The Spanish point guard has agreed to join the Timberwolves next season, ending a drawn-out, delicate, two-year negotiation with the team that had many league observers believing he did not want to play in Minnesota.
A person with knowledge of the agreement confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday night that Rubio will be here next season, given the woebegone Timberwolves a much-needed dose of good news. The person requested anonymity because neither Rubio nor the Timberwolves planned to make an official announcement while he continues to play for Regal Barcelona in the Spanish league playoffs.
The Timberwolves drafted Rubio fifth overall two years ago despite a buyout of his Spanish contract that topped $6 million. The enormity of the buyout caused Rubio to stay overseas rather than immediately come to the NBA, and there was talk that the precocious teenager did not want to play in Minnesota.
The current labor uncertainty complicated the negotiations. But Rubio ultimately decided he was ready to come over now.
Timberwolves spokesman Mike Cristaldi said the team was declining comment.
”As of now, we have nothing new to report,” Cristaldi said.
The news marks the successful end to a long, and often winding, daliance between the Timberwolves and Rubio. With help from owner Glen Taylor, coach Kurt Rambis and assistant GM Tony Ronzone, Wolves President David Kahn spent almost two years working to convince Rubio to realize his dream of playing in the NBA in Minnesota.
The Wolves were careful not to put too much pressure on the youngster yet still emphasizing how much the team was looking forward to bringing the slick-passer to the United States.
Kahn called Rubio ”a virtuoso and somebody special” after drafting him in 2009. He and agent Dan Fegan came to agreement to bring Rubio over to the NBA that summer, but Rubio pulled out at the last minute after deciding he did not want to pay a buyout that topped $6 million out of his own pocket.
That led to speculation that Rubio did not want to play in cold, small-market Minnesota and was hoping to force a trade to a bigger, more desirable market. But Rubio never expressed that himself, and the team remained confident through thick and thin that Rubio would one day join them.
”Ricky Rubio, huh?” Timberwolves All-Star Kevin Love tweeted late Wednesday night. ”I’ll believe it when I see it…”
His tweets continued: ”Just thinking about pick and rolls…goodnight.
Under current NBA rules, the Timberwolves can only contribute $500,000 to Rubio’s buyout from Regal Barcelona. But by staying in Spain for another two years, Rubio’s buyout has now dropped to a more manageable $1.4 million.
A person with knowledge of the negotiations said the Timberwolves have been woking with several local companies on some endorsement opportunities that would help pay that bill.
The negotiations reached a deadline of sorts on Tuesday, when Rubio needed to sign a contract in order to be put under the current rookie salary wage scale.
He was faced with a difficult decision – sign with the Wolves and lock himself into the guaranteed money of that rookie contract while risking losing games of his first NBA season to a potential lockout, or wait to see what unfolds with the league’s uncertain labor situation.
Waiting, however, could have cost him money in the long run if the owners are successful in their bid to gain major wage concessions from the players, or if Rubio’s on-court production continued to slip like it did this season, thereby hurting his negotiating leverage.
Rubio averaged a modest 6.5 points per game on 39 percent shooting while dealing with a foot injury. With Rubio coming off the bench, Regal Barcelona has reached the Spanish League finals, meaning it will likely be mid to late June before he can be introduced by the Timberwolves, who think he will flourish in the more wide-open NBA, where guards are allowed much more freedom on the perimeter.
”He’s gotten bigger and he plays outstanding defense, and because he’s a pass-first guard – he’s going to be liked by everybody who plays with him,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said last year. Krzyzewski also coached Team USA against Rubio and Spain in Beijing.
Rubio dominated the junior circuit in Europe and turned professional at 14. His flashy style and baby face made him an instant sensation in Europe and, even though his stock has dipped some this year, the Wolves are as enamored as ever.
”He’s a special player and a very good point guard,” Lakers forward and fellow Spainiard Pau Gasol said earlier this season. ”Very unselfish. He’s got great size, great length. He knows how to play the game very well. He’s got a great feel for the game. He’s just a guy that will get the team going and do what he needs to do.”
The news was a much-needed jolt to a struggling franchise. The Timberwolves finished with the worst record in the league last season, and their history of bad lottery luck continued when the Cavaliers leap-frogged them for the first pick in the draft.
The team has won just 32 games in the last two years and desperately needs a capable point guard to feed the ball to Kevin Love and Michael Beasley.
With Rubio now in the mix, the first of many needs can be scratched off the list.
It was also a bit of vindication for Kahn, who endured an avalanche of criticism for drafting Rubio at No. 5 and another point guard, Jonny Flynn, sixth overall. The doubters said Rubio would never play in Minnesota, but Kahn stayed quiet and patient and got his man in the end.