Can Ricky Rubio and the Minnesota Timberwolves save each other?
That is the question after news broke Wednesday that the Wolves have finally signed Rubio -- the fifth pick in the 2009 NBA draft -- to a contract.
Two years ago, before the draft, the answer was clearer: Rubio was supposed to be the Wolves' savior. Then an 18-year-old international sensation, the 6-4, 180-pound point guard from Barcelona had been a starter in the best basketball league in Europe since the age of 16. He also more than held his own playing against NBA point guards Chris Paul and Jason Kidd in the 2008 Olympics.
Scouts compared Rubio to everyone from Pete Maravich to Steve Nash. He was the consensus No. 2 pick on ESPN.com's Top 100 for the entire year. While scouts said he needed to get stronger and work on his jump shot, the general accord was he was going to be a star.
"He's special," one NBA GM told ESPN.com in April of 2009. "There aren't many kids you'll find at his age with such a terrific feel for the game. He just knows how to play. When he gets out there with players 10 years older than him, he just looks like he belongs. He'll have some adjusting to do in the NBA, but the truth is, he's as NBA-ready as most of the college kids that are coming out. He's playing on a very big world stage."
As the draft drew nearer, however, concerns began to grow about Rubio’s contract situation in Spain. He had a $4.75 million buyout clause. In addition, his agent, Dan Fegan, was being incredibly selective about who could contact Rubio. By draft night Rubio had worked out or visited just three teams -- the Clippers (who had the No. 1 pick), the Thunder (No. 3 pick) and the Kings (No. 4 pick). The Grizzlies (No. 2 pick) showed a lot of interest in Rubio but were stiffed-armed. So were the Wolves.
Then Wolves GM David Kahn stepped in.
With Rubio slipping on draft night largely because of concerns about his buyout, Kahn selected Rubio with the No. 5 pick.
Here’s what I wrote on draft night:
“The Wolves traded two key players on their roster, Randy Foye and Mike Miller (and took back a bad contract) to get No. 5. Questionable. Then the team got the two guys they love -- Rubio and [Jonny] Flynn in the draft. Terrific. Then GM David Kahn announces his idea to have Rubio and Flynn play together in the backcourt. Huh? I could see it, I guess, if it was Stephen Curry they drafted. But Jonny Flynn a two guard? Really? If there’s such a sin as trying to outsmart everyone -- I think the Wolves may have committed it.
Here’s the problem. Even if the Wolves' idea to play them together was a good one (it isn’t) I don’t think Ricky Rubio’s going for it. He can go back to Spain for the next few years and screw the Wolves if he wants to. Given the insanity of their idea, I think he just might do it. So … they may have traded Foye and Miller only to see their pick flee back to Europe.”
That’s exactly what Rubio did. The Wolves tried to convince Rubio to come, but the buyout concerns combined with a high level of skepticism over the Wolves' game plan for him forced him back to Europe.
Both sides put a positive spin on the move. The Wolves said they were in rebuilding mode and could afford to be patient. Rubio said he didn’t feel he was quite ready to play in the NBA and would be joining one of the top teams in Europe, Regal Barcelona, to continue to hone his skills. Both sides agreed that, in a year or two, Rubio would come over and all would be OK.
But, in the meantime, the Wolves have been anything but OK. They have been the worst team in the NBA over the past two seasons. Flynn, thanks in part to injuries, has been a bust so far, while a number of other point guards the Wolves passed on or traded in the same draft (Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson) are off to terrific careers.
Kahn has been collecting a number of assets -- Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Anthony Randolph, Darko Milicic, Nikola Pekovic, Wayne Ellington and Flynn -- but they are far from sure things. Only one player on the team, Kevin Love (a guy who was already in Minnesota when Kahn took over the job), looks like a true building block as the Wolves enter their fourth year of rebuilding.
Meanwhile Rubio has, by virtually all accounts, regressed the past two years. After averaging 10 ppg and 6 apg for DKV Joventut, while shooting 41 percent from 3 during the 2008-09 season, he has struggled with Barcelona.
In the 2009-10 season -- his first season with Barcelona -- his numbers dipped to 7 ppg and 4 apg in both the Spanish and Euroleague. There wasn’t a huge concern afterward because Rubio had joined a veteran team stacked with stars and adjusted his game to just fit in. Plus, his team won the 2010 Euroleague Championship.
But this season his numbers slipped again -- in part thanks to a foot injury. Rubio averaged 6.5 points and 3.2 assists in the Euroleague, shooting just 39 percent from the field and 22 percent from 3. A number of top NBA international scouts who watched Rubio play this season walked away disappointed with his development. Some questioned whether he had peaked as an 18 year old.
“He hasn’t improved any of his weaknesses,” one veteran scout said. “And he seems to have lost that swagger that made him so special. For so many years, he was so far ahead of players his age. He was a prodigy. Now he looks ordinary. I’m not sure what happened, but this is not the age you want a player to plateau.”
So perhaps it’s no coincidence that the struggling Rubio and the struggling Wolves are now, finally, falling into each other’s arms.
The Wolves could no longer afford to wait on Rubio. They have to show they can take the next step under Kahn. If Rubio is as good as Kahn says he is -- and as good as we all hoped he’d be -- there is hope in Minnesota. (According to a team source, Rubio is expected to start, but it will ultimately be the coach's decision.)
And Rubio could no longer afford to keep waiting in Europe. His camp had hoped they could force a trade -- they had dreams of Rubio landing in New York or LA -- but after two lackluster years in Europe, his trade value has plummeted. Teams aren’t willing to give up the farm to get him. His reputation has taken a beating. Rubio is no longer a 16-year old prodigy. He’s a skinny, 20-year-old point guard who needs to learn how to shoot.
For the first time in two years, Rubio and the Wolves are a perfect match. Will it be a love connection or co-dependent death spiral? That is the only question that remains.