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David Kahn's Rubio Challenge

For NBA fans, one of the most interesting players in EuroBasket 2011 is Ricky Rubio, a reserve Spanish point guard and a 2009 lottery pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Rubio’s struggles in the tournament so far have been well-documented, but while they don’t signal doom for his NBA career, they do highlight his rather unique skill-set and the difficulty Minnesota will have building a team around him.

At 6’4 180, Rubio is the rare true point guard with the size to play both guard positions. He doesn’t have great athleticism, but he is rarely overwhelmed defensively due to his length and basketball IQ.

That combination of height and court awareness is Rubio’s main strength as a player, creating passing angles that most point guards don’t have and couldn’t see anyway. In one memorable sequence against Lithuania in group play, Rubio came down with a rebound with an opposing player right in his face and in one motion threw a two-handed lob pass over the other eight players to a streaking Spanish player for an easy lay-up.

But unlike most of his Spanish teammates, Rubio can’t shoot. At all. Despite averaging 17 minutes in his first six games, he’s only taken 18 shots, including going 0/8 from beyond the three-point line. These aren’t isolated numbers either: he shot 27% from 3 in the Spanish ACB league and 22% in the Euroleague.

Long-distance shooting is almost a necessity for a point guard in the NBA, where floor spacing is at a premium. Only four of the NBA’s 32 starting point guards -- Rajon Rondo, Ramon Sessions, Andre Miller and John Wall -- shot less than 32% from the 3-point line last season.

A point guard who can’t shoot isn’t going to be very effective without the ball in his hands, as Rubio’s play in EuroBasket has shown. With an offense that runs through the Gasol brothers in the post, and also features veteran guards Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro, Rubio hasn’t had the chance to create, averaging only 1.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.

Minnesota will be expecting much more production from Rubio when he makes the leap to the NBA. To maximize his skills, the Timberwolves need players who don’t dominate the ball offensively but who are still threats to score and can take advantage of Rubio’s playmaking ability.

Brandon Roy and Andre Miller have feuded constantly since the Trail Blazers signed Miller, primarily because both guards need the ball in their hands to be effective and Miller’s poor outside shot makes him a bad fit next to Roy. In contrast, Rondo has flourished in Boston playing next to three great outside shooters (KG, Pierce and Allen) who space the floor for his drives and need help creating good looks at the basket.

The good news for Minnesota is their two other cornerstones -- Kevin Love and No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams -- fit that mold. Love is a phenomenal rebounder (15.2 a game) who can key the fast break and is an excellent outside shooter (42% from 3 last year). He impacts the game without dominating the ball, as his usage rating of 22.9, a small number for an All-Star, attests to. Williams, similarly, is an excellent rebounder and outstanding finisher who isn’t nearly as effective creating his own shot off the dribble or in the post.

The bad news is that none of the three project as a stand-out defender. To be an even adequate defensive team, the Timberwolves will need an elite perimeter defender at the shooting guard position who can consistently take the toughest perimeter assignment as well as an athletic shot-blocker at the center position.

Minnesota has other interesting young talent on their roster -- Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph -- but they don’t fit either description. All three are most effective as swing forwards, where Williams and Love will take the majority of the minutes. Even worse, the Timberwolves won’t have their lottery pick next season; it has lost all its protections since being dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2005 as part of the Sam Cassell -- Marko Jaric trade.

Minnesota GM David Kahn has become a punch-line in NBA circles over the past few years, but he has accumulated some talent in the Twin Cities, especially when you consider how barren the cupboard was after the Kevin Garnett trade. However, the team is still a few pieces away from being competitive in the Western Conference, and drafting Williams has taken away much of their leverage in dealing either Beasley or Johnson.

Building a team around a player as unique as Rubio will require a lot of creativity, and with no lottery pick until at least 2013, it will be a challenge that will either make or break Kahn’s time in Minnesota.

 

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