Seemingly a changed shooter since the All-Star break, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio finished his sixth NBA season by reaching career bests in scoring, assists and field-goal percentage.
He averaged 17.2 points, 10.2 assists and shot 35.8 percent on three-pointers during his final 17 games and is believed to have earned a $100,000 contract bonus by shooting better than 40 percent from the field. He sat out Wednesday’s season finale at Houston.
During a postseason address with reporters Friday, Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves’ coach and president of basketball operations, praised Rubio’s improvement over the season’s final two months but wasn’t exactly unequivocal when asked if Rubio is his starting point guard come next season.
“As of today, yeah,” Thibodeau said.
Thibodeau took a longer look at rookie Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones on Wednesday. Dunn started and responded with 16 assists, second only by a Wolves rookie to Stephon Marbury’s 17 in April 1997. Jones scored a season-high 17 points.
Thibodeau called Rubio “nicked up.” By sitting out, Rubio ensured his season shooting percentage stayed at .402. He also finished with averages of 11.1 points and 9.1 assists.
Rubio himself posted a couple of seemingly wistful Instagram messages at season’s end. He thanked assistant coach Ryan Saunders for challenging him to become better every day for the past three years and thanked fans for their support and unconditional love.
“I promise to work hard this offseason to come back better than ever,” he wrote in one.
Rubio’s work thus far made him something of a transformed player since the Wolves, according to multiple reports, considered trading him for New York’s oft-injured Derrick Rose, a Thibodeau favorite from Chicago whose contract is expiring.
Thibodeau spoke Friday about his first season coaching Rubio and was asked if Rubio’s offensive improvement late in the season had made him the kind of point guard a team can win big with going forth.
“Yeah, I thought he got better and better as the season went along,” Thibodeau said, mentioning an elbow injury that sidelined Rubio at season’s start. “The three [-point shot] will be the next thing that comes. … He’s right there. He’s shooting the ball with a lot more confidence, so those are good signs.”
Thibodeau now knows Rubio’s game as only one who has coached a player can.
“I always thought he was a good player,” Thibodeau said. “Like all players, you don’t know a player until you coach them. … I can see why Ricky has improved. It’s the way he works.”
Thibodeau also said he’s “optimistic” forthcoming restricted free agent Shabazz Muhammad can be re-signed.
He met individually with players on Thursday before he sent them into their summer with a month’s “active rest” while asking them to both watch and study the NBA playoffs.
After that month, they go back to work on development programs while Thibodeau and his staff prepare for June’s draft and July’s free agency and pursue trades that could come sooner or later.
Thibodeau said he believes his team established a style of play and young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as its bedrock during a 31-victory season that ended Wednesday in Houston.
“We put the foundation in,” Thibodeau said, “and now we can add layers to it.”
He identified improved shooting, toughness and defense — both shot-blocking inside and out on the wing — as the biggest needs if his team intends to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Thibodeau also has crunched the numbers on other things and knows this:
“We have 151 days until camp opens next year,” he said. “There is a lot of work that has to be done.”