It wasn’t long ago that Ricky Rubio’s arrival was the biggest Minnesota Timberwolves news since Kevin Garnett’s departure. It wasn’t long ago that Rubio was trotted out as a hopeful savior, viewed as a sign of basketball salvation after the team and its fans had been forced to endure the period of time that became infamously known as the David Kahn era.
Touted as a point guard capable of changing direction on the defense as well as the trajectory of a franchise, Rubio’s once brightly lit star has dimmed considerably through his first four NBA seasons. With the entire world watching Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rubio now flanked by a supporting cast designed to complement his game, all of the ingredients are brewing for Ricky Rubio’s rise with almost nobody paying attention.
Rubio’s 2015-16 season began with a bang against a Los Angeles Lakers team that wasn’t ready for anything Rubio offered. With a career-high 28 points to go along with 14 assists, Rubio’s thunderous double-double sent a ferocious rumble throughout the league. Despite a sizzling start in a critical season, much of the focus was on Towns—the No. 1 overall pick from the June 2015 draft—making his professional debut against D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick selected immediately after Towns. Billed as a battle of the top picks as well as the Kobe Bryant’s (likely) final home opener, Rubio stayed comfortably out of the spotlight.
Although Rubio’s second game offered a 2-of-8 shooting performance that we’ve become too accustomed to seeing, the point guard got to the line nine times and impacted the game in other ways, finishing with 12 points, five rebounds and eight assists. Perhaps more importantly for Rubio, his team got the win, Towns delivered a historic performance (28 points, 14 rebounds) just a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday, and Rubio could again avoid standing front and center, instead slinking back into the crowd.
Before Rubio made his stateside debut, there was an expectation level that few—if anyone—could have had a chance of surpassing. A teenage basketball sensation abroad, the legend of Rubio had the rage of a Christmas blizzard in Minneapolis. Desperation, hype and the passage of time combine to make a volatile cocktail, and Rubio, prior to this season, had become the latest victim of that deadly mixture.
After four up-and-down years filled with more disappointment than success, the process of looking beyond Rubio began with the Kevin Love trade in the summer of 2014. When the Timberwolves were able to steal Andrew Wiggins in a deal that moved a player the world knew didn’t want to be there, the rebuild—one that still very much included Rubio—had officially begun. With the now departed Thaddeus Young (Brooklyn) and Anthony Bennett (waived) trotted out alongside Wiggins and Zach LaVine as the future faces of an uncertain franchise, Rubio’s transition to the background placed him in the best position to achieve success he’s ever enjoyed at any point in his NBA career. With Karl-Anthony moving in this summer and the Towns buzzing as a result, Rubio finds himself as the third wheel of a tricycle that he was formally asked to steer.
I often think about how the perception of Rubio may be different if Kahn had been more successful, if Love had stayed healthy or if Ricky hadn’t dealt with his own injury issues, but black and white determinations rarely factor in the gray that life unexpectedly throws in our direction. Now forced to move forward without Flip Saunders, the man who chose to believe in Rubio’s ability to lead while others wanted to follow a different direction, Rubio has already been through quite a bit at just 25 years old—and that doesn’t include his acclimation to an entirely new culture.
We can make projections, educated guesses and try to guess, but nobody knows what type of player the still evolving Ricky Rubio will become. Context and confidence can be an incredibly powerful tools, and Rubio looks armed with both as he begins his this season.
Pushed out of the spotlight by two budding superstars, Rubio could be well on his way to re-discovering and fulfilling the potential so many foolishly believed was lost forever.