MINNEAPOLIS — The current and past faces of the Timberwolves franchise have crossed paths before.
Preparing for his NBA debut while the league and its players union worked to settle a labor dispute, point guard Ricky Rubio spent the 2011 lockout in Los Angeles training and playing pickup games with the several other NBA players in town. One of them was Kevin Garnett.
There was 21-year-old Ricky, mop-top hair hanging close to his young, impressionable, fear-filled eyes as he watched Garnett play with the same ferocity that made him famous in Minnesota and led Boston to the 2008 championship. Rubio had grown up with the Wolves as one of his preferred PlayStation teams so he could manipulate Garnett’s digitized character, and now the real thing was throwing down dunks and talking vociferous trash.
When the two were on the same team, Rubio was relieved. When they weren’t, Rubio nervously avoided eye contact with the imposing, 6-foot-11 figure.
"I was scared," Rubio said.
It’s the same respect level prevalent in the Wolves locker room these days. But Garnett gained an instant appreciation for Rubio, too. Namely, the vision, passing ability and smarts that make the Spaniard such a dynamic floor general.
"His IQ is through the roof," said Garnett, who came back to Minnesota in a deadline-day trade last month.
The admiration, then, is mutual. And that renders the Target Center’s home dressing room, even amid a losing season, a nurturing environment for the Wolves’ young core.
When Rubio signed a four-year, $55 million extension in October, something clicked. Tangible evidence of the club’s commitment to him in hand — and in his bank account — he took it upon himself to start acting like an organizational cornerstone. He became more vocal, within and without the confines of the hardwood, using the English that’s improved considerably since his rookie season. Even when a sprained ankle sidelined him for almost three months, Rubio remained invested, observing from the bench with all the fervor of the fans paying premium dollars to sit a few rows behind him.
"It’s this guy’s team right here," veteran shooting guard Kevin Martin said at the Wolves’ preseason media day, gesturing toward Rubio, who was seated next to him.
But starting in early February, head coach and president Flip Saunders saw a chance to reunite with a former protege, provide an unparalleled locker-room presence, sell some tickets and recreate some of the Garnett-inspired magic that had the Target Center rocking during eight straight playoff berths from 1997-2004. The straight-up swap sending Thaddeus Young to Brooklyn also positioned Garnett for a future run at Minnesota ownership — a personal, post-playing-days goal he’s made public.
In the meantime, it means a new, commandeering voice during games and practices. But Rubio’s more than happy to yield, he says.
"I’m cool," Rubio said. "I’m a winner, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to win. I think he has the same mentality."
Rubio, after all, is 24 and in his fourth NBA season. A 20-year graybeard, Garnett will be 39 in May.
By the nature of his position, Rubio still has a fair amount of sway among his teammates. But Garnett can show him how to use it most effectively, Saunders says.
"I think that he’s going to really help Ricky a lot," Saunders said. "I think just understanding the game, understanding what to do. Ricky’s got unbelievable intelligence. Ricky is a sponge, wants to get better, wants to learn, wants to learn from the best."
He now has the chance, for however long Garnett remains in uniform. When he takes it off for good, if all goes as planned, the reins will go back to Rubio. He might as well learn to share them now, what with rookie of the year candidate Andrew Wiggins’ stock rising by the month.
And it’s not exactly like the guy with whom Rubio’s sharing leadership duties looks down upon him.
Garnett says Rubio reminds him of Rajon Rondo, the point guard on the Celtics playoff teams of the late 2000s.
"I got to see some of his skill level, just in the summer where there’s no pressure or nothing," Garnett said of those lockout-year skirmishes involving him and Rubio. "First thing: his IQ. That’s the first thing you see right away, his IQ and his ability to see the play before it happens. Those are the special ones. Those are the ones that can see rotations.
"The game is really fast at this level, so the fact that he’s able to not only see them before it happens, but he’s already making a decision what he’s going to do with the ball."