Leading up to the 2009 NBA Draft, Ricky Rubio looked like a sure thing. Few international prospects were as hyped as he was, but it seemed to be warranted. True floor generals are hard to come by. One that had years of experience at a high level before entering the draft was basically a unicorn. When he fell to the Timberwolves at five, he was a steal.
Six years after the draft — and four after Rubio left Barcelona for Minnesota — the dreams of stardom the Timberwolves had for the point guard have not realized. With a lucrative contract extension about to kick in, the franchise needs its best player to take a leap. He does seem ready to do that, but paradoxically, the team might not be at a point in its rebuild to make it happen.
There are no playoff hopes for the Timberwolves, at least not this year. The goal is to develop the young talent on the roster and change the culture. That’s what the addition of Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince and the new contract for Kevin Garnett points to. Rubio was supposed to provide that leadership, but unfortunately he hasn’t been able to remain healthy enough to truly do it consistently.
The 100 games Rubio has missed over the past four years have been a big blow to the franchise. The ankle injury he’s currently nursing, curiously, could be a blessing in disguise. No national team duty means he’ll be rested once training camp arrives, and it’s allowed him to focus on reworking his shot with shooting guru Mike Penberthy. After improving his efficiency from mid-range dramatically over the past year, Rubio could come in ready to punish teams that give him too much space.
A reliable shot is a huge part of what’s kept Rubio from being a true impact player on both ends of the floor. He’s already one of the best defensive point guards in the league, using his anticipation and length to gather steals without gambling. His court vision and passing are unparalleled. Even his rebounding is among the best for his position.
He’ll never look for his own shot as much as other point guards, which means he only needs to be decent from the elbows and on spot-up threes to be a net plus on offense. After that, all that’ll be missing will be the ability to finish inside. Because his driving game is hampered by the lack of respect his pull-up has against big men, a good jumper could unlock the whole gamut of his scoring. This could be the summer it all comes together for Rubio.
Yet even if health and an improved shot puts the Spanish point guard on the road to stardom as he enters his prime, he’d need the right teammates next to him to truly shine. The tricky thing is, those players are the ones the rebuilding Wolves should be looking to move.
Kevin Martin has a player option worth $7.3 million for the season after next, which he’s unlikely to pick up with the cap rising. He has more value as a gun for hire for a fringe contender than taking minutes away from Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammed on a lottery team. With seven big men under contract, a move will have to eventually be made to clear the logjam up front, at least once Nikola Pekovic returns from injury. If there’s a taker, the Macedonian center will be the one to go.
The biggest conundrum in the Wolves’ immediate future is whether making the seemingly logical moves to clear the decks for the youngsters is worth hampering Rubio’s ascendance. With Martin and Pekovic, Rubio will rack up assists and pick his spots as a scorer. Without them, the Spaniard will have a heavy burden to create for himself to make up for the lack of efficient options. That’s clearly not his game but it’s the role the youth movement could force him to play, at least until Andrew Wiggins, LaVine and Karl-Anthony Towns are ready to handle that load.
“You’re getting paid more, you have to earn it,” Rubio said after signing his extension (via ESPN). “You have to show why you’re getting paid this money. Of course there’s going to be extra pressure. I wanted to be more of a leader and take this team to another level.”
What the next level is for the Timberwolves remains unclear so far. So is Rubio’s future with the franchise, if rumors from the Spanish press are to be believed. It’s always been this way, ever since he was drafted. Hopefully, the decision-makers will show enough foresight to let this season play out without paying much attention to numbers, both on the stat sheet and the salary cap. Rubio will not make a typical leap to bona fide stardom if the front office makes the right personnel choices, which is fine. If he can show small improvements while being surrounded by an overmatched supporting cast, he’ll prove he’s a keeper.
Preaching patience when it come to a four-year pro making $13 million a year is typically not advisable. The circumstances surrounding Rubio’s NBA career have been so atypical, however, that he deserves a little leeway. Who knows? In a couple of years he could be the grizzled veteran leading the emerging Timberwolves to the postseason for the first time in over a decade.