Ricky Rubio is looking forward to guiding the Minnesota Timberwolves into their next era with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Looking back, it's clear that the 2014-15 NBA season was thoroughly dominated by the 2009 draft class.
No. 7 pick Stephen Curry won MVP honors and led the 67-win Warriors past the Cavaliers to win the first title of his career. No. 3 pick James Harden finished as the MVP runner-up and guided the Rockets to the conference finals. No. 19 pick Jeff Teague ran the Hawks to 60 wins and the East finals. No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin accumulated postseason triple doubles and off-season emojis in record fashion. No. 27 pick DeMarre Carroll and No. 46 pick Danny Green both landed lucrative contracts after bouncing around the league early in their career.
The '09-ers had every headline covered, with No. 10 pick Brandon Jennings suffering a season-ending Achilles injury after a promising breakthrough, No. 18 pick Ty Lawson getting traded after picking up two DUI arrests, and No. 2 pick Hasheem Thabeet hiding behind a black curtain in a Las Vegas gym after getting ejected from a Summer League game.
If there's a forgotten man in this news-making group, it's No. 5 pick Ricky Rubio, whose career with the Timberwolves has mostly been a series of waits. Minnesota first waited two full seasons for the Spanish point guard to join the NBA, and then fans counted down his return after Rubio tore his ACL during a March 2013 game against the Lakers. Last season produced another injury-related delay, as Rubio appeared in just 22 games due to a left ankle injury that eventually required surgery in April.
That setback, which occurred during a November 2014 game against the Magic, accelerated the Timberwolves' race to the bottom of the West's standings and served as a reminder that the 24-year-old Rubio, now more than a half-decade removed from the peak of his teenage hype, remains more of a theoretical quantity rather than a known one. Because of his delayed entry to the NBA and his injury issues, Rubio has played just 6,425 total minutes in the NBA; 23 members of his draft class have logged more time than Rubio, and six of his fellow top 10 picks have played twice as many minutes.
But Rubio hasn't disappeared into the ether that swallowed No. 6 pick Jonny Flynn, the other half of Minnesota's back-to-back 2009 selections made before Curry and fellow All-Stars DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday and Teague. Far from it. In fact, Rubio is now the Timberwolves' highest-paid player, thanks to a four-year, $55 million contract extension signed last fall, an early agreement that kept him from sweating out free agency this summer. He's also a key piece—perhaps the key piece—in helping Minnesota achieve short-term respectability. The Timberwolves were 7-15 (.318) with him and 9-51 (.150) without him, and Rubio improved Minnesota's offensive rating by 2.3 points and its defensive rating by a whopping 7.5 points when he took the court.
There are burdens starting to pile up. There's the point guard's natural leadership responsibilities. There are expectations that come with having the team's largest contract. There's pressure to bridge the gap between Minnesota's wily old veterans (Kevin Garnett and Andre Miller) and its ultra-promising youngsters (Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, and company). There's the chore of filling the vacuum created by Kevin Love's departure, and the persistent impatience that comes with playing for a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2004.
Rubio's greatest gift has always been his vision, and he sees all of these forces, even as he continues to work back from ankle surgery.
"We know we’re young and we’re building," Rubio told SI.com in a phone interview. "At the same time, I think we’re ready to win games. Last season we only won 16 games but it didn’t feel like we were a losing team at all. We were just lacking some things. Me personally, I have to go pull this team in the playoffs. I know it’s a big challenge, but I think we have the right assets, the right weapons to get it. I know we’re in the West side, it’s really tough, but I think we can make it happen. I have big expectations for next season."
In the following Q&A, edited for length and clarity, Rubio reflects on his past, present and future in Minnesota.
SI: What have you been able to do this summer basketball-wise with the ankle injury?
RR: "I went back home [to Spain] for a little bit. I went back to Minnesota. I saw a lot of guys from the draft workout. I tried to be involved with the team. I couldn't do much basketball, just shooting. I try to get 100-200 shots a day up without jumping.
"I’ve been doing a lot of rehab, and I keep going forward. For the first three months [after surgery], I was doing low-impact work in the gym, working out my upper body, working on my core strength. I go to the gym and the weight room, spend like an hour and a half over there, just working on my core, trying to stay healthy. Then, another hour to get my ankle strength back and [work on] all the muscles [around it]."
