Spanish Flier

With his boy-band good looks and crowd-pleasing game, point guard prodigy Ricky Rubio could be the No. 2 pick in the draft, but choosing him is not without risk
May 31, 2009

Ricky Rubio isalready a rock star. On a recent night in suburban Barcelona he walks out ofhis team's locker room, his thick black hair wet and mussed to Jonas Brotherseffect, and is greeted—as usual—by a polite group of teenaged girls. "Whatis your name?" he asks each one in Spanish, and they swoon as he signspersonal greetings and poses with them for snapshots. Next he moves toward thecrowd of a half-dozen reporters, also waiting politely with their microphonesand questions.

His parents andtwo siblings wait farther down the hall for their turn with him. Takenaltogether, the scene is an innocent and endearing tableau that remindsonlookers he's still an 18-year-old high schooler. Maybe that is why Rubiolingers in these hallways, smiling and signing and saying goodbye, for this islikely to be his final game at home before he enters the NBA next season. Therehis charisma and teen-idol looks will become profitable commodities, the newsmedia won't be so patient to wait its turn after games, and some female fansmight not be content with an autograph.

"I would haveliked [him to] be here two years longer before he goes to the NBA," sayshis mother, Antonia Vives, through an interpreter, "[so] that he could gothere being 20 and more mature. But when the train comes, you have to get on.Because if the train passes and you don't take it, the rest of your life youwonder."

As many questionsas Tona (her preferred first name) and Esteve Rubio have about the future oftheir youngest son, just as many are being raised by NBA teams in anticipationof Rubio's entry in the June 25 draft. Though the consensus view is that he'sthe second-best player available—the Clippers having already declared theirintention to take Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin at No. 1—a leap of faith willbe required of the team that chooses Rubio, because of his age and hisimpulsive, up-tempo playmaking style as well as the unprecedented $8 millionbuyout being demanded by his professional club, DKV Joventut Badalona. It'senough to give even Rubio doubts. "The media and everybody is talking likeI'm the greatest player, that I can play in the NBA easy," he says in hisimproving English. "For me, it's not what they say. If I could be half ofwhat they say I am, I would be very happy."

Yet Rubio isalready the biggest basketball star outside of the NBA, with videos of hisspectacular playmaking available on YouTube. In a highly unpredictable draftthat is thin on star power and replete with NBA franchises seeking younger andcheaper talent, the weeks ahead are sure to be filled with disinformationcampaigns and rumors of potential trades. In the middle of all this speculationsits Rubio, who lives with his parents in their seaside condo in El Masnou,where, before he kisses Mom and Dad on the cheek on his way out the door, theyargue over how late he should be allowed to stay out. He is the all-Americanboy—or would be, if he were American.

Overlooking theunmade bed is a large poster of Michael Jordan, making the bedroom look likethat of any other teenage athlete. But look closer: The small plaster of Parisstatuette on the bedstand is of Ricky himself, complete with the white castthat he wore to protect his surgically repaired right wrist, injured during theOlympics last summer in Beijing. And that silver medal, dangling as humbly asan award won at summer camp? It's from the Olympics, its striped ribbon frayedfrom all of the family and friends who keep trying it on for fun.

Last August, Rubiobecame, at 17, the youngest player to win an Olympic basketball medal, and itwas his performance in the final against the U.S. that persuaded him to enterthe NBA. Before that game he'd only faced the likes of Chris Paul, DeronWilliams and Jason Kidd in video games. "One year ago I was playing in thePlayStation," he says, "and I [was trying] to make a three with CP3.And now I am going to guard him."

