For all the hype surrounding Ricky Rubio over the last 4-5 years, I have to admit I’ve only seen him play a good 4-5 times. Between the last Olympics, some random FC Barcelona games on NBA TV, this summer’s exhibition against Team USA, and the World Championship, my exposure to the point guard position’s Next Big Thing has been limited. Even if I wanted to, declaring the 5th pick in the ’09 NBA Draft a bust or a future star right now wouldn’t feel right. So I won’t do that. Not yet.
What I can gauge in that small sample is Rubio’s style of play, and via box scores, I can check his production. And what I can declare right now is that anybody still pushing Rubio as another “Pistol” Pete Maravich or Steve Nash is off-base. If anything, Rubio will be the next Jason Kidd in the NBA.
Rubio is not a scorer. Last season with FC Barcelona he averaged 6.8 points per game. Through the first four games of the World Championship, as a starter for Spain, he’s put up just 4.2 ppg, including Wednesday’s scoreless, 0-for-6 outing against Lebanon. Clearly, there’s nothing Maravichian about those numbers. Pistol dropped over 40 points a night in college, and 24 a night in the pros. Rubio’s highest-scoring game in the Euroleague? Nineteen points. He might rock the long hair and old-school socks and flip full-court underhand passes, but Rubio is not going to suddenly start raining buckets when he gets to the NBA. Scoring is not his calling card.
Neither is shooting. Nash, another long-haired throwback with whom Rubio is often compared, is one of the best shooters the sport has ever seen. He routinely rips off seasons hitting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, and 90 percent at the line. Rubio does make his free throws at a Nash/Chauncey-like clip, but he shot 35 percent beyond the (closer) Euroleague arc and 38 percent from two-point range last season. He can shoot, but he’s not a shooter.
Instead, Rubio shines in the same areas where J-Kidd has made his Hall of Fame career: Passer, defender, leader, winner.
At 19 years old, Rubio already has the basketball IQ of a grizzled vet and the vision of a single mother. He has almost mastered the art (call it Jaykiddism) of not only knowing when to throw the simple pass and when to please the crowd, but knowing when a crowd-pleasing pass is actually the correct pass at that moment. Rubio averaged a modest 4.0 assists last season, but remember that FIBA rules aren’t as lenient as the NBA when awarding dimes. Rubio did win the “Best Point Guard” award in the Spanish ACB League, the second such honor in his nascent career. In the World Championship he’s averaging 5.7 apg, including a Kidd-like stat line of 8 points, 11 assists and 3 steals against New Zealand.
Defensively, Rubio is solid at man-to-man and a ballhawk in the passing lanes. The ’09 Spanish league DPOY swiped 2.8 balls per game with FC Barcelona last season, and has notched eight steals in four WC games, in just 27 minutes per game.
Rubio doesn’t match Kidd as a rebounder, so don’t expect many triple-doubles when he comes to the NBA. But in terms of being a natural floor leader who protects the ball, who makes the right decisions but will also think outside the box, who can wreak havoc on defense and create buckets on offense, he is built more closely to Kidd than any other PG standard-bearer. He’s also a winner, copping a Euroleague championship in 2010 and working on adding a Worlds gold medal to his European Championship gold and Olympic silver.
For the most part, NBA fans have only caught glimpses of Rubio in FIBA competition, and are still waiting to see him take on the likes of Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Stephen Curry in our more familiar 48-minute, night-after-night, grind-and-shine parameters of the League. They’re waiting to see if he lives up to the hype. Which I think Rubio can do — however, he’s been getting the wrong kind of hype for so long it will change the level of expectations.
Whenever Rubio finally dons a jersey with the Jerry West silhouette — whether it’s for Minnesota, New York, L.A. or even Dallas — don’t expect to see a Pistol reloaded or another Nashional Treasure. Allow room for the kid to be more like Kidd.