5/14/2016 0 Comments
By: Drew Mahowald
Before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Ricky Rubio was nothing more than a basketball player that people all around the globe, especially in the United States, had merely heard of.
His performance in Beijing changed that.
Rubio dazzled fans all over the world with his unique flair, fancy passing and boyish but intense enthusiasm for the game. He helped lead Spain to the Gold Medal game against the heavily-favored United States -- a game that nearly became one of the greatest upsets of all-time.
Between slicing through the likes of Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard for a layup or stealing a LeBron James pass and leading a fast break and capping it with a magical no-look assist, Rubio made his presence known on the grandest stage there is.
Despite playing through most of the game with a hand injury that disallowed Rubio to shoot the ball, he nearly led Spain to victory, falling just short of Team USA by a score of 118-107.
“It’s tough to think about what could have happened if I had not hurt my hand,” Rubio said on The Vertical podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski. “I couldn’t shoot.”
Rubio instantly went from a wild card European prospect to one of the most coveted guards by NBA scouts not just in Europe, but in the world.
The performance didn’t shock his fans in Europe -- Rubio had been leaving them wide-eyed for a few years at that point. But to the rest of the world, his display at the 2008 Olympic Games ultimately gave birth to a future NBA star hungry for success at the highest level.
“I was just going out there to play like I was playing for my high school. It’s just amazing how everything worked out and I’m pretty proud.”
The word prodigy is defined as “a person, especially a young one, endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities”.
If this doesn’t define Rubio’s teenage years, nothing else does.
Rubio grew up with a simple life in El Masnou, Spain, a small village outside Barcelona. His family didn’t have a lot, but that never bothered him.
“I was lucky to grow up in that kind of neighborhood and really have my family all around,” Rubio said. “I’m simple, I don’t need much. I’m happy with what I have. I don’t need a lot of things -- just my friends and my family.”
Rubio began playing basketball when he was four years old by passing a basketball in the stands while his older brother Marc played games. Throughout his young life, Rubio developed a competitiveness with his brother that contributed to his love for basketball and the success he’s experienced.
“I can’t say I’m the reason he’s playing basketball,” Marc Rubio said in this Spanish documentary. “I told him if he didn’t like football (soccer), he should play basketball. And that was what he really excelled at.”
With the help of a nudge from his older brother in the direction of basketball, Rubio’s natural talent was discovered. He joined the Badalona basketball club, which had a reputation for developing young talent, at the age of 12.
In just two short years, Rubio impressed the Badalona coaching staff enough to let him play professionally on their first team. He became the youngest player to ever play in the Spanish ACB on October 15, 2005 at the age of 14.
“My mom ran to me after my first [Spanish ACB League] match and asked if I was hurt,” Rubio said. “I played with much bigger and stronger players than me and she was very scared of me being hurt.”
As Rubio’s skills and fame expanded, the free time he had available decreased. The young phenom wasn’t able to live a traditional teenage life.
“It was difficult,” Rubio said. “There were times when I would ask my mom if it was all worth it because all my friends would go on a road trip or whatever and I couldn’t go. But at the same time, I was doing what I wanted to do so it was fun. I missed a lot, but I wouldn’t change it.”
Rubio’s reputation began to build as one of the best young players in Europe. Not only did he start playing professionally at age 14 -- an age when most kids are still undergoing puberty or watching SpongeBob (or both) -- but two years later, he led Spain’s junior national team to a FIBA European Basketball Championship at 16 years old by leading the entire tournament in points, rebounds, assists and steals.
He capped his MVP-winning performance by recording 51 (!) points, 24 (!) rebounds, 12 assists and seven steals in Spain’s 110-106 double overtime victory over Russia.
Numbers like that don’t happen for non-prodigies. At this point, it was pretty clear -- Rubio was the perfect embodiment of what a prodigy is, and his future in the game of basketball was extremely bright.
“I was just going out there to play like I was playing for my high school,” Rubio said. “It’s just amazing how everything worked out and I’m pretty proud.”
From Spanish Sensation to Coveted NBA Prospect
“One of the most promising guards to ever emerge from Europe."
As Rubio’s career in the Spanish ACB league took off, so did his stardom in Europe. YouTube highlight videos began to hype up the phenom as a potential NBA Draft pick. During his teen years, Rubio was thriving in arguably the second-best professional basketball league in the world.
