Player Capsules (Plus): Ricky Rubio, Can You Hear Me?

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? Ricky Rubio, the Who, and living up to expectations.

Little known fact: before the Beatles came to America in 1964, before their brilliant Ed Sullivan Show appearance, before they had melted away the lines separating the British and American music industries for good… the U.S. popular media thought they were going to flop. And flop badly, too. Multiple times, the U.S. subsidiary of London’s EMI records (the Beatles’ label at the time) rejected attempts from George Martin and Brian Epstein to bring the Beatles’ music to America. “We don’t think the Beatles will do anything in this market.” So too did the media, who dismissively referred to the Beatles as an “infestation” in Britain, a localized case of an Elvis Presley “rock-n-roll” ripoff band getting too big for their britches and too popular for comprehension. The British had never produced “good” music before, or so the media thought. They couldn’t really do well in America, right?

Well, as the story goes, they did. They blew up. And thus began the British Invasion, a 3 or 4 year period of intense cultural exchange between the British music industry and the American public. After the Beatles’ runaway success, the media didn’t want to make the same dismissive mistakes they made the first time. So they were quite fond of hyping just about everything that could possibly come over from Britain as the “next Beatles” — not just pop groups, everything that was even remotely comparable. Any 4 or 5 man band with the same general composition ended up billed as the “next Beatles” before their arrival, at least for the next few years. They were measured up to the standard the Liverpool boys had set, and in that kind of an atmosphere, many bombed out on their first go-around. Some didn’t, but many did. And for the ones that succeeded, the “next Beatles” mark has somehow managed to sustain through time, with most post-Beatles British Invasion bands being introduced to children even today in a similar fashion. (Like myself, as I’ll outline later.)

Enter the Who. Another British invasion band, the Who were a four-man band from Britain that were ported over in the mid sixties. That right there’s about where the similarities with the Beatles end. The Who are one of the quintessential rock-n-roll bands — they recorded a bit of everything, and no two Who records really sound the same. But, somewhat ironically, this also means that virtually nothing they produced matches the style of those aforementioned Liverpool sweethearts. It was a completely specious way to describe the Who, and a way that oversimplified the group to the point of utter meaninglessness. Nobody who heard their music would really think “dang, this band is definitely the next Beatles.” They weren’t the next anything, really. The Who were the Who, defying any and all simplistic characterizations or or summarizations of their music. You need to listen to the Who and really try to take them in before you know what kind of a band they are. And even then? You may very well need to listen again. You might’ve missed something, you know. Trying to shove their music into some Lennon/McCartney-shaped hole detracts from the Who’s own brilliance, and makes it harder to appreciate the myriad of things they do well. In my view.

• • •

In 2009, to much fanfare, the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Ricky Rubio. This was ironically months before Justin Bieber’s first album, meaning that if either of the two are copying the other, it’s decidedly Bieber copying Rubio rather than the other way around. When he first was to come over, we were treated to several love songs about his game — Rubio was, so they said, “bigger and better” than Pistol Pete Maravich. He was the most hyped prospect in years, promising to bring together things like Steve Nash’s passing with Pistol Pete’s scoring, and a touch of Wally Szczerbiak’s good looks to really bring everything together. The floppy hair, the scrawny frame, the glowing smile. Everyone eagerly awaited for his arrival, and as the basketball-loving public waited, Rubio mulled coming over. And decided (perhaps in part due to David Khan’s “drafting another point guard directly after him” move) that it’d be best if he refrained, for a while, and continued his development in the Euroleague as he worked out his contract and figured out the exactitudes of his personal journey to America. Then, last season, he finally relented — he came over to play the point for an intriguing Wolves team that had finally accumulated some solid pieces. This tends to happen when you’ve been among the worst teams the sport had ever seen over the previous three seasons. The comparisons started up again. Pistol Pete, Steve Nash, Isiah Thomas. Every good NBA point guard — or, in Pete’s case, a scoring guard — was a comparable for Rubio. Which might’ve been a mistake.

Scratch that — it was definitely a mistake. Rubio was never to be the same kind of a scorer as Pistol Pete, and the idea that he would be was one of the most ridiculous overstatements that’s ever entered the popular consciousness. While Rubio started the year shooting a decent percentage from three, there’s virtually nothing that distinguishes Rubio’s freshman year scoring ability to that of the highly less heralded Brandon Jennings — Jennings started the year on fire from three point range, as did Rubio, but there were warning signs as to their overall scoring game even then. Poor form on the three point shot, no real long two to speak of, and (perhaps most importantly) one of the worst at-rim finishing percentages in the league. He had the 6th worst percentage in the league last year (sort by “at rim” percentage), which matches exactly Jennings’ finish in his rookie year (6th worst in the league). Both players started the year on fire from three, and neither finished the year with an exceptional true shooting percentage despite that. Their final true shooting percentages, in fact, are almost exactly equal — 2010 Jennings had a TS% of 47.5%, while 2012 Rubio had a TS% of 47.6%. Not very good at all — 50% is the Mendoza line for “even remotely competent.” Clearly, both their rookie seasons miss that not-particularly-high mark.

