Mar 15, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) drives the ball during the second quarter as Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio (9) defends at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Ricky Rubio: Breaking Down a Defensive Wizard


There have been a lot of words spent in considering, discussing, and debating Timberwolves’ point guard Ricky Rubio. A high percentage has centered on his passing prowess, and rightfully so. Rubio is a magician in the open floor and a precise tactician in the half court offense; a point man in the same class as present-day passing savants such as Chris Paul and Rajon Rando.

But as magnificent as Rubio’s court vision and passing are, not much (or not enough, at least) has been written about the Spaniard’s defensive play. Sure, League Pass addicts and many folks in the NBA blogosphere understand that Rubio is a solid defender. In fact, Rubio was leading the league in steals in his rookie season before going down with a torn ACL. But just how good is he? And why have more of the national pundits noticed?

[RELATED: Updated NBA Power Rankings]

There was a Timberwolves-Magic game early in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season (prior to the knee injury) that was televised on NBATV, and one of the former-players-turned-talking-heads in the studio (I can’t remember who it was…I think it was someone who no longer works for the network) was matter-of-factly stating that Rubio was not a good defender, and was nowhere near the level of a John Wall-like defensive point guard. I vividly recall spitting out whatever beverage was in my mouth at the time and becoming apoplectic at such a careless and preposterous statement.

Clearly, knee surgery took a toll on Rubio’s quickness on both ends of the floor, and it is evident in watching back footage from earlier this season. But he was still passable, and is nearly back to playing the same energetic, exhausting defense that he displayed last season. So please, join me in taking a look at some perfect examples of defensive brilliance.

Let’s begin by going to the numbers. On the season, Synergy Sports’ numbers do not paint an overwhelmingly encouraging picture of Rubio’s defense for the 2012-13 season. In fact, in what Synergy classifies as spot-up situations, Rubio surrenders 1.19 points per possession, only good enough for 346th of all NBA players.

This is far from a perfect measure, as nearly a third of the 111 spot-up defensive situations that Rubio has faced this season have been a man that became his responsibility after the defense rotated. By my count, almost half of Rubio’s 111 spot-up challenges on the perimeter were solid, regardless of whether or not the shooter converted the shot attempt.

There are three reasons why Rubio’s points per possession are so poor against spot-up shooters. First, Rubio has been beaten off the dribble 23 times this year in 111 spot-up opportunities (20.7%) through last Friday night’s game in Phoenix. His recovery from knee surgery is partly to blame for this statistic, to be sure.

Secondly, the Wolves’ rim protection is suspect, ranking near the middle of the pack in blocked shots this season but really not being terribly effective with help defense in the lane. Rubio has played many of his minutes with the defensively-subpar Derrick Williams, the undersized Dante Cunningham, and the vertically-challenged Nikola Pekovic. Needless to say, there has not been much of a second line of defense.

And finally, Rubio’s greatest defensive quality also contributes to his downfall from time to time: help defense. Rubio is a fantastic help defender; arguably the best in the league from the backcourt. But occasionally, Rubio will sag too far towards the lane or towards the middle of floor.

The majority of the time, however, he does this masterfully.

Note his positioning early in the clip when Dwayne Wade ends up with the ball underneath the basket. Rubio is near Mickael Gelabale’s man in the corner to deny a potential pass, and yet remains in the perfect spot between his man, Mario Chalmers to keep Wade from floating a pass over him for an open shot.

Rubio recovered to Chalmers in enough time to cause him to drive to his right, and Rubio eventually was credited with a steal on the possession when Chalmers became trapped along the baseline. This possession was textbook Rubio.

Out of the 111 spot-up situations for through last Friday night’s game in Phoenix, Rubio had committed two fouls on jump shots. Rubio is actually quite good at challenging otherwise open jump shooters. He is adept at sprinting up to the shooter, stopping on a dime with both arms up, and usually avoiding being called for a foul. Here is a perfect example against one of the best three-point shooters in the league, Ryan Anderson:

And finally, a great example of Rubio helping in the post and still recovering to make a very good contest on a jump-shooter.

Believe me, there were dozens of video clips that I could have used to illustrate just how good the 22-year old point guard is on the defense end of the court. Despite being near the top of the league in steals per game since his career began, Rubio is more than just a flashy defender that gambles to compile steals. He knows where to position himself at all times, and he understands the concept of defensive rotations. He can sniff out where the ball is headed in advance, and he hustles to inflict maximum pressure on his opponents. Rubio is nothing short of an elite team defense player, and the effect that his presence has on the opposing offense is undeniable.

Of course, he can also throw in the flashy one-on-one steal with the best of them on occasion.


Tags: Featured Minnesota TImberwolves Popular Ricky Rubio

  • James Carr

    Don’t forget, he picked Derrick Rose’s pocket at mid-court in a Friendly between Spain and the USA a couple of years back. I’ve never seen anyone besides Rubio do that to Rose.