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Untapped Potential: Ricky Rubio

Ricky Rubio announced he was retiring from the NBA on X January 4th. It was a fairly expected move after he took a break from the Spanish national team and professional basketball in general five months ago. Rubio has been struggling with mental health, and eventually he felt it was time to end his 12-year NBA career. It was an interesting one, full of ups and downs and yes, untapped potential. Perhaps not in the normal sense, where injury or worse happened to rob them of their careers, like Greg Oden. But for one reason or another Rubio never quite managed to live up to the hype.



Rubio debuted at 14 with DKV Juventut

Marcel Mutoni/Slam Online


Rubio made his waves early, perhaps earlier than almost any other player. He made his pro debut for LIGA ACB’s DKV Joventut at the tender age of 14 years 11 months. While he didn’t play much in that first year, making your pro debut when most of your peers are maybe entering high school is unbelievable. It didn’t take Rubio long to make an impact. In just the next season, despite only playing 18.9 minutes a game he averaged 3.4 steals, leading the league. The year after that he was named the best point guard in the LIGA ACB. 2008 is also where Rubio gained worldwide attention. 

Hype Builds

Rubio was selected to Spanish Basketball’s Summer Olympic roster at just 17. Awaiting him was the legendary USA Redeem Team, who had everything to prove. In the gold medal game, Rubio ended up leading his team in minutes and played well against one of the most stacked rosters to ever grace a basketball court. For his exploits he was awarded the Mister Europa European Player of the Year award in 2008. An award that many European players that would go on to have NBA careers also won, including Arvydas Sabonis, Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc. Following the hype, Rubio declared for the 2009 NBA draft where he was taken fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Rubio and the Timberwolves decided for various reasons that Rubio should stay in Europe for a few years at least, and Rubio went on to star for Barcelona for the next two years. He won best point guard again in 2010, and his team won both their domestic league as well as the Euroleague, easily the second best league in the world. His final year in 2011 didn’t produce the same level of hardware, but it wasn’t anything that killed the hype Rubio was garnering. He would finally arrive in the NBA ahead of the 2011-2012 season.



The thing with Rubio’s potential was the assumption of improvement. Afterall, how could a player that debuted at 14 years old not improve? Rubio showed a remarkable feel for the game and poise that young players simply don’t have. His ability to run the offense, set up others and play the passing lanes on defense showed an advanced understanding of positioning well beyond his years. If Rubio could just add some scoring threat he would instantly become one of the best players in the league. With Rubio having intangible skills that are hard to teach, it was assumed he would be able to eventually pick up those tangible things like shooting and finishing. Young players are supposed to get better every year after all, adding new skills and refining ones they already have. 


With Rubio though, it never really seemed to happen. For all his accolades in Europe, his statlines there were remarkably similar to what he would go on to do in the NBA. Keeping in mind the extremely low scoring environment he played in (teams rarely averaged above 80 points per game) he averaged 7.0/2.8/3.9 in his six seasons on 38.5/33.5/76.5 splits. His one standout statistic was steals, where he averaged two per game and often was among the league leaders.

Looking at those stat lines would paint a much different picture than the one I laid out previously, but Rubio really did win all of those awards despite that. He was a solid rebounder for the position, a great passer and often made the right plays while also being an absolute menace on defense. With all of that good though, came a total lack of scoring ability, whether up close or from distance. Keep that in mind as we explore his NBA career.



Ricky Rubio balances two basketballs at Media Day with Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center, Mpls., Friday, December 9, 2011. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)

Jean Pieri/Pioneer Press

Rubio arrived in Minnesota at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season to great fanfare. Fans greeted him as he came off the plane, and his debut game was the Timberwolves first sellout since the 2007-2008 season. It’s clear expectations for the 21 year old phenom were sky high. His first season was a promising one. His raw numbers were better than anything he did in Spain, averaging 10.6 points, 4.2 boards and 8.2 assists with his usual 2+ steals. Of course, his percentages were still quite bad, but for a young guy in his first season the promise was there.

Unfortunately he would run into the second issue that would plague him his whole career. Injuries. Halfway through the season, he tore his ACL, missing the rest of the season. He came in second in rookie of the year voting. Rubio showed all the things that made him a hot commodity. Excellent floor generalship and pesky perimeter defense with a lack of scoring touch. 

Shooting Woes

For a player of his age, those are fine numbers. The problem is that his numbers remained nearly identical for the rest of his Timberwolves career. Each year he got older the more it became an issue. The narrative around him was always “if he could just shoot” or “if he could just finish at the rim”. Around 2015 he was found to be the worst shooter in modern NBA history. A scoring threat would’ve allowed his game to truly blossom, as he would have commanded much more defensive attention, opening the court for others.