Guard Paul (andothers) he did, as Rubio started for Spain in place of Raptors point guard JoséCalderon, who was injured in the quarterfinals. Rubio's assignment was furthercomplicated when he tore a ligament in his shooting wrist during asecond-quarter collision with Carmelo Anthony. Rubio played the remainder ofhis 28 minutes in pain, unable to attempt a jump shot while handling the ballas a lefty, and yet he kept Spain in contention and contributed six points, sixrebounds, three assists and three steals. Team USA had routed Spain by 37points in the preliminary round eight days earlier, but in the final Rubiosteered his country to within four points with 2:25 remaining before theAmerican stars pulled out their 118--107 victory. "At 17 he played againstLeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul—and he held his own,"says an Eastern Conference executive. "If I had the pick, I'd take himNumber 1."

Others aren't sosure about a player who averaged 9.8 points, 5.8 assists and 2.2 steals in 22.6minutes this year for Joventut in the ACB, the top national league in Europe."I like him and I think he's going to be good, but I don't know if he'sgoing to be a franchise guy," says another Eastern Conference generalmanager. The problem is that Rubio defies comparison. He doesn't dominate theball like Paul, and he can't shoot as well as Steve Nash; he isn't as fast asTony Parker or Rajon Rondo, nor is he as physical as Kidd or Williams. In aleague that defines draft picks by what they cannot do, Rubio's main weaknessesare his slim 6'3", 180-pound body and his unreliable shooting. For someonewho creates so fluidly while knifing between defenders at full speed, he isquite a deliberate shooter: Everything comes to a stop when he steadies himselfat the three-point line as if attempting a last-second free throw.

But those doubtsare easily rebutted. Despite the October wrist surgery, which left him in painthroughout the first half of the season, Rubio's three-point shooting (thedistance of the three-point line in Europe, 20'6", is roughly equivalent tothe NCAA's) improved from 26.5% last year in the ACB to 41.7% this season,which for him concluded last Saturday when Joventut (23--12) lost itsbest-of-three, first-round playoff series to Real Madrid. "He has goodform, good extension, and during the warmups his shots go in," says aWestern Conference G.M. who has seen Rubio play many times. "I don't thinkshooting is going to be an issue for him."

Hiswide-shouldered body is certain to grow stronger as he matures. But will heever be able to defend the quicker point guards? "No," acknowledges theexec who views Rubio as the top pick, "but no one can. Come on, I watched[Derrick] Rose and Rondo go by one another in the first round [of theplayoffs], and they couldn't guard each other either. I don't care if my pointguard is great athletically, but I do want him to be my smartestplayer."

On May 18 Rubiodemonstrated the leadership he will bring to the NBA. As representatives fromfour teams—Kings G.M. Geoff Petrie and Clippers G.M. and coach Mike Dunleavy,as well as scouts for the Bobcats and the Grizzlies—watched, Rubio, who hadbeen sidelined by a hip pointer in the second quarter of Joventut's 79--62 Game1 loss to Real Madrid two days earlier, entered Game 2 to an extended roar inthe sixth minute. Over 29 furious minutes he would drive Joventut to an 82--77win with 16 points, six assists, seven rebounds and four steals. He wasn't thefastest player on the court, but he looked like he was, taking a converted freethrow and driving it end to end through traffic to finish lefthanded. Herepeatedly beat Madrid's point guards—Raul Lopez, formerly of the Utah Jazz,and Sergio Llull, a potential second-round pick this year—off the dribble andinto the paint, where time and again he'd find a big man cutting in for thelayup. One time he reached down and scooped a loose ball blindly behind him toa teammate in stride for a breakaway dunk.

"He has theability to keep his dribble alive, even on double teams and traps," saysRubio's teammate Coby Karl, son of Nuggets coach George Karl. "He keepsmoving [and] never lets the defender take things away from him; he hasextremely long arms, so he's able to pass over double teams; and he knows whereguys are on the floor at all times."

Esteve Rubio sawthe makings of these gifts when Ricky was six years old. "He was twoseconds [ahead of] the other players, he could see things before theycould," says Ricky's dad. "But I wasn't sure if I was believing he wasspecial just because he was my son."

