David Kahn couldn't help noticing, as he and the other adults in the room bandied about the short- and long-term future of the much-coveted teenager in their midst, some of the emotions playing out on the faces of the family. Tona and Esteve Rubio weren't just sorting out where a promising point guard prospect would be playing professionally in the 2009-10 basketball season. They potentially were saying goodbye to their son Ricky in a way that parents do, even in this boomerang generation, that first and hardest time. A very long goodbye.
"When you think about it, for anybody on the call who has ever sent off a child to college, this was akin to that for [Rubio's family]," Kahn, the Timberwolves' president, told a teleconference of reporters Tuesday from Barcelona. That's where Rubio will be spending the next two seasons, his status as the Wolves' top NBA draft pick (No. 5 overall) on hold while he plays for FC Barcelona in the Euroleague.
"They live in a three-room apartment," Kahn said. "This is tantamount to sending a kid off to college, but not only college, a foreign college. A foreign college where the other students are as much as 35 years old or older. You can keep drawing out the analogy. ... His parents are lovely people. I really have enjoyed spending time with them. But I could also see sometimes on their faces the separation anxiety they were experiencing."
Rubio might start to feel that himself now that his basketball rights have been conveyed by DKV Joventut to Barcelona in a buyout worth an estimated $5.3 million (negotiated down from $8.1 million). Only now, the separation isn't from his parents, but from Jonny Flynn, Minnesota's other lottery selection at the point guard position.
On draft night, the gap between them was five minutes. Rubio was picked fifth after slipping, somewhat unexpectedly, past the No. 2 Grizzlies, the No. 3 Thunder and the No. 4 Kings. Moments later, with Minnesota and Kahn -- in his first serious business as its chief basketball executive -- still on the clock with a second consecutive pick, Flynn was grabbed at No. 6.
Now the gap between Rubio and Flynn is two years. Those are two years for Flynn, a take-charge floor general who has enthusiastically embraced employment in the hinterlands with his new NBA team, to get a head start in Minnesota and in the league. Two years for Rubio, still raw and, at 18, still underdeveloped physically and maybe emotionally, to recede from Wolves fans' consciousness beyond an occasional SportsCenter highlight or YouTube posting. Two years for Flynn to establish himself, gaining the sort of training and experience that will count most over his pro career. Two years for Rubio to remain in his blister pack as an NBA rookie, same contract, same newcomer's challenges and questions awaiting him.
If that hasn't already created a little anxiety in Rubio, it should.
The critics who lambasted Kahn's Pollyanna claim that Minnesota could play two small or slight rookies together in the backcourt, in this man's league, won't get the satisfaction of being right. Given this sequence of events, they might never see Rubio and Flynn on the same court at the same time -- unless they're wearing shirts of different colors.
Look, Kahn's stated defense of the "take two, they're small" point guard picks always was a fallback position in the event both guys ended up in camp next month. Once Rubio slid out of the draft's top two or three slots, as his rookie-scale salary decreased and DKV Joventut's pricey buyout amount stayed the same, it was far more likely that the Spanish sensation would continue as just that, back home, while Flynn -- the player Minnesota worked out, the guy it had its eye on from the start -- got flipped the keys to a re-rebuilding offense. Doubling up was simply insurance, and the sound we heard on Wolves owner Glen Taylor's international calling card Tuesday was Kahn phoning in a claim on that policy.
The tricky part now is that if Flynn is as good as he looked in Las Vegas this summer (15.0 points, 7.4 assists, neck-snapping quickness and smart decision-making), there might be a "No Vacancy" sign on Rubio's position by the time he arrives (the Wolves retain his NBA rights indefinitely, unless Rubio sits out an entire year from organized basketball to re-qualify for the draft). He might need Minnesota to evict Flynn to make room for a player who, by 2011-12, still will be nothing but potential in NBA terms. Potential vs. a lot more than that, perhaps, from Flynn.
Now because of the dollars/Euros involved, because of cold feet, because of some bonding Rubio allegedly has done with members of the Spanish national team this summer, he has given Flynn a head start. Two years, 24 months, 104 weeks or 730 days, however you slice it, to be doing while Rubio still is dreaming -- and yes, developing in the Euroleague, but not through the rigors of the NBA.
That creates a different circumstance, though not necessarily a problem, for Kahn, the Wolves and new coach Kurt Rambis than the team created on draft night. Instead of simultaneously working with two valuable, unproven assets, they might have to judge Rubio's promise against Flynn's young veteran-ness. It has happened before -- Kevin Johnson cleared out of Cleveland for Mark Price, Price nudged along to make room for Terrell Brandon, Norm Nixon ceded the Lakers' playmaking gig to Magic Johnson -- but there's never a guarantee that the right guy will be kept while the wrong guy gets moved.
There are few guarantees at all. Other than an international media contingent monitoring Flynn's and Rubio's up-or-down arrows on a 24/7 news cycle for two years, trying to turn tea leaves and a 1-for-12 shooting night into wisdom about, oh, the Knicks' chances of prying one or the other away from Minnesota.
"Today when I met with Ricky, I explained to him, I can't predict the future. In all ways," Kahn said. "I did specifically mention that Jonny would be two years ahead of him now. I also covered this with Ricky today, when we drafted him -- based on his pro experience, if you had a depth chart at training camp, Day One -- he would be listed as the No. 1 point guard. But now that you look at it in the context of him being [in Spain] for the next two years, it's possible he wouldn't be when he came over."
There's some separation to fret about, right there.
"There are so many things that could happen in the next two years," Kahn said. "You can't even pretend to predict."