 100 possessions when Rubio is on the court.  So, not only are the Wolves shooting a slightly better percentage with him in the game, but the better shooting is translating into significantly more points.  This is the hidden value behind Ricky Rubio.  An average fan would miss these statistics and not realize the impact he makes.  He or she might notice that the Wolves appear to play better when Rubio is on the court yet not be able to explain why.

Well, there is your answer.

NBA players have, in recent years, become so enamored with traditional statistics (points, rebounds, assists, etc.) that the association was becoming a stat-chasing league rather than a game-winning league.  The NBA has seen players like Rajon Rondo (last year) or James Harden (every year) looking to improve their stat-lines at the expense of their team winning games.  Players who put in hard work every game and do the “dirty work” may have gone unnoticed or had their value unappreciated.

This year that will change.  For the first regular season in its’ history, the NBA is tracking hustle stats.  Screen assists, deflections, loose ball recoveries, and more will be tracked for the first time.  Maybe this will be the year Rubio finally gets the recognition he deserves.  Despite having a subpar first two games and playing through an elbow injury in the last few, Rubio is still making a huge mark in the hustle stat categories.  He is top ten in both deflections (3.2) and loose balls recovered (1.0) per game this year – not just among guards, but all players.  The effort that once went unnoticed will finally be appreciated.

Check out all the ways he contributes in this video:

Even if you are not a “numbers guy” like me, you surely can understand the pure basketball knowledge that Rubio displays on a nightly basis.  There may not be a player in this decade who can come down with a rebound or catch a pass and simultaneously fire it to an open man as fast as Rubio.  The last players who had that ability were probably Steve Nash and Jason Kidd (a two-time MVP and a multiple-time All-Star).  Rubio knows where to be on the court at all times, and his presence these past two years always seems to calm the nerves of the young Wolves.

People seem to forget that the team proclaimed leader of the Wolves is only 26-years-old.  Most NBA players who have maintained their health over their career begin to enter their prime around this age.  Rubio, as every Wolves fan knows, has dealt with what seems like countless injuries over his career.  He may have come into the league at a younger age than most, but many of these years have come with a lot of games missed and many nagging “Oh, Rubio isn’t out there again” thoughts.  Do not let these cloud your judgment.

Although no Wolves fan wants to keep hearing this, I think we need to give it some time.  However, I am not saying we need to give Rubio any more time to develop.  Rather, I believe we need to give Rubio some time to forgive the fans and the media for not appreciating him for his talents and instead of wanting him to fit into our society’s view of how a modern NBA player should play – fast, fancy, and flashy.

Rubio does not need these things.  He puts in the work, makes his team better, and puts his primary focus on winning – a focus that every player should have.  It is time to take off the blinds and recognize Ricky Rubio for what his value is – an All-Star.

Follow Evan Hagen on Twitter @Hagen_Wolves

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