Can you smell that? There is a slight optimism in the air. A fresh, rejuvenating scent that usually only comes around once a year for Minnesota Timberwolves fans, if we’re lucky. Usually, a cynic can plug their nose and push through, seeing the short-sightedness of the feeling in full knowledge that things will undoubtedly return to reality. A good example of this is the elation felt by many after the post-deadline trouncing of the Los Angeles Clippers last year. Beating quality teams by 30 points was never going to be the long-term situation for the team in Monster Energy Green.
But don’t get it twisted; there is a pep in the step of these Wolves and those who follow them. And for once, it could have some longevity.
So for a second, let’s bask in the glow of what’s happening on the court rather than the glow of those putrid green jerseys (which sadly also seem to have some longevity).
There’s plenty to discuss, but something important is happening for the franchise’s most adored player.
Let’s talk about Ricky Rubio for a second. For he, too, has turned a corner on the year. He’s looking so much more of a veteran and a stalwart. He’s less cheeky grin of old and more on floor commander with a little Spartan flare; his luscious locks pulled back into a means business ponytail. He just feels a little more… conservative.
Much has been written and said about his leadership role on this young roster, but it is worth mentioning here that he really has become the vocal leader of this team since Finch has taken over. You simply have to look at who was running the huddle when things started to get out of control in Phoenix. The team may not have responded in the way we would hope, but there is real respect for Ricky in this team, particularly and most importantly for the KAT and Ant.
It’s all well and good to be a spiritual leader but to get the troops behind you, you really have to show it to the court too.
Before the All-Star break, Ricky had a tendency to try and push his own offense in directions that did not suit his game. Blame it on conditioning, blame it on COVID, blame it on Ryan Saunders — those fading away mid-range jumpers were garbage. The Ricky of old would break a zone and get into the paint before dumping off a mind-bending bounce pass to whoever was cutting baseline. Pre-2021-All-Star, Ricky would get into the paint and jack up some leaning away prayer. It was hard to watch.
In the 33 games Ricky played before the All-Star game, 41% of his shots were coming in the midrange, putting him in the 74th percentile of the league’s guards for that type of shot. However, hitting a measly 34% from the midrange put the Spanish Maestro in the 31st percentile of accuracy amongst guards.
Rubio took nearly three mid-range jumpers a game in that stretch, which, to be fair, included injuries to a bulk of the team’s best offensive options. In total, he took 91 and hit 31 of them. I haven’t got the stats here, but those clangers off the back of the rim undoubtedly led to fastbreaks the other way plenty.
Since the All-Star break, though, Ricky has canned the midrange. In the six games since All-Star Game, the Wolves are 3-3, and Ricky has only taken seven mid-range jumpers in total. The three is falling a bit better, but the real improvement has come at the rim. Before March 5th, only 27% of his shots were layups, where he was shooting 50%. Since then, 51% of his shots have been at close quarters with the backboard, where he’s converting at a 78% clip, putting him in the 94th percentile among NBA guards. It’s a short stint, but to show how impressive that is, consider that Steph Curry is shooting 63% at the rim this season.
When it comes to the threes, Ricky certainly is not Steph, but if he continues to shoot like he has over the past two weeks, defenders will have to actually guard him on the perimeter. Since the All-Star break, Ricky has cleaned up his shot chart, focusing on taking corner threes and eliminating most of his above-the-break attempts.
The sample size of threes is too small to discern whether Rubio will keep hitting them at this clip, but the corner attempts have just felt so much better. Absent from my viewing experience is my stomach tying itself in knots as Ricky pump-fakes and deliberates on whether to pull the trigger on a trey. Plus, they have led to easier entry passes to Karl-Anthony Towns in the post.
All of this simmers down to more points, and adjacently, more assists. Before the All-star break, Ricky was scoring 8.7 points per game and assisting on 6.4 buckets. Since then, those numbers have been 12.8 and 8.3.
It also seems to have translated to Ricky becoming the vocal leader and a player who leads by example. He’s impassioned and not in the exasperated way he was before the All-Star break. Ricky can be heard calling out defensive sets, his Spanish accent a higher pitch than anyone else on the court. He’s turning into the leader we need down the stretch of another depressing season. He’s providing a touch of optimism.