A decade and a half later, here comes another top-five pick, Ricky Rubio, the most buzzed-about Timberwolves draft acquisition since Marbury, to remind the long-suffering fans in Minnesota that certain talents on the basketball court are indeed delivered instead of taught. That was the inescapable conclusion Rubio first imparted as a 17-year-old filling in for the injured Jose Calderon in the gold-medal game at the 2008 Olympics. Going up against a latter-day Dream Team that included Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Jason Kidd as his counterparts, he held his own and nearly helped Spain upset the United States.
That marquee performance was both a blessing and a curse for Rubio. It demonstrated that when it comes to court vision and passing prowess, he was already operating at an elite NBA level. But in nearly every other aspect of the NBA game, he was, and in many ways still is, a kid with a lot to learn. That disparity in Rubio's skill level explains the polarized reaction to his belated arrival in the NBA after spending the two years since being drafted in Spain, where he had played professionally since the age of 14. For those who fixate on his "pure" point guard abilities as a tactician and ball distributor, it is easy and appropriate to gush and rave. For those who focus on his weaknesses and prefer a more well-rounded player, it's natural to heap scorn on all the Rubio hype.
Not surprisingly, Rubio's first two NBA games provided both sides with ammunition. Monday's opener was at home against Oklahoma City, and the Thunder, the consensus pick to win the Western Conference this season, clearly weren't buying into the hype. Before the game, coach Scott Brooks got out his good-natured needle for the situation, joshing that he'd just seen Rubio warming up and now knew that this "folk hero" was real.
In the pregame locker room, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook began to get testy about all the solicitations for his thoughts on Rubio. Had he seen tape of Rubio playing? "We saw some tape on the Wolves," he replied evenly. What did he think of Rubio? "He is another guard in the league. I am looking forward to playing against him and we'll see what happens." As the reporters filed out, Westbrook turned to fellow point guard Eric Maynor and asked rhetorically, with multiple profanities, why everyone was asking about a player who wasn't even in the starting lineup.
Rubio didn't start, but he finished, playing the entire fourth quarter to cap a sparkling debut as the Wolves took the favored Thunder down to the final two possessions before losing 104-100. Video compilations of his six assists (accomplished without a turnover) make the most eloquent case for his superb blend of vision and execution when creating easier shots for his teammates. Note that all but one of the assists hit a teammate in stride, resulting in a layup or dunk, with most delivered unpredictably, through small seams in the defense.
Watching from courtside, the biggest revelation is how effectively the 21-year-old Rubio sells the no-look pass. Usually, the passer looks off from his intended target for a split second, creating a rudimentary diversion. Rubio holds that diversionary gaze a crucial split-second longer, as if he is waiting an extra instant for that teammate, who is in fact the decoy, to break free. Consequently, when he finally does interrupt his dribble and snap off the pass in another direction, the element of surprise is magnified, generating more delight for his teammates, embarrassment for his opponents and "aahhs" from the crowd.
But the Thunder game was perhaps most encouraging for the ways Rubio is laboring to become a three-dimensional player. After practice the day of the opener, he said that he had lost confidence in his shot at times while playing in Spain last season. But during crunch time Monday, he buried a jumper to put the Wolves up by one with three minutes to play, right after moving his feet well enough to draw the charge on the more athletic Westbrook at the defensive end. Westbrook had the final say, exposing Rubio in transition to get the go-ahead layup and the foul with 2:25 left, then staring him down for good measure. But that psychological ploy was an acknowledgment by Westbrook that Rubio was a foe to be reckoned with. He wasn't alone in that regard: "Rubio can pass that rock!" LeBron James tweeted after the game.
Tuesday night in Milwaukee provided a more sobering context. Maybe it was the back-to-back grind, the absence of coach Rick Adelman (at his mother-in-law's funeral), or the combination of hot-shooting starter Luke Ridnour and an injured J.J. Barea compelling extending minutes for Ridnour, who often initiates the offense even when paired with Rubio in the backcourt. Whatever the case, Rubio took that inevitable step backward that happens to most every rookie.
Although he again shot 2-of-3 from the field, Rubio turned down a three-pointer and fed a teammate for a less-advantageous two-point attempt with the shot clock dwindling. He also committed a turnover because of indecision when driving the lane. (He did take advantage of a wide-open path through the paint to score over fast-closing Andrew Bogut in the second half, however.) An overthrown alley-oop to Wes Johnson was exactly the sort of too-flashy gambit that never happened amid all the highlights the night before. And defensively, Rubio seemed more easily confused, though he did poke-check a steal when forced into a mismatch in the paint, and was able to leap up and block a fast-break lob after his missed shot led to a Milwaukee transition opportunity.
If Rubio was one of the conversations du jour after Monday's opener, his play against the Bucks had the trappings of a promising but hardly special rookie, and he was much less of a factor overall during another close loss.
No matter: The Timberwolves will continue, appropriately, to treat Rubio as a cornerstone for their future. How he fares will go a long way toward determining the legacy of much-maligned president David Kahn, who has been steadfast in his desire to create a roster that plays up-tempo and shares the ball, and who refused all trade offers for Rubio in the last two years. Kahn acknowledges that the subject of playing Rubio came up when coaches were interviewed to replace Kurt Rambis over the summer.
"I just said that in Ricky's case, he had to play; whether that was 16, 18 or 22 minutes, who knows, but that he is a very big part of our future and he had to be developed," Kahn said. "Now that was back [before Rubio had started working with the team], and since our very first practice it is clear that, whether there was a need to develop him or not, he deserves to play, because when he plays he helps us be a better team."
So, are point guards delivered from God or is it the product of hard work? Of the dozen questions put to Rubio, this was the one he seemed to enjoy the most.
"It is a little of both," he said. "Sometimes I see the play and I can make the play and I don't really know, it is natural. And sometimes you learn what to do and you make the play."
Notice the pronouns. Who says there is no "I" in God?