(Editor’s Note: To kick off our coverage of the 2015-16 NBA season, we’re profiling the most intriguing players of all 30 NBA teams. What makes them intriguing? It could be their talent, quirkiness or the unknown — it doesn’t matter. Follow The NBA’s 30 Men of Intrigue series here with us at TSFJ, as our friends and family join us for another awesome basketball campaign.)
Ricky Rubio (La Pistola
2014-15 Minnesota Timberwolves: 16-66
Ricky Rubio entered the 2009 NBA Draft with the look of Pete Maravich, the flare of Steve Nash and the promise of Sebastian Telfair. He was supposed to change the game — or rather, embody what the future could be.
No European guard came with more hype than Rubio thanks to a highlight reel he put together as a teenager. He threw no-look passes, he darted through defenses and he smiled incessantly through it all. Rubio, dressed in the Blaugrana of Barcelona with a mop of hair, wasn’t far off from a basketball Messi if not a messiah.
So no one could fault the Minnesota Timberwolves for plucking the young Spaniard with the fifth overall pick in 2009. But in the six years since, Rubio’s become the quintessential modern athlete: a player whose foibles are widely panned in an overly critical sports world. We focus on what Rubio can’t do instead of what he can. He can’t shoot. He can’t stay healthy. He can’t hack it in the physical NBA. He’s adequate at best as a defender.
Minnesota finished with a losing record each of Rubio’s four seasons. He lost the joy that made him so coveted as an adolescent — his soulful play, his spirit, his intangible quality the Spanish call duende. To add to the doldrums, we all watched as the player selected two picks after Rubio, Steph Curry, ascended to the top of the basketball world.
And yet, if we allow ourselves to forget all of that — comparisons to Maravich and Nash, the exploits of Curry, the injuries, the YouTube clips, the failed chemistry with Kevin Love, the lack of a playoff appearance, and most importantly the hype — we’re left with two statistics that could define Rubio going forward.
His age at the start of the 2015-16 season: 25. His assists-per-game average in his NBA career: 8.2.
Most NBA fans, hell most NBA GMs, would gladly accept such a young, experienced player with that kind of pedigree. But with someone who had so much promise — and whose flaws are well-documented — there’s an added challenge. Can phenoms have second acts?
Being good enough doesn’t fly for lottery picks. Still, Rubio remains the key to the Timberwolves’ immediate success. He alone is charged with jump-starting an offense fit with high-flyers like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and the 2015 No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns.
With so much talent around him, Rubio the facilitator can finally flourish. It starts with space. On the court, Wiggins’ ability to drive the basket occupies defenders who otherwise might challenge Rubio to beat them from the perimeter. No longer tasked with floating hopeless jumpers, Rubio can either dish off to Wiggins or drive into the lanes the forward’s mere presence creates.
Towns, on the other hand, offers Minnesota a versatile big man who can thrive in the pick-and-roll offense that Rubio loves. Moreover, the Kentucky product, as we were told ad nauseum in the lead-up to the draft, can shoot the three. Rubio has options on offense, something he hasn’t had before nor was he looking for. If his physical limitations harmed his game, so too did his willingness to crash into traffic. With Towns and Wiggins in tow, the traffic will no longer be as thick.
There will be another type of space that will help Rubio as well. Pegged as the baby-faced savior of the franchise in a post-KG funk, Rubio struggled to grow in a stagnant environment. Everything was at times in flux and entrenched in mediocrity. Rubio faced constant rumors of discontent. He didn’t want to be in Minneapolis. He was unhappy in America. Most everyone assumed he would leave at the close of his contract. Even a four-year extension last October did little to quell the feeling that he was the next out of town.
Then Wiggins emerged as a bona fide star, and the T’Wolves won the lottery and selected Towns. And suddenly, Rubio can ease into this season as a reliable veteran, the longest-tenured of a young Minnesota squad.
He can play freely, which is all any of us ever wanted.
Philadelphia born. Raised in God’s country aka Duluth, Minnesota. Give me a frozen pond and an open pitch and I’ll be happy. Follow me on twitter @noclassfriday