June 19, 2011
Finally... Ricky Rubio is coming to the NBA
I will be lying to you if I said that I didn't have more than a passing/professional interest in this story. Ever since his dominating performance at the FIBA Europe U16 Championship (more on this later), I've been enamoured with the young Spaniard's game.
Yes, a lot of super-talented young players have come and gone over the past few years: some have lived up to their expectations (Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin) and some have disappointed (Greg Oden, Hasheem Thabeet, Michael Beasley (mostly)). But there was always something different about the young Spaniard. Rubio's gifts were more mental than physical. Even as a teenager, he was mentally a step ahead of the adult players he played with in the Spanish League or in international competitions for Spain. It seemed that, somehow, the kid just gets basketball. If you know about him, I shouldn't have to point you to his highlight videos for proof. Hell, I'll do it anyways.
News broke a couple of weeks ago that the Minnesota Timberwolves, who drafted Rubio 5th in the 2009 NBA Draft, had finally signed him to a contract. Due to his contractual agreements with FC Barcelona, it took Rubio a few more days to announce the deal, and on a press conference on June 17th, he finally announced that he will be taking his talents to Minnesota.
FINALLY! Barring any Lockout-related tragedies (#LWord), we will finally be able to see the magical young point guard in action in the NBA this season. I have been waiting a long time for this: I first heard about Rubio via a SLAM Magazine article by Lang Whitaker back in 2007, and I was immediately curious to see if his game could back up his accolades.
Rubio has been the youngest player ever to play in the Spanish ACB League, when he made his debut for DKV Juventut as a 14 year old in 2005. 14, and playing amongst adults in probably the second-best domestic league in the world. He played for Juventut for four years. But it was his performance at the FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship that cemented his young legacy.
During the tournament in August 2006, Rubio achieved two triple-doubles and a quadruple-double. In the 110–106 double overtime Final victory over Russia, Rubio scored 51 points, grabbed 24 rebounds, made 12 assists, and stole the ball 11 times! He also forced the first overtime with a three-point, buzzer-beating shot from mid-court. Rubio was subsequently named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament after leading it in points, rebounds, assists and steals.
He was named FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year in 2007 and 2008, was voted the Spanish League's best point guard in 2008, and was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year in the 2008-09 season. In his four years, he won a FIBA EuroCup championship and the ULEB Cup championship with Joventut. Ricky was recognized as Europe's overall best basketball player by being named Mr. Europa in 2008.
2008 was the same year that Ricky was selected in the Spanish senior national team for the Beijing Olympics. At 17, he was playing point guard maturely for essentially the second-best team in the world. He started in the final against Team USA, and showed incredible offensive and defensive vision in a losing effort. Ricky was later part of the Spain team that won the EuroBasket 2009.
At 18, after declaring for the NBA draft, and promptly taken by the Timberwolves as their 5th pick, Ricky decided not to go to the NBA, or rather the Timberwolves, and his contract was bought from Joventut by FC Barcelona, with whom he announced that he will stay for at least another two years before crossing the Atlantic. He has since won the Spanish League Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, FIBA European Young Player of the Year for three straight years, the MVP of the Catalan Cup in 2009, and the EuroLeague Rising Star award in 2010.
His Barcelona side has won everything in Europe with him and with plenty of other stars, including the EuroLeague and the Spanish League.
Across the pond however, Rubio's controversial decision to stay in Spain another two years made him a very unpopular person in the NBA circles. Fans questioned his toughness to stick with NBA players, and they questioned his toughness to stay away from home in the first place. From sunny Barcelona to the very not-so-sunny Minnesota. From the Spanish League to the world's most competitive basketball league in the NBA. Is he overrated? Are we judging him too much based on YouTube? His meager statistics last season with Barcelona were 6.5 ppg and 3.5 apg. He even lost his starting spot at one point in the season.
Do we believe the hype?
Yes, I say, but now, with some careful doubt. Yes, there are a lot of question marks surrounding his game. Yes, he has digressed slightly over the course of the season. Yes, he is a scrawny little kid about to be fed alive to the big boys.
Those were the cons. These are the pros:
- He's still only 20 years old, and already has 6 years of professional senior basketball experience. He has represented Spain's senior national team since 2008 and Europe's best basketball team, Barcelona, for the last 2 years. He has won a lot. At this age he already has a winning blueprint all over him. He has learnt well, and while most players of his age are still rookies, his adjustment won't be to the pro game, it would be to the game in the NBA, something that, given some time, he will be able to master.
- Don't be fooled by the size - Ricky pestered two of the NBA's best point guards in Chris Paul and Deron Williams defensively in the Olympics. And is other tiny-looking guys like Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, and not to mention Steve Nash can make it, why not Ricky?
- Don't be fooled by the stats either. In his 1 year with Lottomatica Roma of the Italian Lega A in Europe, Brandon Jennings averaged 5.5 ppg and 2.2 apg. But the European system is much different to the NBA and the stats are not comparable In the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks for the last 2 years, Jennings has averaged 15.8 ppg and 5.3 apg. And even those stats lie. Players with European experience or European style of play such as Jennings, Tony Parker, and Rubio don't need big stats to be effective. They do it via defense, making the extra pass, and just being complete ball players instead of being scorers or passers. In this sense, I have no doubt that Rubio will be successful in the NBA.
Now the question is: will he actually stay in Minnesota. The Timberwolves, with Rubio, will probably run a starting lineup of: Rubio, Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, and Darko Milicic. But their advantage is that they also have the second pick in the NBA draft, which will probably be used for 6 foot 9 combo forward Derrick Williams. Now someone out of Love, Beasley, or Williams will have to go. Who will it be? And will the T-Wolves give Rubio away in a deal with one of them? There are doubts if Rubio will be motivated/happy to play in Minnesota, but he has value and the Timberwolves can get a good player in return for him by sending him to a big market.
A lot of questions abound the Timberwolves right now, and no one knows what their line-up really will look like when (and if) the season starts. No one is sure if Rubio will be there or not, but one thing is for sure, we will definitely, finally see him play on the big stage. In an article I wrote last January, I was sure that Rubio was exciting enough that, one day, he could become one of my favourite players in the league. I still believe it, and I'm hoping that after seeing him play in the NBA, some of you will start believing it too.