SI: Were you able to catch a lot of the playoffs during the down time after the surgery? What stood out?
RR: "I really like the way [the Warriors] play. They play as a team. That was the big difference. They’re fun to watch. They’re a young team with a lot of talent. You can see they’re having a great time. That’s a great team.
"It reminds me a little bit with the [Spanish] National Team. We spend 2-3 months together in the summer, and we become a family. When you hang out a lot off the court, the chemistry builds up and you can see it on the court. You become friends and teammates. That has an impact on the game."
SI: Was it nice not to have to stress about a contract negotiation or restricted free agency because you were coming off of a major injury?
RR: "Having the contract situation [resolved] helped. As a player, you always want to be thinking about basketball. That really helped me focus on where I was going to be the next four years. My future is secure now. I can enjoy the journey."
SI: Already, that journey has seen highlight-reel plays and lots of promise on one hand, and then injuries and some losing on the other. If 2015 Ricky Rubio could give 2009 Ricky Rubio some pre-draft advice, what would it be?
RR: "I’ve been four years in the league. It goes by quick. You’ve got to enjoy every single moment. Take advantage of the situation. Sometimes you think you have all the time in the world. But the time is now. Sometimes you only have a brief opportunity. Enjoy the moment. Try to embrace every single moment. Try to do it now. Don’t think about tomorrow.
"[This summer], I went to Basketball Without Borders and Adidas Nations just to see young kids playing. I remember being their age, trying to make it to the NBA. They’re working to achieve their dreams. I went to give them that advice—just to enjoy the moment and enjoy the journey.
"For me, it’s weird to give them advice. Not that long ago, I was one of them. I remember watching Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, and Allen Iverson—I was a big fan. I’m not saying I want to copy [Iverson], he’s a different kind of player than me, but he was a great player. I watched Magic Johnson on tape. I didn’t have a chance to watch him live. I remember I was 12 or 13, watching games, going to the gym and trying to mimic what they do. Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, all those guys. Now, I’m trying to tell [the kids] my experience, how I got to this point. Mostly it’s just working hard."
SI: If you could do it over again, would you have come to the NBA earlier rather than staying overseas and playing for FC Barcelona in Spain?
RR: "I live a life that I never regret any decision. It could have been better or worse. It went the way it was. I’m really happy. I’m where I’m at because of everything I did. Those two years helped me grow up. I won Euroleague and [Spanish ACB League]. Staying two more years helped me achieve that. I was happy the way it went. Of course you never know [what would have happened] if I would have come right away, and we’d be talking about [me having] six years instead of four years in the league. That’s the way it went. Two years in Barcelona helped me grow up and be ready to play here."
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SI: Despite the challenges, you have found a long-term fit with Minnesota, something that eluded guys like Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez. What made the difference?
RR: "Sometimes you have to be in the right time and the right moment. Staying two more years in Barcelona helped me grow up—winning over there and then coming from overseas.
"The team was a big difference. They had trust in me. When you have the confidence of the franchise, the coach, and everyone on the team it’s easier to play. I had the opportunity to play from the beginning. I had to learn to be a starting point guard. I was coming off the bench the first 10 games, but I think I showed the coach I could be the starting point guard. That helped to build my confidence, and here I am."
SI: For awhile there, it looked like Minnesota was going to be the "Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio" show. Instead, you guys played less than 3,500 minutes together and now he's signed up long-term in Cleveland. What do you think about looking back on those days?
RR: "You have to move on. He was a big loss for us, a great player, an All-Star, but he wanted to go and we can’t do anything about it. We have to have players who really want to be there. Now looking back, seeing the way Wiggins played, we have to move on and play with Wiggins."
SI: What stood out most from Wiggins during his Rookie of the Year campaign?
RR: "He had a great season. You could see how he grew up. You could see how he was going at guys, going after two or three guys, dunking on them. He really took it over. It was tough for him because the team was losing, but at the same time he learned a lot. That season is going to help him going into next year.
"As a point guard, I want to make his life easier. Try to get him open shots, run the floor, get easy buckets, really get his confidence going. I remember playing with him in the middle of the season, when I came back from my injury. We were talking and he said, ‘I really like playing with you. You get me the ball at the right time.'
"He’s proven he can score 20+ points in a game. The thing is: How easy can he get them? I’m going to try to make that happen so that the team can win."
SI: What excites you about 2015 No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns?