As it was though, the ceiling on his game was rather low. He would pull off a triple double here, a crazy assist game there, but he was never able to lead the Timberwolves to any sort of relevancy. For his six-year Minnesota career he averaged 10.3 points, 8.5 assists, and 4.2 rebounds on 37/31/83 splits with 2.1 steals. Again, more or less identical to his rookie year. He also missed significant time in three of the six seasons, although two were from the one ACL tear. 



Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell are talented individuals - but can they succeed together?

Mark Deeks/Sky Sports

Rubio moved on to Utah Jazz for a first round pick showing there was still value in what he brings. At the same time, it was top-14 protected so he wasn’t THAT valuable either. Rubio had arguably his best years with the Jazz, making the playoffs both seasons. He mentored the budding superstar Donovan Mitchell, who still has glowing things to say about Rubio even now, and posted his career best in points and assists. Nothing crazy, but he also did manage to creep over the 40% mark from the field, removing him from the “worst shooter ever” talk. It’s also unsurprising given his playmaking that Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles, two other key members of Utah’s playoff teams, had career years with him.

His numbers were not dramatically different, but in Utah with just a change from worst of all time shooting to just bad, he was seen in a new light. Instead of a disappointment in Minnesota, Rubio garnered praise as an excellent complementary piece that raises the ceilings of winning teams. 

Bouncing Around

That led him to sign a solid deal with the Phoenix Suns the next season, three years 51 million. Again playing with a bunch of rising stars, Rubio helped them go from 19-63 the year before he joined to 34-39 which included their infamous “Bubble Suns” undefeated streak. He kept up similar numbers to his Utah stint. 

The next season he rejoined the Timberwolves through a series of trades, but took a step back in his age 30 season, posting career lows across the board. That made him expendable in the following season, leading to a trade to what would be his final stop, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Full Power

2019 and 2020 also marked what prime, full potential Rubio could look like, seen in his international performances. He was stellar in both the 2019 FIBA World Cup and the 2020 Olympics, showing a level of scoring that had never been seen before for him. In fact, he was the top scorer in points per game in the Olympics and dropped 38 points against a stacked United States team, which is the most anyone has scored against the US.


Last Stop

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Charlotte Hornets

Brian Westerholt/USA TODAY Sports

In his first year with the Cavs, Rubio was closer to his Utah and Phoenix level than Minnesota. In their 2021-2022 run that put them on the map, Rubio was a key factor in the breakout. He ran the offense smoothly whenever he filled in for Darius Garland. When Rubio went down with an ACL tear, it became very clear that the Cavs were totally reliant on him or Garland to make the offense work. His injury left a big hole in that department. 

He missed the first half of the 2022-2023 season rehabbing, and was unfortunately unable to really re-establish himself. The addition of Donovan Mitchell and Caris LeVert’s full integration into the team made his role rather redundant, and it was clear he wasn’t recovered from the ACL tear fully.

He finished his Cavs career averaging 9.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Not to sound like a broken record, but again not too dissimilar to his overall career numbers. Especially impressive considering he was coming off the bench for the first time in his career.


Untapped Potential Staff/

So for Rubio, his untapped potential really comes down to two things. Injuries, and just an overall lack of improvement. He came to the league and left it basically the same way. One of the best pure point guards in the league, a tenacious and smart defender, but with no scoring punch which stopped him from being the superstar he could have been. We saw what Rubio with scoring looked like in the 2020 Olympics, and it was magnificent.

Unfortunately, it’s not something he could put together in the NBA. Perhaps his early ACL tear is why he never made it fully, but many players just never learn to shoot. Perhaps he was one of them. Still, he was one of the best at what he did, and by all accounts was an excellent teammate. He mentored a number of young players in his career, one of which was Donovan Mitchell. 

Beloved By All

Speaking shortly after Rubio’s retirement, Mitchell had nothing but love for his former teammate. He said Rubio helped him just as much as his coach, Quinn Snyder, did in Utah.  Mitchell said Rubio with taught him a myriad of things on and off the court. Mitchell also praised Rubio’s attitude too, saying Rubio was “wanted in every situation, rebuilding or a contender, everyone wants you around.” Rubio didn’t live up to his potential, but he was still a good NBA player, and especially later in his career he was arguably a great one in his role. Perhaps just as important, he was beloved by all his teammates, with no one ever having a bad word to say about him. While his full potential may have been “untapped” he showed out for club and country on multiple occasions and his career will be looked at fondly.

Patrick Yen is a contributor on Back Sports Page.  He has written for NBC, SB Nation and a few more websites in his four-year sports journalism career. He has been the Back Sports Page beat writer for the Philadelphia 76ers and now the Cleveland Cavaliers. Patrick, a graduate from the Ohio State University, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but moved to Columbus, Ohio early in his life and has lived there ever since. You can find more of Patrick on Twitter @pyen117.

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