“If I knew everything then that I know now, I would have been too scared to play,” Rubio said. “I was 15 years old so I didn’t have any fear.”
Before long, the accolades began mounting quickly for Rubio. He claimed the FIBA European Young Player of the Year award three times (2007, 2008, 2009) and also won the Spanish ACB Rising Star Award in 2007. In 2008, he was named the Spanish ACB Best Point Guard and a member of the Spanish ACB All-League Team. On top of all that, SuperBasket Magazine honored Rubio as Mr. Europa in 2008, an award given to the best European player.
Then, of course, came his display at the 2008 Olympic Games. Not only did it add validity to his long list of accomplishments, but it also resulted in a dramatic increase in his NBA Draft stock.
Suddenly, Rubio was one of the most coveted prospects in the world. When NBA scouts and executives watched the Spanish virtuoso stick it to some of the greatest players in the world during that gold medal game, there wasn’t much doubt he could succeed at the next level.
ESPN’s lead NBA Draft analyst, Chad Ford, had the Spanish Unicorn ranked as high as No. 2 on his big board at one point.
“He is one of the most promising guards to ever emerge from Europe,” Ford wrote back in 2008.
“He’s special,” one NBA GM told Ford. “There aren't many kids you'll find at his age with such a terrific feel for the game. He just knows how to play. When he gets out there with players 10 years older than him, he just looks like he belongs.”
The combination of polished on-court skills and experience Rubio possessed at the mere age of 18 made him a player heavily coveted around the league. Leading up to the 2009 NBA Draft, there was no doubt about it anymore -- Rubio would soon get the chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of taking his game to the highest level.
Staying Loyal to Minnesota
“I really love Minnesota and I’m invested in this project 100%. I really want to see this team in the playoffs.”
Former Minnesota Timberwolves front office executive David Kahn’s reputation has taken a tumble over the past few years, and most of it is deserved.
But his selection of Rubio with the fifth pick in the 2009 NBA Draft should absolutely not count against his legacy.
When Rubio decided to leave Spain and join the Timberwolves to begin the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA season, the Wolves were desperately in need of some kind of spark after collecting just 32 wins combined in the previous two seasons.
Indeed, Rubio provided that spark. The Wolves shocked the NBA by putting themselves right in the thick of the playoff race after winning 21 of its first 41 games. Unfortunately, the spark-provider suffered a torn ACL in the team’s 42nd game, ending his season and ultimately the team’s playoff chances as Minnesota went 5-20 in its final 25 games after the injury.
“It was perfect until I got hurt,” Rubio said of his rookie season. “For me, it was a great season as a rookie and I still believe we could’ve made the playoffs [had the injury not happened].”
Over the next couple years, the young point guard led the Wolves to a season increase in wins two consecutive years. Following the 26-win season in 2011-12 (albeit a shortened season), Rubio led Minnesota to 31 wins in 2012-13 despite playing in just 57 games due to another injury. The next season, finally avoiding injury, Rubio was able to lead the Timberwolves to 40 wins and nearly a playoff berth despite playing with a subpar supporting cast (aside from Kevin Love). Alas, Minnesota finished just two spots out of the eighth seed.
As the summer of 2014 came and went, it was becoming time for Rubio to decide whether he wanted to leave Minnesota -- as Love did -- or stay with the never-ending rebuild project that was the Wolves long-term.
When Rubio came over to the United States in 2011, he was used to nothing but success and championships in the Spanish ACB. Through his first three seasons in the NBA, his team had earned a combined record of 97-133 and zero playoff appearances.
Yet, even as his superstar counterpart left town, Rubio wanted to stay put.
“That’s just my mentality I guess. I came over here and I was really excited that they believed in me and trusted me in the draft,” Rubio said. “I really felt a connection since day one with the fans and with everybody in Minnesota."
Rubio made it clear throughout the entire negotiation process that he wanted to be a Timberwolf the entire time.
“I was talking with my agents and I told them I really wanted to stay here,” Rubio said to the Associated Press back in 2014 after his contract extension was announced. “I told them to make something work. At the end of the day, it did happen and I’m very happy about it.”
Rubio’s future in Minnesota was again in doubt during the 2015-16 NBA season when his name began popping up during the trade deadline. Rumors surfaced of Timberwolves acting general manager Milt Newton parading Rubio on the trade block, entertaining offers from Milwaukee and New York, among others. Rubio, though understanding that it’s a business, was upset about the rumors.
