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February 16, 2011
Ricky Rubio's Development
Checking In

by Kevin Pelton

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"Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising." - Cyril Connolly

The quote Michael Lewis chose as an epigraph to begin Moneyball came to mind recently when reading about Ricky Rubio. The Spanish prodigy, chosen No. 5 in the 2008 NBA Draft, only turned 20 last fall. Yet already there is concern we have seen the best of Rubio. The case was summarized by Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com in an article last month for the New York Times.

"Though 28 games in the 2010-11 season, Rubio has continued to struggle," wrote Givony. "He is shooting just 32 percent from the field, including 11 of 61 from beyond the arc, and his team has lost more games in the ACB and in the Euroleague than it did all of last season."

Even in the best of times, Rubio's game--all strengths and weaknesses, with few average skills in between--has divided observers. No matter your position, there is some justification for it in Rubio's translated European statistics.

As introduced prior to the 2007-08 season, our European translations use players who went from the Euroleague or EuroCup to the NBA or vice versa to find the equivalent level of performance on both sides of the Atlantic. The method is similar to the Davenport Translations, but with the added complexity that each individual category tends to carry over in different fashion. For example, players generally get more assists in the NBA because European scorers are so stingy, but they shoot far worse. With that understood, here is how Rubio's numbers have translated:

Year      Win%    2P%    3P%    FT%    TS%    Usg   Reb%   Ast%   Stl%    TO%
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
2007-08   .472   .473   .295   .760   .517   .131    9.6    8.6    3.4   .307
2009-10   .540   .347   .319   .908   .507   .169    8.2   11.2    2.5   .254
2010-11   .532   .398   .159   .822   .467   .157    7.9   11.3    3.1   .237

An issue with using European statistics is the limited number of games team play in high-level European competition (either the Euroleague or the EuroCup). Rubio's stats this year, for example, have been compiled in 288 minutes over 13 games--barely more than the minimum I would accept as usable. (2008-09 is completely out because Rubio missed time due to injury.) Still, some consistent trends emerge here, and many of them are interesting.

While Rubio's shooting has been criticized, the bigger issue generally has been his finishing. 2007-08 was out of line with the rest of Rubio's career. In general, he's shot poor percentages on two-point attempts. Just 21 players in the NBA have shot less than 40 percent inside the arc, and that's a reasonably optimistic view of what Rubio might do in the NBA. As a result, Rubio's translated True Shooting Percentage is also near the minimum acceptable for an NBA regular.

We can also expect Rubio to be one of the league's most turnover-prone players when he comes to the NBA. So what makes him worthwhile as a prospect? Most everything else. Let's start with Rubio's most famed skill, his playmaking. The assist percentage he's essentially duplicated the last two seasons would put him eighth in the league, with excellent company ahead of him: Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Jose Calderon, Deron Williams, Jason Kidd and Devin Harris.

Reviews of Rubio's defense are mixed, but in terms of observable statistics, he has made a major impact. Just five players in the NBA this season have come up with more than three steals per 100 defensive plays--Tony Allen, Paul, Rondo and Brewers Corey and Ronnie. Meanwhile, Rubio is a terrific rebounder for a point guard, up there with leaders at the position like Kidd and Russell Westbrook.

Rubio's extreme game makes it difficult to compare himself to NBA players past or present. I've used a young Kidd as a comparison in the past, but more and more I think the better fit is Rondo. Though their strengths and weaknesses don't exactly match--Rubio is a much better natural shooter, as exemplified by the vast disparity between the two players at the free throw line, but Rondo a far superior finisher--your opinion of both players tends to depend on what characteristics you value in a point guard. The emphasis WARP places on measurable defensive statistics tends to paint both Rondo and Rubio in a positive light.

If we take out the age factor, SCHOENE comes up with a different comparison--a rookie Gary Payton has easily the highest similarity score. Payton, Rondo and Kidd show Rubio's upside, but like those players had to, Rubio must polish his weaknesses to become a star player. That's where we get back to the question of his development, and again the numbers can be interpreted in different ways.

After making solid strides during 2009-10, his first year with FC Barcelona, Rubio has seen his per-minute winning percentage fall this season. The translations may even understate the magnitude by which Rubio has dropped off because the toughest games in the season still lie ahead. At the same time, the difference in Rubio's game can be traced almost entirely to the three-point line.

In a development that has gotten surprisingly little attention stateside, FIBA moved the line back from 20 feet, 6 inches to 22 feet, 2 inches (6.25 meters to 6.75), bringing it much closer to the NBA's maximum length of 23'9". While the change has not made an enormous difference overall in three-point shooting, individual players have reacted in unique ways. Rubio's three-point game has cratered, both in ACB and Euroleague play. This suggests we may have been overstating Rubio's three-point potential from the NBA line, but at the same time we're talking about a sample of less than 100 threes, so it would be a mistake to read too much into the drop-off.

Elsewhere, Rubio's numbers do show signs of growth. The most obvious example of this is his turnover rate, which he has cut by nearly a quarter during the last two seasons without sacrificing anything in terms of his playmaking. This development will surely endear him to his coaches when he comes to the NBA.

Givony's argument that Rubio may need to come to the U.S. to further his development makes sense. Despite his youth, Rubio has been playing professionally in Spain for six seasons, and it is possible that his learning curve is flattening out--especially because of the different demands European coaches make of their point guards. Alas, Rubio's contract and the NBA's labor situation will probably do more to determine when and if he makes the leap more than what is best for his future.

This year's results do offer some reason for concern about Rubio's future. Still, his age works in his favor. History overwhelmingly suggests that players who can contribute in their early 20s will ultimately develop into elite contributors. In Rubio's case, translating his game from Europe to the U.S. adds uncertainty to our evaluation of just how good he really is right now, but there is enough evidence that Rubio is an elite talent that he should be able to overcome his current growing pains.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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