MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Ricky Rubio entered his fifth NBA season at a crossroads.
The Spanish point guard had carved a reputation as one of the best passers and defenders in the league, yet he still had so much to prove.
As he started a new four-year, $56 million extension, Rubio had to show that he could stay healthy and knock down the open jump shot.
As the Timberwolves head down the home stretch of a 12th straight season that will end without a playoff berth, Rubio has gone more than four months without missing a game and has started to see his shooting percentages climb as a result.
It's a relief not only to the Timberwolves and their fans, but to Rubio himself. He had a major knee injury as a rookie and a major ankle injury last year, both stunting his ability to work on his game in the summers.
And when he reported to training camp this season still experiencing some discomfort in his surgically repaired ankle, he started to wonder if he would ever be fully healthy.
"It's like damn, can my body handle it?" Rubio told The Associated Press. "I'm actually pretty happy how I handled the season. ... It's something I'm really proud of."
He has not missed a game since Nov. 29, and is just five games away from his first summer without some sort of injury rehab since he came over from Spain in 2011. And he sees a direct correlation between his health and his improved shooting since the All-Star break.
A career 36 percent shooter, Rubio is shooting 42 percent in the past 24 games and 38 percent on 3-pointers. He is also shooting 51.3 percent at the rim this season, a dramatic improvement over the first four years (33.9).
"I think quietly Ricky has had an unbelievable year," coach Sam Mitchell said. "He's in the weight room, working on his body. He's been resilient. He's taken care of himself. I think Ricky likes playing with this core of young guys that we have. And he is included (in that young core). He's only 25."
He has worked with Arnie Kander, a renowned physical therapist, to strengthen his core and base and has flown in a trainer for Spain several times this season. He has also worked tirelessly with personal shooting coach Mike Penberthy and Wolves assistant Ryan Saunders to address his biggest weakness.
"This is the best I've felt," Rubio said of his shooting stroke. "The last (12) games I'm making one or two 3s a game. It's showing up. It's not just that. I'm not afraid to take the shot. Every time I take the shot, even when I miss, it feels like it's going in. It's a feeling that I've never had before."
Saunders has focused on simplifying the shooting process, dropping notes in Rubio's locker that emphasize being shot ready, shooting in one fluid motion, holding the follow-through and sticking the landing.
"One thing that I think is important to Ricky is to let him know you care and have confidence in him," Saunders said. "His mechanics have not been terrible or anything like that. He just needs confidence."
It's something Rubio has always yearned for — the show of faith from the organization, especially after his name came up in February as the trade deadline approached. The Milwaukee Bucks made several overtures to Wolves GM Milt Newton, and the rumors stung Rubio.
Rubio said Newton told him that he was "almost traded, but we didn't because the other team didn't offer what we wanted."
"When the GM comes to you and says that's what happened, it hurts, but you've got to be professional," Rubio said. "You've been here all your career and thinking they were supporting you. At some point, they weren't. But I'm professional. I'm going to give it my all. I love playing basketball and every time I step on the court I want to win."
But Newton believes Rubio may have misinterpreted the conversation the two had after the trade deadline passed.
"I told him we've never, ever called another team to trade you, but it is my job to listen," Newton said. "I even shared that with his agent. I never told him we almost traded you, because we didn't almost trade him."
Newton said he would have further conversations with Rubio to clear up any misunderstanding. He called Rubio "extremely valuable to the organization" and said he has already run some possible roster moves by him to get his point guard's input.
"I know that he needs a little bit more communication," said Newton, who took over as the team's front office leader after Flip Saunders died in October. "If that's what it takes for a player to play to the best of his ability, those are things I'll have to realize and facilitate."
What Rubio wants most is stability. The roster changes in his five years have been dizzying, but now he sees a promising young core that includes Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine that he wants to grow with.
"I understand it's a business," Rubio said. "I really like playing with these guys. We have a chemistry. We're building it. And I'm having fun playing with them."