Seeing the court like the great ones
Rubio's ability to process thousands of data points make him basketball 'genius'
Ricky Rubio can't jump high, doesn't move fast and isn't especially tall. His shot is mechanical, and his scoring stats remain underwhelming -- usually just a few points a game for his Spanish professional and national teams. But he possesses one talent in abundance that gives him a chance to one day make a splash, and perhaps star, in the NBA.
Sport scientists call it "field sense" or "court vision," the ability to anticipate what will happen next when bodies are in motion and split-second decisions must be made.
Steve Nash and Jason Kidd have it. So did Wayne Gretzky. It's helped Drew Brees to a Super Bowl title, and enabled the Hall of Fame careers of other undersized athletes.
"He's a genius," Rubio's youth coach, Marc Calderon, says of his former pupil.
That's an appropriate word to use, say sport scientists who spoke with "Outside the Lines" about Rubio. Despite its name, court vision is not a function of vision itself -- the ability to see well -- but the ability to collect, process and act upon large amounts of data in a dynamic setting. All human beings use this cognitive skill as they pick their way through crowds without bumping into others, as does every point guard running the break. Rubio, 20, simply brings superior power and efficiency to the challenge.
Court vision is what allowed him to turn pro at age 14 and made him a YouTube sensation. As scouts say, he's capable of one "wow" play, usually a pass, per game.
"If he was 29 years old I don't think there would be nearly the hype that there is, but I think everyone understands the age, and then it's the fantastic play," says former NBA coach Eric Musselman. "He makes plays only four or five guys in the world can make."
Here's how magic moments like those unfold, step-by-step:
Rubio surveys the available visual data
Make no mistake, there's a lot of it to take in as he or any player brings the ball upcourt.
For starters, there's the movement of four teammates to consider, each of whom has 14 body segments -- right and left feet, lower legs, thighs, trunk, head, upper arms, forearms, hands -- and each of those segments has its own linear position, velocity and acceleration, according to Peter Vint, a sports scientist with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Each of those 252 "parameters" per athlete counts toward making him a candidate to receive a pass.
Now throw in the five defensive players trying to stop a score, plus Rubio himself, and the numbers grow significantly. Also there's the ball, which has its own movement characteristics Rubio must consider and control as he dribbles through traffic. "So, in total, if you include Ricky paying attention to himself and everything else, there are approximately, 10*(9+252)+1*11 = 2,621 parameters related just to the position and motion of the other players and the ball at every instant in time," Vint wrote in an e-mail to "Outside the Lines."
You don't have to understand the math to appreciate where Vint is headed. "If an average sequence up and down the floor lasts 10 seconds," he wrote, "and if Ricky samples [collects] the available data just twice every second, the number of 'data points' in the entire sequence becomes 2,621*10*2 = 54,420." Yeah, 54,000-plus pieces of information to download, with plenty of time left on the shot clock.
And you thought guys like Rubio and Chris Paul were just ballin'.
Rubio sorts the visual data
The brain can process only so many data points at once -- think about the challenge of memorizing a 10-digit phone number -- so the next step is instantly recognizing which data to disregard.
"Yes," says Damien Farrow, an Australian Institute of Sports scientist who is a world leader in court-vision research, "there is a lot of information that can be considered and processed in these situations. However, typically the elite guys like Rubio don't get bogged down with all that information. Through practice and experience, they know how to filter the information and attend to only the most critical."
That guy on the wing who's open for a 3 but can't shoot the 3? Dead data. Instead, Rubio dials into the opportunity that presents itself at the top of the key, if that forward can lose his man on the pick. And he has backup options, each of them rising and falling in order of priority each fraction of a second. It's all about "situational probability," a relentless calculus that establishes expectations of likely events as they unfold. Here, long-term memory, the ability to recall successful patterns, is critical.
So, too, is the ability to "chunk" the most relevant information into manageable units. It's a way of bundling data so that it can be processed efficiently. "In terms of chess and basketball, the exact same things likely happen," Vint says. "Chess masters 'chunk' entire patterns of pieces on the board rather than recall them as individual units." In basketball, these patterns merely play out, and are recognized, at hyper-drive speed.
