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Ball in Rubio's hands as upstart Wolves gain steam

POSTED: Nov 12, 2015 10:47 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Minnesota floor general Ricky Rubio is finally developing into the leader the Wolves need him to be.

At 20, Andrew Wiggins already is starting to look like the All-Star wing insiders projected three or four years into the future. Karl-Anthony Towns, the NBA's No. 1 Draft pick in June, is playing as if they're counting Rookie of the Year ballots by Thanksgiving.

Which puts the Minnesota Timberwolves' fate and fortune back in Ricky Rubio's hands. Literally and figuratively.

As Minnesota tries Thursday night in its early-season, close-up moment against defending champion Golden State (8 p.m. ET, TNT) to break a nagging home losing streak -- 0-3 this season, 0-11 at Target Center dating back to last spring -- the literal part of having Rubio on the court is not insignificant.

The team's point guard of the present and future has had a spotty past due to injuries, missing 111 of 319 games since he made his debut in 2011-12. In and around his many absences, though -- Rubio has played more than 57 games in a season just once -- and through constant roster change, his talents and his impact have been undeniable. Consider Minnesota's record with and without him: 90-118 (.433) vs. 27-84 (.243).

The figurative part about Rubio's place in the Wolves' pecking order is that, amidst a bunch of young sponges soaking up their early NBA experiences and several wily veterans brought in as mentors more than players, Rubio is the team's Goldilocks guy. Neither too young nor too old, the 25 year old from Barcelona is poised to be not just the team's playmaker but its decade-maker if he is able to nurture and tap into the skills and talents around him.

Rubio's Career Night

Ricky Rubio records a career-high 28 points plus 14 assists to lead the Timberwolves over the Lakers.

"Ricky isn't special in the way Steph Curry is special," said Jim Petersen, the Timberwolves' TV analyst who is as good as it gets in that role. "But he's special in the way winners are special. He's a positive player on the floor. He's competitive. He's hard-working. He's a good leader. His game is predicated on a team game -- Rubio is better when he's playing with better players. If you put him on the floor with bad players or people who can't shoot, Ricky's not as valuable. But if you put him on the floor with Wiggins, Towns and [Nemanja] Bjelica ... that's where Ricky shines."

Keeping Rubio on the floor was one of the reasons Arnie Kander, renowned for his work in Detroit, was hired as Minnesota's VP of sports performance by late team president and coach Flip Saunders. That's why no one balked at Rubio's minutes through his first six games (30.8 average) or the fact that he sat out the Wolves' seventh Tuesday against Charlotte. His strained right hamstring made him a late scratch that night and has him listed as questionable to face the Warriors.

If Rubio does play, Wolves fans at least will get another rare glimpse of the backcourt that coulda been: Rubio and Curry. They wear different jerseys, of course, and only have faced each other a handful of times, owing to Rubio's two extra seasons overseas and injuries both players have endured. Curry's career trajectory has soared compared to Rubio's relative sputter, but for a moment in time -- the five minutes between first-round picks on June 25, 2009 -- the two were linked in possibility and basketball visualizations, the clever point guard and the uncanny shooter.

Then former Wolves GM David Kahn picked Jonny Flynn at No. 6, one spot after Rubio. Golden State gleefully grabbed Dell and Sonya Curry's oldest son at No. 7 and, just like that, a Minnesota franchise cursed by rotten draft luck created some of its own.

Six years later, however, the prospects are brighter for the Wolves. Saunders, who died tragically Oct. 25 after a four-month battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma, managed to lay the foundation of young talent. He acquired Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in 2014, in the Kevin Love trade with Cleveland. Towns came at the price of a tanked 2014-15 season (16-66). Others -- Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, Kevin Martin, Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne, Tyus Jones, Damjan Rudez -- were brought in in Sanders' two years at the helm. It was his idea, too, to round up Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince as assistant coaches in sweats.

It's amazing to think that a person can see three plays ahead with the basketball not even in his hands yet. You're talking about someone who's superbly intelligent -- his IQ is off the charts ...

– Karl-Anthony Towns on Ricky Rubio

That leaves only Nikola Pekovic and Bjelica, foreign assets acquired during Kevin McHale's and Kahn's tenure, and Rubio as pre-existing pieces. The process of merging what was with what is has begun, and so far, so good.

