By Dan Clayton
45. Ricky Rubio, Utah Jazz
With a sample size of 353 games in six NBA seasons to dissect, it’s reasonable to assume we know all the fun and flaws that constitute Ricky Rubio as a basketball player.
But just as that acceptance is forming, realizations start to strike. He’s still just days away from turning 27. He has mostly been surrounded by developing players on lottery teams. He has played for four different coaches in six NBA seasons.
Suddenly, it’s tempting to think we haven’t seen Rubio’s peak yet.
Look, Ricky Rubio won’t ever develop into a scoring powerhouse. He achieved league-average efficiency exactly once in his first six seasons (.539 TS in 2016-17), and even that outcome smacks of flukiness with a sharp post All-Star spike from three. Film study and his solid free-throw shooting both indicate there’s nothing technically broken with his shot, but when a player has more than 750 career attempts from downtown at a .315 clip, it’s unlikely the percentage will be vastly different on his next 750.
But that’s not Rubio’s value, anyway. The former top-5 pick remains an intriguing idea because of the impact he has on others as premier shot creator with elite vision. It’s no coincidence that Rubio’s arrival lined up with Kevin Love’s overnight jump to a 25-and-13 superstar. Love made the All-NBA Second team in both of his healthy seasons playing with Rubio. The Spaniard also helped Nikola Pekovic, a 5.5-ppg scorer as a rookie, look like a borderline star with 16.0 points on .584 true shooting before injuries started to pile up. Bottom line: Rubio is good for big men.
(Side note: an interesting tangential storyline to monitor here is whether budding superstar Karl-Anthony Towns suffers a developmental hiccup now that Rubio’s spot in Minnesota is filled by a guard with a scoring and slashing M.O.)
In other words, if Rubio is actually better than the 45th best player in the NBA, it will be Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors who benefit the most.
It’s why Jazz brass keep insisting their vision for Rubio is to become a 2017 version of Jason Kidd. The spirit of the comparison is understood, even if it robs Kidd of some credit for evolving his offensive reliability over the years. Kidd was never the posterboy for per-shot efficiency, but will wind up in the Hall of Fame because of his tremendous playmaking ability, a defensive profile and the size to disrupt more traditionally-built point guards.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Rubio is Springfield-bound, but the Jazz hope the electric passer and pesky defender helps Utah unlock a new level in its offense.
44. Jae Crowder, Cleveland Cavaliers
When the Cavaliers finally dealt Kyrie Irving to Boston in an offseason deal, the trade prize many focused on was guard Isaiah Thomas, and the real blue chip asset was the unprotected Brooklyn Nets draft pick. But the biggest immediate payoff is, without a doubt, the arrival of Jae Crowder.
That’s not a groundbreaking position, given that the pick will take a year to materialize and Thomas will be watching in street clothes for at least the early part of the season. But Crowder is a sneaky valuable part of that haul for a team that has tried to get Jae-esque contributions from a number of big wing types next to LeBron James.
Consider this: last year, Crowder had more points, rebounds and assists than any of JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson. He shot better than any of those three, from the field, from deep and from the free-throw line. He’s also the youngest of that group – by a whopping 10 days over Shump, but still. He’s an upgrade by practically any measure available.
Not that the Cavs won’t suffer while they wait on Thomas to get healthy. Crowder doesn’t really fill the creation void left by Irving’s departure and Thomas’ bad hip. Last season, fewer than 7.5 percent of his used possessions came as an iso scorer or pick-and-roll handler, so he’s not really the guy who will help ease the burden on James until the All-Star point guard is right.
In the interim, it’s the Derrick Rose show when LeBron sits. That could impact some of Crowder’s effectiveness, but he’s still instantly the best non-LeBron wing on a team that’s been searching for a solid non-LeBron wing for years.
If all that weren’t enough to excited Cavaliers fans, he’s also on one of the five or six best contracts in the entire NBA. He has three years left on a deal that will never even reach the new full mid-level exception. With $21.9 million still owing, he’s an absolute steal.
In the longer term, history will gauge that Irving trade based on what the Cavs score from that Nets pick and whether Kyrie takes his game to another level in Beantown. But for now, Crowder represents a real score for Cleveland, and he has a shot at being the third most valuable Cav in macro terms this season.
43. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
Ah, the Eric Bledsoe waiting game. The athletic, fierce guard will celebrate his 28th birthday before the season is 20 games old, and while he has become a primetime scorer, his overall potential remains a tantalizing enigma.