Rubio acts on the data
NBA scouts are concerned that Rubio lacks the foot speed to stay in front of fast, physical guards, but he does have a knack for stealing the ball. Having a 6-foot-9 wingspan on his 6-foot-3 body aids in that manner, for sure, but such thievery primarily flows from his ability to recognize visual cues and anticipate the next move of an attacker. So it's not just a talent that can be employed on the offensive end, though that's where a player like Rubio, with the ball in his hands, can have the greatest impact.
It helps if one can dribble without conscious thought.
"I was struck by his ballhandling," Farrow says after watching YouTube highlights. "One often-forgotten element that really assists a player to process information well is that they have automatic control of the core skills. In Rubio's case, his ballhandling helped in a number of ways." It allows him to devote greater focus to analyzing the behavior of other players and more easily manipulate their subsequent actions. By wrong-footing defenders, for instance, he can deceive them about his intentions, buying time and space at their expense.
"We call it 'dual-tasking' and it is a common measure of skillful performance," Farrow says. "Many wrongly think if a player is a poor decision-maker that the way to fix this is to provide more decision-making training. This may be the case [with some players], but if they have only average control of the core skills -- ballhandling, in this case -- this may be a more important aspect to fix." At the same time, researchers now believe that coaches can help players develop their court vision by using video tools and practice techniques that encourage them to concentrate on passing options and visual clues.
Experimentation the key to court vision for Rubio
"I like to kind of sense things," Rubio says. "Sensing things in basketball is to anticipate a move, read the player's mind so you can steal the ball or be in the [right] spot. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
Calderon, who coached Rubio between the ages of 13 and 16, recalls a time when Ricky pushed this sense of adventure to the extreme, making great pass after great pass without looking at his teammates. He later asked Rubio how he knew where the recipients of those passes would be on the court. The boy pointed to a glass wall behind the basket which reflected the outlines of their image.
Rubio insists he didn't practice any differently than his peers growing up, that his talent has always been natural. But his background suggests that, at the very least, he trained in ways that have been associated with elite athletes who possess strong perceptual skills. Most notably, Rubio played other team sports as a child, including soccer, a sport Nash (and Kobe Bryant) also enjoyed while growing up. Researchers cite the benefits of transferable skills gleaned in other sports where multiple bodies are in motion.
Playing for a club, FC Barcelona, that also fields one of the world's top soccer teams, Rubio still looks to the game for ideas. "Sometimes soccer can be boring," he says. "But this Barcelona team makes soccer beautiful and that inspires you very much. You see their creativity, and that they are aggressive and go for everything."
When he's sad and needs to remind himself of his own creative potential, Rubio concedes, he'll call up his own highlight clips on YouTube. He's had reason to be down lately. He was mediocre with the Spanish national team in the World Championship this past summer, went scoreless against the Los Angeles Lakers in an exhibition game with his Barcelona club in October, and has continued to struggle in his new season with Barcelona, the team he led to the Euroleague title last season. To be fair to Rubio, his talents may not be the best fit with the club's deliberate, half-court offense.
David Kahn remains bullish on Rubio's NBA potential. The Minnesota Timberwolves' general manager, who drafted Rubio fifth overall in 2009, expects him to flourish in the kind of offense Kahn hopes to have in place by the time Rubio jumps to the NBA, which could come as soon as next year. Kahn imagines lots of ball movement and player movement, with a certain floppy-haired Spaniard bringing order to the chaos in the tradition of a pure point guard.
"In that system, he'll be a beautiful organizer," Kahn says.
Kahn likes Rubio so much, he insists he wouldn't trade him. And he's not even on the roster.
That statement is about all anyone needs to know about the value of court vision.
Tom Farrey is an ESPN correspondent and enterprise reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com. His "Outside the Lines" profile of Ricky Rubio airs Sunday at 9 a.m. ET.