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Steve Aschburner

Timberwolves fans are excited to finally get to see Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio in action next season.
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Wolves hope Rubio can help fans forget recent Draft flubs

Posted Jun 21 2011 7:53AM

Ricky Rubio is coming. Ricky Rubio is coming! RICKY RUBIO IS COMING!!

Actually, Rubio -- the charismatic, scrawny, mop-haired point guard from Spain -- might already be here by the time you read this. He was scheduled to land in the Twin Cities from Barcelona early Monday afternoon, with photographers and reporters tipped off to his exact arrival coordinates for some excited "Beatles hit America" coverage. Only this time, Ricky is the cute one, the smart one, the serious one and the funny one, all rolled into one intriguing, unproven point-guard package.

With Rubio officially signing his Timberwolves rookie contract last week -- two years after the team selected him at No. 5 in the 2009 NBA Draft -- a case can be made that Minnesota's 2011 Draft already is a huge success. The tease of having Rubio in Spain rather than in Minneapolis -- playing but apparently developing little for Regal FC Barcelona, while occasionally dropping what seemed like hints that he never would go through a Minnesota winter -- was a source of frustration for the Wolves.

It was a taunt to their fans, too, the latest in a line of Draft and personnel disasters stretching back to the franchise's roots, across three or four front-office administrations, right into current basketball boss David Kahn's regime. The timeline truly is too long and cluttered to recite here; suffice it to say that "Timberwolves Draft" has become a shorthanded punch line in Minnesota, no set-up of the joke necessary. Sort of like saying "Governor Ventura."

That explained some of the giddiness over Rubio's signing and, presumably, commitment to the Wolves for several years. He was, after all, a top prospect coming off his performance for Spain's national team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He drew comparisons to late NBA great "Pistol" Pete Maravich, not for his shooting or scoring but for his court vision, his passing, his pace and, of course, his look.

Rubio, though, dropped into Minnesota's lap on Draft night two years ago when Hasheem Thabeet, James Harden and Tyreke Evans all nudged ahead of him in the second, third and fourth slots. Thus the Wolves, already high on Syracuse's Jonny Flynn and holding both the fifth and sixth picks, almost impulsively grabbed two point guards. One (Rubio) on potential and buzz, the other (Flynn) on track record and immediacy.

It has not gone well. While Rubio stayed in Spain, Flynn struggled in his first year in fellow rookie coach Kurt Rambis' triangle-influenced offense. He underwent hip surgery that cut into last season and basically became an affable backup to veteran Luke Ridnour. Minnesota, meanwhile, is a jaw-dropping 100 games below .500 -- 32-132 -- since that night.

What do they have to show for it? Besides drooping attendance and creeping apathy from NBA fans in the market, that is? Well, the Wolves have power forward Kevin Love as the league's most relentless rebounding machine, with an All-Star game and personality. They have some enigmatic frontcourt talents (Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph) and a stake in current Darko Milicic wisecracks. They have dysfunction at the top, with Kahn and the job-imperiled Rambis basically locked in a staredown until they broke down last week for some conversation.

The Wolves have a handful of role players who would be two, three or four spots down in a good team's rotation (maybe off the roster entirely). They have Wesley Johnson, a smooth forward picked at No. 4 in last year's Draft, who averaged 9.0 points (sixth among rookies) while shooting 39.7 percent. And they have the No. 2 pick in this year's Draft, the highest in Timberwolves history and another chance to inject needless drama into the night's proceedings in Newark.

Minnesota, which also holds the No. 20 pick in the first round, basically has these options:

-- Draft Arizona forward Derrick Williams.

Assuming Cleveland makes good on its interest in Duke point guard Kyrie Irving at No. 1, Williams ought to be an easy pick for Minnesota. Puh-leeze, no protests that Beasley, Randolph and Milicic already are locked in as the frontcourt guys next to Love. That bunch, remember, got Minnesota a whole 17 victories. If Kahn is as smart as he likes for us to think he is, he isn't really staking his reputation on those castoffs, right? And if the Wolves want the player most likely to be NBA Rookie of the Year for 2012, they take and keep Williams. At least assistant general manager Tony Ronzone said the right things the other day, including, "The bottom line is, where we're at, you take the best player available. You can't pass up on guys and get creative and try to get another guy."

-- Draft someone else.

Turkish big man Enes Kanter has been the hot IPO stock leading up to this Draft, but seems to be more of a gamble than Williams. The Wolves are a franchise at this point that really cannot afford to gamble. Kanter would butt up against the same alleged logjam up front as Williams, while being more of a project. There always is the chance that the Cavaliers will pick Williams (Cleveland was the only other team for which Williams worked out). That would trigger instant hilarity in Newark Thursday -- and very little at Target Center -- over the prospects of Minnesota drafting yet another point guard (Irving). At which point, frankly, it should. The Wolves can sort out things later.

-- Trade the pick.

According to chatter in Minnesota, the Wolves have been dangling the No. 2 pick in hopes of landing a proven player such as Lakers forward Pau Gasol, who would be a nifty Spanish buddy for Rubio. Or they could swap it for a player and a pick later in the lottery, with Toronto (No. 5 and DeMar DeRozan) and Washington (No. 6 and JaVale McGee) floating among the rumors. Several weeks ago, Cleveland's No. 4 and Detroit's No. 8 were said to be in play with this pick in a three-way deal that had Richard Hamilton allegedly relocating.

The Wolves and NBA fans in the market, whether they admit it or not, flinch over the Draft. It is a half-empty proposition for them, focused on what might go wrong rather than what might go right. That's why the signing of Rubio looms so large.

It would be nice if he became Minnesota's best Draft pick since Kevin Garnett at No. 5 in 1995. But for now, Rubio is signed, he brings a certain pre-fab celebrity and his exotic roots will keep folks a little distracted, while frequent reminders about Rubio's tough transition from Euroleague to NBA ball will buy Kahn and company even more time.

The Wolves might or might not take the right player at No. 2 (and No. 20, for that matter). They might parlay the pick into a package that fills significant roster holes. They might pass on or trade away the surest thing in the 2011 Draft.

But Ricky Rubio is coming. Ricky Rubio is here!

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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