"As a point guard, I always try to do the right thing," Rubio said Saturday, before Minnesota's impressive overtime victory at Chicago. "Try to run the right system. We're young and can make a lot of mistakes, but we want to compete every night. We're learning to do it now. It's early in the season. We want to establish ourselves and we have a lot of time. But we want to let them [the league] know we are here.

"We had a tough year last season, and tough the beginning of this season for different reasons. We want to forget about everything and compete every game."

Rubio made his presence felt immediately, scoring a career-best 28 points with 14 assists to beat the Lakers in Los Angeles on Opening Night. His impact on teammates' shooting percentages was considerable through the first several games, and lately his ball skills have shown up in the Wolves' assist/turnover ratio: They are allowing twice as many points (24.6 per 48 minutes) when Rubio sits as when he plays (12.7).

Most dramatically, Rubio's underrated work defensively helped Minnesota to its 4-2 start. When he has been in the games, opponents have shot 37.5 percent compared to 48.3 percent when he's been out. The other teams' offensive rating with Rubio out: 107.3. With Rubio in: 86.7.

Small sample size, sure. But not sheer coincidence.

The Starters: Minnesota Timberwolves: Playoffs?

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"He's such a good team defender," Petersen said. "He understands how, if his man doesn't have the ball, to get into position to clog up the paint and take away driving lanes and be a deterrent. He just has great instincts. And then he's really good with the 50/50 ball -- if there's a ball that's bouncing around or a long rebound, it seems like he comes from out of nowhere and scoops it up, and then he's off to the races."

Towns, the 7-foot prodigy who is mere weeks into his NBA career, said he and Rubio already have spent hours together away from the gym to develop some chemistry and understanding. The rookie's early read of his point guard?

"He just sees the floor so well and he knows, before he makes his first dribble, exactly what his plan is," Towns said, smiling and shaking his head. "It's amazing to think that a person can see three plays ahead with the basketball not even in his hands yet. You're talking about someone who's superbly intelligent -- his IQ is off the charts -- but to be able to make the same pass with both hands is so useful for him."

Rubio's preternatural passing ability was what made him such a sensation as a teen idol in the Euroleague. Like any point guard, he has had to learn and adapt to those playing alongside him; it's just that in Minnesota, the revolving-door roster and his own layoffs undercut the process.

Then there is the biggest knock on Rubio's game, his own shooting. He is almost the anti-Curry of point guards, more old school in serving his teammates' offense first.

"It's tough to [balance] that at the highest level," said Miller, The Professor of NBA point guards now in his 17th season. "Be aggressive for yourself and then make a bunch of guys with different egos and attitudes happy when they want the ball. I think he's found ways at times to do that -- it's just that, you've got to be out there more. More consistently. And develop that chemistry. He's seen a lot of different players come through this organization."

Said fellow old-head Prince: "I'm still trying to get adjusted to him out there. He's so crafty with the basketball, you don't know when it's coming. So you've always got to be alert. But the thing about him is, he's a tough competitor. I played against him with USA [Basketball] before he even got to the league. He's a really good defender. Great hands. Good skills. Great rebounder. But now playing with him, I'm starting to see how he can run a team and make plays. Come off the screens and know when to shoot and when to pass. Obviously he's still growing as a player."

There are encouraging signs. Again, small sample size but Rubio's true-shooting percentage (which adjusts for 2-point field goals, 3-pointers and free throws) is a career-best .523. He is finishing at the rim better this season (44.4 percent to 33.3 in 2014-15), and, though he has made only two of his 10 3-point attempts, Rubio's mid-range game has perked up.

"He's improved his jumper," Petersen noted. "He's not hesitating. He's not letting a few missed shots stop him from shooting again. He's been finishing at the rim. Coming off a lot of high ball screens, he's dribbling to either elbow, right or left, and he's been drilling shots from there. I just think he's been more aggressive."

That's vital for the Wolves and for Rubio, still young in every way except in comparison to his most important teammates. Five years into this, he has begun to feel like a veteran, with a sense of stewardship for what Saunders left behind.

"Kind of, I've started feeling [that]," Rubio said. "I know more about the game. More about my body, and more about a lot of things I've learned. But I've still got a lot of things to learn. So I'm not even starting."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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