Tuesday October 7th, 2014

Of all the Ricky Rubio highlights on the Internet, take a second and watch this one.

This video is from Rubio’s first season with FC Barcelona in 2009 and remains his most-watched YouTube clip to date across his nearly 10-year professional career. Once hyped as possibly the best European guard prospect ever, Rubio turns 24 this month and has come to a crossroads. Watching the video above reminds us why we were so excited about Rubio’s arrival in the NBA—yet also reminds us that the point guard hasn't lived up to his prodigal billing.  

It’s tough not to appreciate the young Rubio's Euro-steps, no-look dishes and wizardry off the bounce as he delivers to teammates time and time again. You might not understand the the Spanish play-by-play announcers in the video, but you can certainly detect the glee in their voices. At age 18, Rubio was already a rock star. He signed his first contract at 14 with DKV Joventut and would lead Spain’s top division in steals the next season and rack up awards as Europe’s brightest young talent. YouTube magnified his swashbuckling brand of point guard play for the world to savor.

The comparisons—though far, far off—hyped him as a modern day Pete Maravich, able to see over defenses at 6-foot-4 and possessing the affable Spanish joie de vivre for the game we’d come to appreciate in the States. That was all it took to pique imaginations, until Rubio finally arrived in Minneapolis and on the nightly highlight reels in 2011. 

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An ACL tear during his promising rookie campaign (10.6 points, 8.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 2.2 steals) proved bearable. Rubio returned nine months later, keeping mostly in line with his averages upon return. Minnesota continued to struggle, but his gift for passing and penchant for pick-pocketing remained intact. Last season he started all 82 games, experiencing a slight dip in scoring but registering assists at a career-high clip. A 40-win season stood as the best year of the Rubio-Kevin Love era, a window that failed to deliver on its promise.

While Love has found greener pastures in Cleveland, Rubio’s career is careening in a drastically different direction. As he enters the final year of his rookie contract, the Timberwolves are now in Year One of a new rebuilding project: the Andrew Wiggins era. How does Rubio fit in? The 24-year-old turned down a four-year, $48 million extension from the Wolves this week, signaling he believes he’s worth more. With both parties’ futures in the air, Rubio and the Wolves will be taking a long look at each other with a pivotal offseason looming.

As entertaining as Rubio is to watch, the truth is that his game has yet to fully translate into results. Though he’s one of the league’s best passers, Rubio's glaring weakness remains that he's never shot the ball at an efficient rate. For a player so reliant on spacing and penetration to create for others, it’s an especially damning Achilles heel. It’s impressive that Rubio dishes the ball at such a prolific rate regardless, but given that he’s been a pro for almost a decade, his errant shooting is rightfully worrisome. Though it feels far too soon to wonder how close he might be to maxing out his abilities, if that jumper doesn't improve, it’s tough to see how his stock can raise much further.

Rubio (and his agent) appear to be gunning for a max contract, but that seems like a hefty price tag for a point guard that can’t shoot consistently. It’s even tougher to see that happening given the deep point guard market next summer, with Rajon Rondo, Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley set to be apart of the potential free agent crop.

For Rubio to remain with the Wolves, the on-court pieces will need to start aligning quickly. Where the Love-Rubio tandem was once the future, rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine and 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett now sit at the core of Minnesota’s long-term plans. Rubio spoke positively this week about Love’s departure in terms of the team avoiding distractions, and with that out of the way, the next step for the Wolves will be identifying whether Rubio indeed has a place in their future plans.

This season, he’ll be instrumental to their success. The Wolves have an intriguing mix of veterans and young talent to play around with, but the ball will likely be in the Spaniard’s hands most of the time. The roster is largely devoid of shot-creators and Rubio will be relied upon heavily to deliver, with Kevin Martin, Thaddeus Young and Nikola Pekovic forming a steady-if-unspectacular supporting cast. Without an established star, the burden of making things go will fall largely on the point guard. In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, Rubio will have to raise the play of his teammates to improve on last season—and that will require some type of leap from the man himself.

Here’s one possibility (and perhaps the best one for the Wolves): Rubio takes the leadership reins, orchestrates an up-tempo attack with Minnesota’s bevy of athletic wings and makes the post-Love Wolves a better team and more cohesive offensive unit. Flip Saunders has talked a lot about his veterans, and expect Wiggins and LaVine to come on slow as the season begins. Pekovic meshes with this group offensively as a strong finisher who doesn't need heavy post touches to excel. If Bennett can slim down and look like the sort of power stretch-four hybrid that made him a high draft pick in the first place, he'll join second-year center Gorgui Dieng as another promising piece. The Wolves have the pieces to be a gritty team and pull out some surprises wins this season. If the results are promising enough, maybe Rubio will stick around to see how the youngsters develop and usher in whatever’s next.

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The biggest problem for the Wolves this season will be three-point shooting—without Love, Martin is the only guy defenses will consistently need to respect. If spacing problems become glaring, things could go poorly for Rubio thanks to his own shooting struggles. Backups Mo Williams and J.J. Barea command more respect from defenses with their perimeter résumés. If LaVine is allowed to cut his teeth as a ball-handler, it could lead to more clutter in the backcourt. And since Rubio’s far from useful playing off the ball, you can anticipate his minutes dipping if that scenario plays out. If the Wolves struggle early in the season and decide to let the kids play, it’s not hard to envision.

Still, the thought of an emergent Rubio entices, same as it did back in 2009. If he re-signs with the Wolves and the young guys pan out, the Wolves will have an up-tempo attack a la the Steve Nash Suns. With Wiggins and LaVine representing two of the league’s most freakish athletes, potential alone is enough to make the Wolves a League Pass favorite this season. The idea of a young, high-flying team certainly has Minnesota fans drooling (the “Dunks After Dark” midnight scrimmage provided plenty of highlights last week).

Everyone’s inner basketball romantic can appreciate the dream. Rubio crosses over and penetrates, lofting a no-look pass toward the rim for an airborne Wiggins, flying off a backdoor screen from Bennett, seemingly out of nowhere, for a jaw-dropping slam.

And maybe that’s the entire problem: with Ricky Rubio, the fantasy has always been more fun. 

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