RR: "I like guys who can shoot the ball. Having Kevin Love really helped stretch the floor. I think Towns is a better fit [than No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor] because of that. Okafor is more like [Nikola] Pekovic, a strong guy down in the post. Towns is a guy we don’t have."
SI: How do you see this developing core group of you, Wiggins, Towns and LaVine playing together?
RR: "We're pretty young, first of all. We’ve got a lot to learn. We’re athletic, we’re starving, we’re hungry. That’s something that’s going to show in practice and the games. I think it’s going to be a fun team to watch. A point guard who can pass the ball to athletic wings and big guys who can do a lot of damage in the post. In the case of Towns, he can really shoot the ball and run up and down too. I think it will be fun basketball, exciting."
SI: Flip Saunders is in an unusual spot because he's both coach and GM. Does that impact you?
RR: "It’s tough when a guy like that has everything. Sometimes you can be mad at the coach, and the coach can blame it on the GM [by saying that the GM] is the one who doesn’t really want to play you. So then you’re not really mad at the coach, you’re mad at the GM. But in this case, it’s just [Saunders]. He can’t blame it on anyone!
"I think he’s doing a good job. He’s handled some tough situations, like the trade deadline. He's working hard. At the end of the day, he’s a player’s coach and he lets us run the team. He has a lot of confidence in me. He gave me the contract. He’s a player’s coach and that’s the kind of coach I want to play for."
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SI: What are you hoping to improve next season?
RR: "First of all, stay healthy. Get stronger. Both upper body and lower body. Try to grow up as a player. Be more of a vocal leader. I feel like I have to step up as a leader. When I was out, I learned more about leading by example. I learned a lot from Kevin Garnett. He will be really helpful for me.
"Also, shooting. I was feeling more confident last season. Because of the injury, I couldn’t prove it. I really feel like I had to improve on my jump shot.
"You always think about adding all this stuff, but the floater is really important for a guard with the big guys inside. It’s a weapon that guys like Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Tony Parker have. They make a big difference just because of that."
SI: What goes into developing a floater?
RR: "[You have to] find your own one. Sometimes you keep shooting different floaters until you find the right one. It’s the one that fits you. Steph Curry’s floater is different than Tony Parker’s. You try to find it. It’s not easy to find. If it was easy, I would have it by now, and everyone would have one. It’s about having your own unique touch around the rim. Sometimes it’s [off] one foot. Sometimes it’s two feet. It depends. It’s just repetition until you find the right one."
SI: If you could steal one skill from any current NBA player, what would it be?
RR: "Stephen Curry's shooting. In the Finals and all year long, he was even shooting without his feet set and he was still able to make that shot. He has a special touch. That’s something I would like to have."
SI: You mentioned Garnett. Is he as intimidating as his reputation suggests?
RR: "He’s a different guy when you meet him. It’s true, if you’re not on his side, you should be afraid. But he came to the team, and he made a great impact right from the beginning. He set high expectations. Everyone was impressed with how nice he was. Everything he does is because he wants to win. If he gets mad at you, it’s because you’ve got to change to help the team. He’s all about the team. That’s how I am too. I have a great chemistry with him just because of that."
SI: Are you in favor of changing the NBA's schedule in hopes of cutting down on injuries? You have been playing basketball year-round for a long time. That's a lot of potential for wear and tear.
RR: "You never know if [an injury is] because of the schedule or not. We’re playing a lot of games. It’s always been that way. Why should we change it? The game now is more physical. Maybe stretch [the season] longer? But then you have less vacation. I’m not the one making decisions here.
"I think playing with the [Spanish] National Team every summer is tough, but I want to play with the National Team, no matter what. Only injuries are keeping me from playing this year. Representing your country is something you have inside [of you]."
SI: So you will play for Spain at the 2016 Olympics?
RR: "If we get there and I’m healthy, I’m playing. If not, I owe the team [not to play]."
SI: The Western Conference arguably got tougher this summer and your roster is very young, as you mentioned. What gives you confidence heading into 2015-16?
RR: "If we get healthy, that’s the big thing. Last year we couldn’t stay healthy. The first or second week of the season, three of the best guys were hurt. Kevin Martin, me and Pekovic were all hurt. If you take three guys off any team, they’re going to suffer, no matter what.
"If we stay healthy, it’s going to be a completely different team. We want to make the playoffs. It’s been a long time."