“It really hurt having my name out there as a possible trade candidate,” Rubio said.
After all, Rubio has made it clear that he is committed to the Timberwolves time and time again. Fortunately for Rubio and for the Wolves, he was not dealt in a trade.
“I really love Minnesota and I’m invested in this project 100%,” Rubio said. “I really want to see this team in the playoffs.”
The saying “what goes around, comes around” is incredibly cheesy and used way too often. Nonetheless, it applies to Rubio. His unparallelled loyalty to Minnesota is bound to eventually bring him some good fortune.
And it appears as if that good fortune is coming sooner rather than later.
The Perfect Fit for a New Era
“I really feel like I can give something unique to the team (such as) leadership, things you can’t see in the paper.”
When the late Flip Saunders took over as president of basketball operations of the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2013, he began laying the foundation for his master rebuilding plan with eyes set on not just getting this team in the playoffs, but contending for championships.
The foundation for that plan was laid perfectly. Before his tragic death that preceded the beginning of the 2015-16 season, Saunders was able to add young studs such as Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Karl-Anthony Towns, among others, to the roster with Rubio.
For the Timberwolves, the 29-win 2015-16 season showed flashes of brilliance as this young core continued to grow behind Rubio’s quarterbacking at the point guard position. In a road win against the Western Conference finalist Oklahoma City Thunder, Rubio knocked down the game-winning trey as time expired, exhibiting that he is capable of making the big shot in crunch time.
Additionally, in another road win against the Golden State Warriors, a team that finished the regular season with an all-time best 73-9 record, Rubio managed to keep back-to-back NBA MVP Stephen Curry to a pitiful 7-for-25 from the field and 4-for-14 from beyond the arc.
But aside from the late-game heroics or the lockdown defense against the top scorer in the NBA, Rubio is the perfect point guard to lead this roster to postseason success for one main reason.
Think about it. Saunders built an unbelievably talented roster full of efficient wing players in LaVine, Wiggins and Muhammad and an all-around superhuman big man in Towns. There are no better options than Rubio, a pass-first point guard with alien-like court vision and feel for the game, to conduct an offense with all that talent.
On the defensive side of the ball, Rubio’s ability to lock down opposing point guards in an era when point guards are often running show is extremely valuable. It only makes things easier on the rest of the 28th-ranked defense in the NBA, which is the area where this team will need to improve to become a playoff team.
Rubio isn’t just a fit with the roster, though. He has all the qualities that newly-hired head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau looks for in a point guard, especially on the defensive end of the floor. The defensive scheme Thibodeau employed during his tenure with the Chicago Bulls attempted to force opponents to one side of the floor -- something Rubio does individually at a very high level all while defending the most important position on the floor.
With all of that said, what tops the list of reasons why Rubio is a perfect fit for this team is the leadership he has begun to display. Despite the fact that he is only 25 years old, Rubio has 11 valuable years of competitive professional experience. He also has achieved postseason success before -- albeit in the lesser Spanish ACB league -- which is still a lot more than the rest of the Timberwolves’ young core can say.
These factors have contributed to Rubio gradually seizing that leadership role. It’s something that will never get enough recognition, but it could be what puts Minnesota over the proverbial hump in 2016-17.
“I really feel like I can give something unique to the team (such as) leadership and things you can’t see in the paper,” Rubio said. “I want to keep it that way and I want to be in the playoffs.”
Chasing What’s Missing
“At the end of the day, it’s all about winning.”
The Spanish Unicorn didn’t take the traditional route to the NBA -- not a lot of players start competing professionally at 14 years old. And despite the success and fame he’s enjoyed since first joining the Spanish ACB, it seems like there could be something missing.
Back in 2008, when Rubio was a member of the Spanish Olympic team, he fell just short of snatching the Gold. Despite a strong performance that may have ultimately sprung him to the NBA, he fell just short of basketball immortality.
But for Rubio, eight years (and counting) later, basketball immortality is still possible. And he is still using the same tactics he learned from his Olympic experience in 2008 to strive toward that goal in the NBA with Minnesota.
“It taught all of us to sacrifice a lot to win,” Rubio said of his experience at the 2008 Olympics. “That’s what the winner mentality does. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning.”
All quotes used in this article are from Ricky Rubio appearance on The Vertical podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski, unless otherwise noted.
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