The primary culprit is health. He has missed 107 games in his four Phoenix seasons, and the Suns have missed the postseason each time. He is reportedly healthy as the preseason arrives, so the Suns now have a chance to see whether he can resume his progress towards stardom.
Before the injuries hit, Bledsoe was the rare player who went from being a low-usage backup to a centerpiece while increasing efficiency, starting as a backup to Chris Paul (and to Baron Davis before him) in L.A., averaging subpar .500 true shooting on his six shots per game in 20 nightly minutes. The next year he was sharing the top spot on Phoenix’s totem pole, seeing sharp increases in minutes and touches alongside Goran Dragic. He has been a .562 true shooter in the desert, sporting an improved three-point shot and more consistency on his free throws.
Role clarity has struggled at times, as it seems that Phoenix has always had a bit of a quarterback controversy since Bledsoe arrived. But Devin Booker’s rise as a scoring two-guard has finally caused a shift away from the Bled-and-Brandon-Knight lineups that made his role a bit murky.
Bledsoe may still take his turn guarding certain SGs, as Booker’s defense isn’t NBA-level yet. But he finally has a clear role, a green light, and health (knock on wood).
All-Star status has eluded him, largely because win-column success has eluded Phoenix even during his ascent to a 21-a-night terror. The squad’s path to relevance doesn’t appear any easier this season, with the Western Conference once again loaded, and the Suns committed to waiting on a stable of recent draftees. Only three of Bledsoe’s teammates enter the year with more than four years of experience, and in a league where kiddos don’t win a ton on their own, that could mean the waiting game will continue for Bledsoe and the Suns.
42. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
It was a rough off-season in Hoosierland, but the bright side for curious people who enjoy the versatility of 21-year-old prodigy Myles Turner, who’s worth watching for Most Improved Player this year.
Four of last year’s top 6 possession users for the Indiana Pacers are gone. Instead of replacing Paul George, Jeff Teague, CJ Miles and Monta Ellis with a go-to scorer, Indy added a couple of solid role players, making it clear that this team belongs to Turner.
It’s hard to find a facet of the game where Turner won’t be Indiana’s best player. He’s the highest returner in average points, shots, boards, blocks, boards and true shooting, and he has the tools to develop into a defensive anchor as his awareness grows. He’s already an elite shot-blocker, and if he can get better at defending without fouling, he could be the rare NBA center who can both hold down the paint on defense and stretch the floor on the other end.
Indiana may not win enough for Turner’s progress to be immediately relevant, but that’s OK. They have the luxury of patience. Turner has two years left on his rookie deal, following which the Pacers will have matching rights if they want them. The Pacers own all their first-rounders and have most of their veterans on team-friendly deals (like recent signees Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic, both of whom are only partially guaranteed next season).
So, for now, Turner will have all the minutes and looks he can handle to focus on getting better in an environment that is almost completely free of pressure.
41. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
After spending time on four guys who are ostensibly still on the way up these rankings, we inevitably bump into a guy moving the other direction.
An All-Star just 20 months ago, Aldridge has seen his perception change as sharply over the last couple of seasons as anybody. The 10-year lows in many stat categories didn’t help, and the sudden disappearance following Kawhi Leonard’s playoff injury was hard to look past.
But the real scarlet letter was the rumor that gained momentum throughout last season and into the summer: Aldridge may not be happy with the Spurs’ organization.
There are a lot of labels NBA guys don’t want to sport. Soft. Tweener. Signed with Big Baller. But un-Spursian ranks pretty high up there with terms that land a pro basketball player on the proverbial shitlist. Gregg Popovich is an institution in basketball, and the culture around the Spurs often brings out the best in players. If a player is disgruntled there, the logic goes, then where exactly can he be… well, gruntled?
Now, the relationship could very easily be salvageable. LMA is a smart player whose skills qualify him to be the staple of a very good offense or the second fiddle on a great one. He even canned a couple dozen threes at a decent clip last season – not a huge sample, but an indication that he can still be an offensive cheat code at times. He does enough on defense to get by, especially if you don’t ask him to protect the rim.
Still, Aldridge’s teams have made the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons, with Aldridge in a featured role. He’s a five-time All-Star and four-time all-league big man. In other words, he’s probably underrated here at #41, but until people understand what’s going on with his fit next to revered coach and a top five NBA player, he’s got a little more to prove.