Posted Jan 18 2012 1:20PM
In the visitor's locker room moments after the Wolves lost a tense game in Atlanta the other day, only two players were still dressed in full uniform. One was Kevin Love. The other, Ricky Rubio.
You could understand why Love took it hard; he's a proud All-Star, endured three prior years of losing in Minnesota, all that. But Rubio? Kid's been in the NBA for all of 10 minutes. What does that say about him, that he'd sit by his locker long after the game, chin in hand, feet in an ice bucket, feeling like someone just ordered him to get a crewcut?
"The one thing we didn't know is that he's a competitor," said Wolves coach Rick Adelman.
Yes, among other things. Rubio was mainly a mystery to the NBA when he arrived in Minnesota, someone who clearly had court vision but put up measly numbers in Europe, couldn't hit a jumper no one could recall and whose will to win on the big stage was untested. He had more questions following him into the NBA than squealing teenaged girls.
And now look. Rubio, we can all agree, is special. Nobody's putting him into a limo headed to Springfield, Mass., or anything like that. Not even saying he's the best rookie point guard so far (Kyrie Irving). But he's got it. And he gets it. He knows how to play the game, his entertainment value is high, his scoring ability is improving almost nightly and he wants to win badly. These are the basics that'll serve him well in Minnesota in a rookie season where everyone seems wowed by Rubio, except Rubio himself.
"I know I have to get better," he said. "I know I'm not where I want to be right now."
The one skill he has is obvious. He sees the floor better than a producer in the TV truck. Teammates will hustle down court for a point guard like that. Teammates will work harder without the ball to get open for a point guard like that. Those are the unseen factors that result from a pass-first guard. Everyone in uniform will instantly feed off him. That's crucial for a team like the Wolves and all the fresh young legs on the roster.
And then, there's his flair. He has a bit of box office in him. He's creative, which makes people want to watch, because you're all but guaranteed to see a show on at least one ball possession. The no-looks, ball fakes, wrap-around passes, they can only awaken the basketball pulse in Minnesota, formerly the home of 10,000 yawns.
Rubio is willing to ditch the ordinary for the outstanding, which separates him from lots of other players. Best of all, he's not being reckless when he takes those chances. It just comes naturally for him.
"He has a special skill," Adelman said. "Very special."
Nobody who scouted Rubio in Europe ever accused him of being a solid shooter. He was a developing scorer, and that was being kind. When Brandon Jennings dismissed Rubio as "hype" (a diss that Jennings has since taken back) it was because Rubio made a mild impact on games, compared to the attention he received.
Well, he's now shooting 44 percent for the Wolves, both inside and beyond the 3-point line. He's learning to score off the dribble and with a set-shot. He sank a big 3 down the stretch in the loss to the Hawks, and Adelman called Rubio's number on the game's final possession, which was botched. He may never be a quantity scorer. But it's refreshing to the Wolves to know Rubio is willing to take the big shot, and will look to score when necessary. Before you can become a scorer, you have to show a scorer's guts.
"I worked a lot this summer," Rubio said. "Without that, I knew I couldn't play at this level. When you work hard, good things come."
Finally, Rubio's maturity seems beyond someone who's 21 and just passed his driver's test in the U.S. recently. He's patient on and off the floor, very comfortable in his skin, very composed in tense moments during games and completely unaffected by the mania surrounding him. That has much to do with playing professionally since his mid-teens and also growing up in Spain as opposed to the States, where fame can warp many kids.
"He's a very humble kid," Love said. "Very respectful of his coaches and teammates. And I don't see that changing. Everyone around here likes him a lot. Nobody's jealous of the attention he gets. He handles it all very well."
The Wolves are only asking Rubio to give the franchise a facelift, bring people to the games, play convincingly enough to make Love sign long-term, turn into this generation's Pistol Pete, help turn the Wolves into winners and make free agents want to sign with Minnesota in the future. You know, simple stuff.
Scary thing is, he might actually pull that off.
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