While his passing is aesthetically pleasing and extremely effective, I have trouble really getting behind the idea that Rubio is a sea-changing transformative force when it comes to team offense. Yet. He could get there — his passing is beautiful, brilliant, and clever — but he certainly isn’t there yet. Did you know that despite the Wolves’ incredible collapse post-Rubio, the Wolves still played better offense with Rubio on the bench than with Rubio on the court? This isn’t necessarily on Rubio’s passing — to these eyes, his teammates played better with him on the floor, and his masterful execution of his passing game plan and his general command of the floor are far beyond his years. The problem is, when you’re that incredibly awful on offense, there’s virtually no way you can actively improve your team’s offense when you’re on the floor. Why not let Rubio get to the rim relatively unimpeded? He won’t even make it half the time! Why not let Rubio take a shot from the midrange? He’ll make it less than 30% of the time. And so on and so forth. When the opposing defense gets to play 5-on-4, the defense gets easier and the overall team offense of the Timberwolves suffers, even if he’s improving the play of the men he shares the court with. Which differentiates him further from the brilliant offensive point guards of much repute that Rubio’s game was introduced to us with. He’s barely like them at all, as a matter of fact.

Yet, that’s not a bad thing.

• • •

My second college relationship was pretty fantastic. My ex and I remain friends to this day, and while we’ve drifted apart and haven’t spoken in quite some time, we always got along splendidly and I very much value the time we spent together. She loved video games, evolutionary anthropology (specifically lemurs, but in a general sense too), and The Who. That was actually how the relationship started, kind of — she came over to my room once, we talked over some pizza, and she noticed that among the many vinyls I’d put up around my room at least three were from Townshend’s flock. Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Who’s Next (if I recall) — I might’ve had Live at Leeds by that point. Don’t really remember. Anyway, we talked about the Who for a while, and I discovered they were her favorite band. I was a bit surprised — while I’m a big fan of The Who, I’d never say they’re my favorite band. Nor would I say they were “better” than the Beatles. My ex didn’t say as much either — she was a fan of classic rock in general, and wasn’t in the business of putting the Beatles down.

She merely said that The Who were different. And in that, I completely agree. Every Who album is a different experience. Different flavors, different emotions, different styles. It’s a menagerie of experiences, an indescribable deluge of wonder. The more we talked about The Who, the more I realized how much her love for them made sense. They weren’t the greatest band ever, in my eyes — but nothing she said about them was untrue, and I could totally understand why a person would reasonably believe them to be one’s favorite band despite thinking they weren’t “better” than the Beatles in a traditional sense. To this day, I listen to a lot more of The Who than I did before I dated her, and I feel as though she managed to open up a facet of their music to me that even I — a Who fan who owned four of their vinyls — never quite accessed myself. And finally helped me get past the original impression I had of the Who, back from when I was a young kid. The Who were first introduced to me by a music teacher who had always described them as the “next Beatles.” In this frame, they were disappointing. But by looking at the Who on their own merits and considering them as their own ever-changing difference engine, you start to get a sense of how good they really are. Some music’s for the body, some music’s for the soul — The Who were for both.

When it comes to expectations, Rubio is the Who. He isn’t the “next Pistol Pete.” He never was going to be. On defense, though, he’s far more akin to Gary Payton — he can stay in front of virtually every point guard in the NBA, and when he’s on the court, his ability to keep point guard penetration to a minimum is essential on a team with Love and Pekovic on the front line. He’s so athletic and rangy, and he has some of the best stealing instincts in the league. And that’s already! He was a rookie! For all this talk about Rubio’s offense, as I said before, the Timberwolves offense was actually worse with Rubio on the floor. If they wanted better offense, they’d play Barea or Ridnour. But Rubio gave the Timberwolves something neither of those players could give them. Defensive dominance from the point guard position. This is not a typo: the 2012 Minnesota Timberwolves allowed 7.2 points less per 100 possessions with Rubio on the court. Which is absolutely positively insane. And fantastic. If he can work his offense into a shape that isn’t so dismal, he could lead a set of teams much akin to the mid-90s Sonics, as the defensive stalwart and the improve-everyone-else point guard.

Is this anything like we expected, when he was hyped up? Not by a longshot. Per the Pistol Pete expectations, Rubio was about as disappointing as he could possibly be. But that’s the thing. He’s not disappointing at all. Just like the Who are only disappointing if you accept a flawed premise to begin with, Rubio’s only disappointing if you accepted the idea that he was going to be some dominant offensive superstar. He’s not Chris Paul, he’s not Kyrie Irving, he’s not Deron Williams. Rubio is his own man, bringing the league something it hasn’t seen in decades and doing it in such an endearing and floppy-haired way that it’s impossible to do anything but smile when watching him play his game. My ex taught me a lot more than she’ll ever know over our short fling, and foremost among them was to keep my expectations from lording over everything I think. Because oftentimes those expectations are wrong, or silly, or absurd-in-retrospect. In the case of Rubio, all that is true. But his game is no less wonderful for its lack of offensive spackle. It’s merely different, and it takes a different level of engagement to appreciate than we were perhaps expecting. And above all, he’s emphatically his own man — it does him scant justice to relegate him to the shadow of players he barely resembles.

He’s no Pistol, no Nash, no Paul. He’s Ricky Rubio — and from all appearances, that’s more than enough to start.

Seth Carstens