Getting schooled by Ricky Rubio
Those in the know aren't surprised by his success. Our expert should've known better.
The men who truly know the game of basketball globally, from little towns in China to little towns in Indiana, weren't really worried about Ricky Rubio successfully transitioning to the NBA. They weren't daunted by the number of times he'd score zero points and get only an assist or two in an entire game playing in Europe. They looked at his hands, his ability to throw pinpoint passes, his fearless creativity, and they knew the point guard from Spain was going to be better here, in the U.S., than he was on his native soil.
Magic Johnson, the man who probably knows more about the passing game than anybody in the history of basketball, saw Rubio go 0-for-5 shooting with three assists in an exhibition victory over the Lakers nearly two years ago, and still he came away certain Rubio would be at the very least a good NBA point guard. I told Magic the Timberwolves were nuts for wasting the No. 5 overall pick in 2009 on this kid who kept putting up zeros in international competition. Magic said, and I quote, "You're going to be wrong. Listen to me on this kid. He'll be better in the NBA than he is in Europe because our guys are more athletic and they run to the rim. In Europe, guys don't really run the break; they fan out around the 3-point line, they pump-fake, they look to score in other ways. Our guys are going to see a dude who can pass it like Rubio and run like hell to the rim. Trust me."
I didn't. I was a fool.
Rubio's game, just as Magic promised, is better suited to the NBA than any league in Europe. It's clear the kid can find an open teammate like very few rookies in recent years. Rubio is averaging 7.9 assists even though he's played more than 30 minutes in just three of 10 games. In four of his last eight games, he has reached double-digits in assists. And his creativity on the move is much more Steve Nash than John Stockton, which has made the Timberwolves worth watching for the first time since Kevin Garnett left.
"There's a difference," Magic said by way of explanation, "between making a pass to somebody and creating a shot for a guy. Rubio creates a shot. He's got instincts, great instincts."
Tony Ronzone, a former assistant GM of the T-Wolves, scouted Rubio extensively. Ronzone, who has coached teams in New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China, saw Rubio's game translating beautifully to the U.S. even before Magic had caught a glimpse. Rubio was a teenager when Ronzone saw a kid who "would be much more effective in the U.S. because guys run to the rim ... and they run harder when they play with a guy like Ricky."
Ronzone was working with the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing, where in a game against Spain, the U.S. threw a trap at Rubio with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony or LeBron and Dwyane Wade or Anthony and Wade. Whatever the combination, "Ricky would split it, or find a teammate so fast," Ronzone recalled. "He'd split the pick and roll and throw a phenomenal pass to the weak side. You can't teach that. ... In 2010 in the World Championships in Madrid, we're playing this exhibition against Spain and Ricky took the ball off Derrick Rose in two of the first four possessions. In another game, the kid had to go against Chauncey Billups and Russell Westbrook, and they couldn't take the ball from him."
Sure enough, Rubio had 12 assists for the T-Wolves against Rose and the Bulls on Tuesday night, after getting 12 against LeBron and the Heat on Dec. 30. Magic, bless him, didn't hit me with "I told you so."
"What got me about Rubio," he said, "was that international players often back down when the level of competition jumps, but [Rubio] didn't. The thing that really set him up was that he was smart enough, at 17 years old, to wait and keep playing in Europe. He got bigger and stronger. He already had that beautiful footwork, the movement. Gasol has it; Ginobili has it. They're what I call attackers. When challenged, they go forward, not backward."
Ronzone, having spent so much time abroad, where soccer is king, said, "I call it having a soccer mentality. It's pass-first. It's unselfish. And most of all, it's about not turning the ball over much because turnovers in soccer kill you. Soccer is so much about controlling the game. He can definitely control the game."
And because he can, Rick Adelman is already at the point where he's considering putting Rubio into the starting lineup ... not that there's much of a decision to make. Simply put, Rubio is ready to be an NBA starter. Already, he's shown he can be a closer. Rubio's 11.6 minutes per game in the fourth quarter are No. 1 in that category among all NBA players, not just rookies.
With two days' rest, which usually means a chance to practice, the kid is averaging 12 assists. Even with one day's rest, he's averaging 9.0. Surely, he -- like just about every other rookie in the history of the league -- will hit the proverbial wall, but so what? Think the Knicks wouldn't mind having such a problem? How about the Wizards, who passed on drafting Rubio and instead dealt for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, neither of whom is on the club's roster any longer. Talk about making a killer mistake. That amounts to a spectacular failure in judgment. A sportswriter misses on that evaluation, he writes an apology column. But when a GM (in this case, Ernie Grunfeld) misses, it's no wonder his team winds up with less talent and fewer wins than any other team in the league.
Not only is Rubio better than I could project, he's better right now than John Wall, the No. 1 pick of the very next draft. Wall can't shoot as well, can't run a team as well and has virtually no chance of passing the ball as well. Wow, talk about misery loving company.
In a sport where it seems to be a requisite for every player to remind us of somebody who came before, people already are making their Rubio comparisons. Nash. Jason Kidd. Rubio is a pass-first point guard in an era of shoot-first point guards. Even so, the kid is shooting 46 percent, 47 percent from 3, pretty good for a kid who simply doesn't care about scoring. He has borrowed one of Magic's favorite lines: "I'd rather make two people happy than one." Which is sort of the passer's credo.
Magic and Ronzone both say Rubio will get better as he plays with better athletes, like rookie teammate Derrick Williams. Rubio seems to have survived the very thing I thought would crush him: expectations. Ronzone doesn't seem to be exaggerating when he says, "One of his best attributes is nothing fazes him."
Still, it simply didn't seem reasonable for the Timberwolves to make Rubio the face of the franchise, given that the team had so far to go to just reach respectability. After all, even with Kevin Love playing out of his mind and Rubio throwing passes with Drew Brees accuracy, the Timberwolves were 3-7, tied for last in the Western Conference. Fortunately for them, Ronzone knew he and the team weren't getting a prima donna, but someone who told the staff he didn't really want to start as a rookie, that he wanted to learn the game and earn both his keep and a spot on the floor. He didn't particularly want the pressure of what the franchise was asking him, but he didn't shrink from it, either.
"The last five years, people were coming after that kid every single game," Ronzone said. "And he's just a buck-80."
His talent, of course, is much bigger than his frame, and from what we've already seen, his impact could be bigger than his tangible talents. Only 10 games into his NBA career, I find myself for the first time in years sneaking a peek at Timberwolves games to see if Rubio is going to throw a pass that makes me hit rewind. If you're going to be as dead, stupid wrong about a position as I was about how good Rubio would be in the NBA, at least let it happen quickly while there is still standing room on the back of the kid's bandwagon.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.