Rubio, Dieng provide basketball fix for Wolves fans in World Cup

Ricky Rubio leads a strong Spain squad in the the FIBA World Cup.

Chris Nicoll/Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The "other" World Cup starts Saturday.

There’s another World Cup? In name, yes. In stature, not quite.

Part of it depends on the state of your basketball appetite this time of year.

Because it’s up against the start of American and European football season in the same year as FIFA’s international soccer extravaganza, and because the game’s top stars aren’t wont to participate, the FIBA World Cup — formerly known as the FIBA World Championship — tends to get lost in the athletics shuffle. Unless, of course, your name is Ricky Rubio, J.J. Barea, Gorgui Dieng or the smattering of NBA players from rosters besides Minnesota’s that have made the trek to Spain for a two-week quest for gold.

LeBron James isn’t among them. Neither is Kevin Love or Kevin Durant. So the casual fan might not be spending much time on ESPN between Saturday and Sept. 14 tuned into his WatchESPN app — unless it’s to catch the day’s top gridiron offering while he’s tending to other "obligations."

Still, the international flavor of the present-day NBA — and the Wolves, in particular — present reasons to tune in for the more interested observer. The one who wants to see if Ricky’s shot is any better, if Gorgui’s offseason work in the Twin Cities paid off, and if J.J.’s still somewhat of a loose cannon.

Rubio returns to international competition salivating for another first-place medal after he and the host country came up short at last year’s EuroBasket tournament, claiming bronze. Since becoming the youngest player to participate in an Olympics final (Beijing, 2008), 23-year-old Rubio has claimed gold in the 2011 and 2009 EuroBasket tourneys. He missed the 2012 London Olympics due to the torn ACL that cost him part of his first two NBA seasons.

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Spain’s last appearance in this event didn’t go well; Rubio and company finished sixth.

But the hosts are a favorite to give the United States a run for its George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns. In addition to Rubio, Spain’s roster features NBA mainstays Pau and Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon and Serge Ibaka.

Spain’s Group A, one of four six-team round-robin alignments, includes tough outs in Brazil and France but appears manageable overall. The top four teams from each group advance to a single-elimination, knockout round.

For Rubio, it’s the latest chance to show he can rise above his current status as one of the worst shooting point guards in NBA history. He’s been working with a shooting coach this summer, and while the international game is more suited to Rubio’s run-and-gun skill set, his comfort level shooting in actual game scenarios will be somewhat telling.

In three NBA seasons, Rubio is 36.8 percent from the floor — 2,847th all-time in the NBA and dead last among 190 point guards who have made more than 500 field-goal attempts. In last year’s EuroBasket tourney, he averaged 7.2 points, 3.4 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game.

Dieng and Barea’s Senegal and Puerto Rico squads are both in Group B, and the second-year pro and eight-year veteran will meet head-to-head Sunday on the second day of preliminary-round action.

Senegal was originally suspended from the field after allegedly fabricating players’ ages in the 2013 FIBA Under-19 World Championships but eventually allowed back in after paying a fine and meeting several other FIBA requirements. This will be the first major international competition yet for Dieng, 24, who came on late last season and earned all-rookie second-team honors.

He’s already been exposed to the challenge of playing with home-country bragging rights on the line. Rubio bet him dinner Spain would win the team’s friendly tune-up game earlier this month; the Spaniards beat Senegal 88-49, and Dieng was forced to pay up.

Barea, on the other hand, is no stranger to the international circuit. The fiery 30-year-old has worn the blue and red of Puerto Rico in 15 different international competitions, most recently this year’s Centrobasket Championship where he averaged 17.8 points and 4.6 assists per game.

But he may have played his last game in a Minnesota uniform. The Wolves’ free-agent signing of veteran Mo Williams gives them four point guards — if combo guard Zach LaVine is included — under contract for next season. Barea is owed $4.5 million before becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer and has been the subject of frequent trade rumors since last year’s trade deadline.

There are more than just Wolves to watch at this year’s World Cup. Although James, Love and Kevin Durant all decided to forego participation, a star-studded USA roster includes Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Anthony Davis. Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the NBA’s rising prodigies.

But folks won’t be showing up in droves at Brit’s Pub or the Nomad in downtown Minneapolis like they did earlier this summer for the more prominent World Cup. Many of the NBA’s big names are choosing to rest before training camp, and Paul George’s horrific leg injury during a Team USA scrimmage has basketball brass questioning the NBA’s place in international hoops.

That doesn’t necessarily nullify motivation to keep tabs on it, though, especially for the most engrossed of Timberwolves fans.

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