Esteve, amechanic, played point guard for a small amateur club and was a youth coach.Ricky's brother, Marc, 21, is a 6'1" guard in the Spanish second divisionwhom Ricky grew up idolizing as they played on the fenced-in court across thestreet. By age 15 Ricky had lucrative offers from the big Spanish clubsBarcelona and Real Madrid, but his parents signed him to a five-year contractwith the small local club Joventut so he could stay at home, avoid big-timepressures and train under the renowned Spanish coach Aíto García Reneses, whoalso served as Spain's Olympic coach in Beijing. As recently as last seasonthat contract paid a miniscule 70,000 euros—almost $100,000 at current exchangerates—to Rubio, the club's most marketable player and the one whose leadershipearned Joventut a place in the prestigious Euroleague this season.

"He will makemoney in the future, God willing," says Esteve. "Money is not thepriority." Rather it's the terms of the buyout that upset the family, whosigned the contract never imagining that Ricky would rise so quickly. Joventutwill set Rubio free if, by June 30—just five days after the draft—he pays theclub 4.75 million euros ($6.6 million); after that date the penalty for earlywithdrawal rises to $8 million. It would be by far the largest buyout for aplayer entering the NBA, and based on Rubio's previous earnings he can't comeclose to paying it. (As the No. 2 pick, Rubio would earn $3.7 million nextseason before taxes, and NBA rules permit his new franchise to contribute nomore than $500,000 to the buyout.) This season Joventut raised Rubio's salaryto 210,000 euros—almost $300,000—as a "goodwill" gesture, yet the clubhas refused to negotiate a reduced buyout; a rival Euroleague team presidentpredicts the Rubios may be forced to seek a court injunction that would enableRicky to enter the NBA while the legal system decides how much he has to payfor his freedom.

Though Rubio iscommitted to remaining in this draft, he is not promising to play in the NBAnext season. A less preferable course would have him spending another year inEurope with Joventut or a larger club, which he will consider if he is draftedby an NBA team with unpromising prospects. The No. 2 pick belongs to theGrizzlies, a payroll-slashing franchise that has lost 178 games over threesuccessive last-place seasons. Based on the experiences of fellow Spaniards PauGasol and Juan Carlos Navarro—who both played for Memphis—the Rubios havedoubts about whether Ricky should entrust his career to the franchise. Which isnot to say they have ruled it out: They were scheduled to meet with GrizzliesG.M. Chris Wallace on Monday.

A decade ago itwas widely thought that European basketball was incapable of developingtraditional point guards with the innate feel necessary to lead an NBA team.Lately, however, the NBA has placed greater value on point guards who score atleast as often as they assist others. Into this new world arrives theold-school game of Rubio, with the thick hair and flair (if not the jump shot)of Pete Maravich, to humbly remind the league that the dunk can be lessentertaining than the no-look pass from which it came. "For me, the NBA isstill a dream because I am not playing there," says Rubio as he sits withhis parents at an outdoor café.

Just then a pairof teenage girls appear behind Rubio's left shoulder, shyly asking for hisautograph. "Of course," he replies with an inviting smile. "What isyour name?"

Drafting Rubio takes guts because of his unorthodoxstyle and costly buyout fee.

Rubio became, at 17, the youngest player to win anOlympic basketball medal.

Now on SI.com

To see where Ricky Rubio will land in Ian Thomsen'smock draft, go to SI.com/bonus

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by DIARIO ASDRIVING FORCE Rubio's fan-friendly charm could make him a gate attraction, but it's his spectacular playmaking that has drawn raves from NBA scouts. PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE RUBIO FAMILYPASSING FANCY Ricky's performance against Team USA in Beijing proved his NBA readiness to Esteban (far left) and a reluctant Tona. PHOTOBOB DONNAN/US PRESSWIRE[See caption above] PHOTOJESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESOLYMPIAN EFFORT Despite a torn wrist ligament, Rubio teamed with Gasol (middle) to keep Spain close in the gold medal game.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)