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Ricky Rubio should help himself

Ricky Rubio is great to watch. He's just not great.

Ricky Rubio is great to watch. He's just not great.

Ricky Rubio was worth the wait. For two years after the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted the wunderkind point guard, fans had to content themselves with dazzling highlights... from Spain, where Rubio remained, a sign that some took as reluctance to move from beautiful Barcelona to icy Minneapolis.

We Twin Citians don't do well with long-term relationships. Some struck a jilted-lover pose. Were we not good enough?

All was forgiven shortly after his arrival. Rubio established himself as the point guard of the future, a teenage magician whose tricks confounded the deftest defenders.

With his floppy hair whirling and players — ours, and theirs — flowing exactly where Ricky needed them, the young wizard seemed capable of generating his own wind. Once the kid learned to shoot, he'd be unstoppable.

And for that, we are waiting still.

That Rubio could be so gifted in one way and so deficient in another is a biophysical anomaly. Ricky can do anything you'd ever ask of a basketball player — except the one thing that actually means you win the game.

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He routinely produces surprising, delightful passes that trace a glorious arc across a skyline of NBA towers. Just as often, those same hands are to blame for an abominable shot that travels as if a devious fan has diverted the ball with a blow-dart. It's known as a "brick," and Rubio has produced enough masonry to construct a second Target Center.

"Maybe I'm not a good shooter, or whatever they say," Rubio told MinnPost in November.

What they say is true, Rick. And Rubio is not even bad. He is the worst. Ever.

Among players with 5,000 or more career minutes, Rubio's 36.6 shooting percentage is the lowest figure ever recorded. Think of every rock-fisted oaf or forgettable journeyman you've ever seen. Ricky shoots worse than them all.

He has not improved: Rubio shot 36 percent his rookie year, and will shoot 36 percent in this one. One saving grace is that he's aware of his shortcomings, and typically spares fans the horrid sight of his wayward flightpaths.

Were he not such a fabulous dribbler and passer, Ricky would just be some guy who's fun to play with at open gym.

But he is those things, and his flair for setting up teammates has done wonders for everyone he's played with. Kevin Love blossomed into a greedy scoring maven. Nikola Pekovic, the Montenegrin mountain, feasted on daintily laid Rubio passes like a black bear sweeping up raspberries.

Ricky makes everyone better. Except himself.

All this might be acceptable if Minnesota was resigned to being a middle-of-the-pack contender. A talented but fatally flawed star can still be great to watch.

But a funny thing occurred while Rubio's shooting didn't progress. The team around him did.

In Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota has back-to-back No. 1 draft picks who've accomplished the rare thing of exceeding their hype. Wiggins combines the physical gifts of Tracy McGrady and the maturity to wait for the game to come to him. Towns plays like Tim Duncan if they'd let Duncan put pogo-sticks in his shoes.

Only once in franchise history, in the mid-2000s, did the Timberwolves have any real hope of glory. But that team was slapped together with late-career accessories like Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. The "glory days" lasted all of one year.

This is different. Towns and Wiggins are the kind of players who win championships. But they won't. Not if Ricky can't shoot.

This is not an attack. It is a lament. Rubio is one of my favorite players. He's a joy to watch, partly because he is joyful, the rare smiling star in a league of scowlers.

But he plays like... me. As a little kid, I was a pass-first, pass-second, no-seriously-somebody-get-open point guard.

The late Flip Saunders used to charitably attribute Rubio's dreadful scoring to his good qualities. He is just so unselfish, Saunders reasoned, so committed to helping someone else score, that he only shoots out of desperation.

I used to let people think my style was pure selflessness. It was actually fear.

There is the same fear in Ricky. He solves his problem by avoiding it. He's shooting less than ever these days. Opposing defenses leave our handsome protagonist unguarded in feet of open space, knowing he's no threat. That leaves an extra defender to harass our bolder weapons.

Fans love watching Ricky play, and teammates love playing with him. Everyone has fun. Until the end, when they lose.

Rubio is on a new four-year, $56 million contract, one that will take him through the last days of Kevin Garnett and into the prime years of Wiggins and Towns. If Rubio is still shooting poorly, the Timberwolves must find someone else. It's the difference between dynasty and disappointment.

It's not often we get to tell someone to stop being so damn nice and be more selfish. Get greedy, Ricky. The player you need to help score is yourself. Do that and you'll find that all of us are smiling with you. 


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