Adelman will let Ricky Rubio be himself
How good will the Spanish sensation be? His Timberwolves coach holds the key
If rookie point guard Ricky Rubio is the key to the Minnesota Timberwolves' comeback from irrelevance -- and he is -- then coach Rick Adelman is the locksmith, charged with transforming Rubio from a Spanish sensation to an NBA prodigy.
Based on Adelman's history, it's hard to imagine anyone better suited to take a point guard of unknown quality and make him a success, especially in the face of the uncertainty and disrupted preparation for a season posed by a labor lockout.
Adelman, introduced Wednesday as the Timberwolves' new head coach, took a wizardly passing, errant-shooting, suspect defender known as Jason Williams and fashioned him into a starting point guard and all-rookie first-teamer who led the Sacramento Kings to a playoff berth in a lockout-shortened 50-game season in 1999.
Now he is charged with basically doing it again, this time with Rubio.
NBA lockout restrictions imposed by commissioner David Stern forbidding personnel from discussing players prohibited Adelman from specifically talking about Rubio in a phone conversation this week. But, while Adelman, 65, is now nearly 14 years older and doesn't have nearly as much veteran talent with the Timberwolves as he did on that Kings squad, the excitement in his voice is unmistakable when asked about the challenge of developing another unproven young point guard.
"I'm different from some other coaches," Adelman said. "They believe you have to be harder on them and demand certain things. I feel the opposite. I think you have to give them rope and let them find their way a little bit. They're all different and they all have different strengths. I don't think you can say, 'This is how you have to play.' I usually give them a lot of freedom and I see this situation as being the same thing."
Terry Porter, a 17-year NBA veteran and former head coach of the Phoenix Suns, can vouch for all that. He also interviewed for the Timberwolves' head-coaching job but knew he had no chance once Adelman became interested in the job. Most of what Porter learned about working with a young point guard, he learned from Adelman by way of getting his start in the NBA under Adelman with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1985.
"Rick is going to be able to talk to Ricky about his experiences with me," said Porter. "He worked with me a lot on my shot. But until we got that down, he told me to play from a couple points of strength, things he knew I could do well. He won't overload him with a system, he'll just let him focus on a few things."
While Porter is the only point guard Adelman has ever developed who reached All-Star status, Adelman has never exactly been given a prototype. Porter actually was a scoring swingman at tiny University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with limited shooting range. Mike Bibby, who played for five seasons under Adelman in Sacramento, statistically dipped under Adelman after he arrived from Memphis but became twice the player when it came to winning games.
Even with the Houston Rockets, whose two-year extension offer Adelman turned down because they wanted to replace his staff, he made surprisingly effective point guards out of both Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry.
None of his protégés hews as closely to Rubio as Williams, who arrived in Sacramento as a whirlwind of hype and flash and raw ability but without the strength, poise or refinement to live up to it right away. And while Williams was a wild child whose dad even suggested the team should tighten the reins on him, the fact remains the Kings went to the playoffs all three years they were together after failing to make the postseason in 11 of the Kings' previous 12 seasons.
Besides, it's not as if Adelman didn't know how to coach a more execution-oriented system. He just realized for where Williams was in his career and the other talent the Kings had, that wasn't going to maximize their potential. He proved that the minute Sacramento dealt Williams to acquire Bibby, immediately shifting his strategy to a slower style featuring more pick-and-roll plays and off-the-ball cuts, exploiting Bibby's IQ and jump shot after exploiting Williams' open-court virtues.
"He did the same thing with me," said Porter. "He said, 'Play basketball the way you play basketball.' Our offense was totally different from what he ran in Sacramento. He's always looked at guys and tried to put the ball in their hands where they can be effective. He gave me a lot of confidence by doing that." That's because Adelman knows firsthand how vital confidence is to an NBA point guard. A seventh-round pick in 1968 by the San Diego Rockets, Adelman lasted seven seasons, playing for nine different coaches.
"I wasn't very good," he said. "But playing for so many different coaches, I learned what made me successful as a point guard and what didn't. When they had the hammer down and were strict about what I could and couldn't do, my confidence went out the window and I couldn't even do a lot of things I thought I did do well. You have to trust your point guard a little bit."
Porter believes that will be particularly vital for Rubio.
"It's going to be huge," Porter said. "It's just not basketball. It's all the cultural stuff. Maintaining his confidence is going to be very important. Rick is good at that, mostly by just constantly talking to you. Ricky is going to have a target on his back from the start. He's going to be labeled a savior."
Adelman doesn't speak Spanish, but in basketball terms, he is sure to translate what that means in a way Rubio can understand.
Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.