Minnesota Timberwolves: Rubio is better suited for second go around

Ricky Rubio’s first run with the Minnesota Timberwolves was uneventful but both sides have grown since then to give hope for the encore.

Ricky Rubio was supposed to save the Minnesota Timberwolves after he was drafted by the franchise fifth overall back in 2009. A playmaking legend who stared in Spain since he was a teenager, he was to pair with Kevin Love as the next great guard/big-man combination to place the Wolves where only Kevin Garnett previously could.

Rubio wound up spending six years in Minnesota, never sniffing an All-Star appearance or guiding the Wolves to the postseason before being traded to Utah in 2018.

Three years and two (three?) stops later, Rubio returns to the Twin Cities via a draft-night trade with the OKC Thunder. Neither he nor the organization is the same as when they last crossed paths. Oddly enough, that time apart and the growth that’s commenced in that stretch is what could make the reunion a successful one.

“Rubio will be coming back to a much different organization than he left in 2017,” wrote The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski. “He did not see eye to eye with former basketball boss Tom Thibodeau and left town believing big changes needed to be made.”

This Timberwolves team looks vastly different from the one Rubio last played for, having greatly invested in the top of their roster. D’Angelo Rusell was brought in to co-star alongside Karl-Anthony Towns while the No. 1 pick was used to select Anthony Edwards.

Those who earn minutes around the three will have just as much a say in the Wolves’ success, covering up for their defensive woes while accentuating their offensive talents.

While it remains to be seen what Edwards will look like at the NBA level — and thus which teammates work best around him — Rubio is no stranger fitting alongside a roster headlined by a ball-dominant scoring guard along with an interior force. He’s done so in each of the last three seasons.

Rubio’s impact in Phoenix was evident in the way he improved the Suns’ play at both ends. They were 8.5 points better per 100 possessions with Rubio on the court — per Cleaning The Glass. He eased the offensive burden of Devin Booker and got Deandre Ayton favorable looks. In his final season with the Jazz (2018-19), lineups featuring the trio of Rubio, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were a plus-9.7 per 100 in over 2,800 minutes — per CTG.

He is a breakaway from the modern point guard, a traditional floor general who actively looks to set up others, ranking inside the top-10 in passes per game this past season. That type of unselfish desire can only make life easier for two high-usage scorers. Not to mention the chemistry he has already built with Towns after two years playing together from 2015-17.

The same can be said of a newfound 3-point shot that attracts defensive attention Rubio never commanded earlier in his career.

A 31.5 percent outside shooter in Minnesota, Rubio has grown comfortable beyond the arc in recent years, where his percentage increased to a career-high 36.1 percent this past season in Phoenix. The 41.0 percent he converted on catch-and-shoot triples ranked ahead of prominent names like Kawhi Leonard and Jayson Tatum.

Where Rubio might do the most damage is at the defensive end, where he’s been a plus for most of his career on a team that could use that type of boost.

Minnesota was 20th in defensive rating last season while surrendering the third-most points per game. Rubio can’t cover for Towns’ suspect awareness and discipline or accelerate Edwards’ development at that end. But he can set the tone with his effort at the point of attack and afford Russell, a reputably poor defender, the lesser of the two backcourt matchups.

“The more open culture developed by Rosas and Saunders is more in line with Rubio’s view of things,” wrote Krawczynski. “And now he will be relied upon to be a veteran leader for the youngest roster in the league.”

Maybe Rubio hasn’t lived up to the hype that followed him to the NBA as the Spanish Pistol Pete Maravich. Though some of those shortcomings may stem from organizational failures as much as individual ones. But he hasn’t been a starting point guard these last nine years by accident.

In their to nudge their way into the fight for a playoff spot out west, the Wolves have entrusted Towns and Russell to lead the charge. Now more than ever, they’re ready to have Rubio help out along the way and he’s in a far better position to do so.