The duality of international NBA players when it comes to their league and international play is slowly coming to an end.
Patty Mills, who is known for lighting it up on the international stage, was given the green light to shoot after signing with the Brooklyn Nets. Consistently putting up Olympic-like numbers may not be needed as he shares the court with Kevin Durant and James Harden, but the scoring opportunities are aplenty and more free than in his time with the San Antonio Spurs.
Bogdan Bogdanovic needed a few years to assimilate to the NBA before becoming as dangerous as the Bogdanovic that was automatic from behind the three-point line in international competition. His regular season production has dipped slightly with the Atlanta Hawks, but he has become vital for Hawks in the playoffs.
Like Bogdanovic and Mills, Ricky Rubio has been a staple in the international game, but his NBA play is, depending on who you talk to, either subdued by circumstance or left for wanting more. The fifth overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft came into the league with much fanfare, but failed to live up to the expectations (partly because he was drafted before Stephen Curry) despite becoming a solid point guard in recent years. That he was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves may have also added to his woes.
His circumstances with the Cleveland Cavaliers this season, however, have offered a different take and added to the changing narrative of his career.
The Spaniard has been averaging 15.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 1.4 steals, numbers that can be potentially sustained with the absence of Collin Sexton, who opted for season-ending surgery to address a torn meniscus in his left knee. Rubio’s scoring (on a career-high 37.1 three-point shooting percentage) has also been a major boost not just for his teammates, but for himself as well. Moreover, it has not diminished his passing, as his assist percentage of 34.5 percent is the 12th best in the NBA and is the best mark on the team.
The scouting report on Rubio in years past was that he was a pass mostly, and not so much a pass-first, point guard. With the added scoring threat, defenders must now try to determine whether the 2019 FIBA World Cup MVP will pass or look for his shot. The New York Knicks experienced this firsthand as Rubio torched them for a career-high 37 points (on a career-high eight three-pointers) and 10 assists.
Gone are the days when Rubio was the young guard trying to find his place in leading an offense and an organization out of the cellar. Now the elder statesman with the Cavaliers, the 31-year old gives Sexton and Darius Garland a veteran presence off the bench that they can learn from as they too are finding their way in the NBA.
In the 117-112 loss to the Nets, Cleveland initially had the upper hand after they entered halftime with a 63-52 lead over Brooklyn. A 32-19 third quarter negated all of that and the Cavaliers ended up squandering what was a winnable game. Nevertheless, the game was proof that they can hang with the preseason title favorites even if they were without Sexton and rookie Evan Mobley.
Rubio came off the bench and finished with 16 points, seven rebounds, and five assists, providing the majority of the bench production along with Kevin Love (eight points and 12 rebounds). He made the three-pointer that brought Cleveland to within a point, 109-108, with 1:58 left in the game, but couldn’t knock down another one in the last 30 seconds to cut the deficit to a single possession.
With December right around the corner, Rubio and the Cavaliers will be in for an interesting stretch to end the year as five of their next 10 games include matchups against Rubio’s former teams (the Timberwolves, the Utah Jazz, and the red-hot Phoenix Suns), the defiant Chicago Bulls, and the defending champions Milwaukee Bucks. At 9-9, they remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race where only a couple of games separate playoff spots and the lottery.
The Ricky Rubio you see with the Cleveland Cavaliers is a markedly different one from the passing prodigy who entered the league a decade ago. He is currently set to hit the free agent market after the 2021-2022 season but after a year in which he continued to show out in the international stage and provided a solid presence for the Cavaliers, Rubio may not have to look far when searching for a home.