Rubio was everything Wolves’ season wasn’t

MINNEAPOLIS – Encased in its flimsy, clear packaging, its price tag is $30.

It’s an abstract caricature made real, basketball commoditized, athleticism frozen in synthetic form. It’s as much a concrete thing as it is a concept drawn from a star at arm’s length, idealized and molded into mass-produced miniature.

It is a Ricky Rubio action figure, sold online and in a toy store near you. It looks like him, in some utterly frozen way, the legs a bit thicker and overly muscular, the beard more Paul Bunyan than Spanish heartthrob. It’s hardly special; plenty of athletes find themselves nipped, tucked, plumped, trimmed and plasticized in this way.

But if you’ve ever been to Minneapolis, read a newspaper, visited the Target Center, you understand. This is different.

Ricky Rubio in the flesh is essentially a living, breathing action figure to these people. Timberwolves assistant coach Terry Porter calls him a savior, one who arrived with the fanfare of a boy king and who, 16 months later, still inspires such devotion in these prideful Northerners that to speak ill of the outsider they’ve accepted as their own amounts to something of a cardinal sin.

He’s their point guard, their future, their floppy-haired, semi-bearded, ball-flinging, inspiration-quipping ideal. They’re as blind to his flaws as they are hyper-conscious of everyone else’s, and as yet another disappointing NBA season sputters to an end in the Twin Cities, it is Rubio to whom the Timberwolves look, yet again, to save them.

Beyond the caricature, though, beyond the social media darling, the floppy hair and long eyelashes, there is now a player with a clear skill set and clearer goals. He’s healthy, finally, playing with equal parts abandon and leadership. There’s a sense that we now know what Ricky Rubio in the NBA is – and what he can be – and the questions have shifted.

It’s no longer a matter of who Rubio might be but rather whether the Timberwolves’ gamble to mortgage the future of their struggling team on his foreign and very much nascent promise might actually pay off.

******

It’s March 7, 2009, and Ricky Rubio has just been pulled from what will in minutes end as a loss for his team, DKV Joventut. It’s been a close contest throughout, but Real Madrid has just taken control en route to a 100-88 win. There’s no need for Rubio, not anymore. He’s scored 15 points and dished 10 assists in 27 minutes, and he’s pulled as the loss is conceded.

Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations David Kahn is perched in the stands of the Palacio Vistalegre in Madrid. Rubio may know it. He may not. This is more than three months before the finagling for the point guard culminates in the Timberwolves picking him fifth in the 2009 NBA draft, and Kahn has never seen the 18-year-old play in person before.

The assists are impressive. The points, too, lead the team. Kahn understands the buzz that’s been circulating around the NBA since the previous summer’s Olympics, but he keeps watching Rubio, keeps watching as he runs to the sideline and cannot yet face his bench and the certainty of the loss.

“I remember he kicked the board and put a towel over his head,” Kahn says four years later, as if it had happened yesterday. “He wasn’t trying to distance himself from the team, but he was so upset that he almost had to compose himself before he went to sit on the bench.”

“I’ll never forget that night how upset he was his team lost. I told him the first time I met him in person, that was one of the reasons I felt he would be a special player.”

Kahn says he was lucky that he saw that game, when Rubio’s raw intensity was as much on display as his innate basketball talent. Kahn doesn’t remember a flashy pass, something of the between-the-legs and behind-the-back variety that’s become Rubio’s NBA trademark. No, he remembers that kick, remembers the intensity and that kind of perfect frustration. He hadn’t seen that on tape.

At the time, Rubio was little more than a notion borne of YouTube clips and newspaper stories, blurred by a language barrier. There are some things those videos and words couldn’t quite capture, though, like the kicking, punching frustration and the intensity that seems to pulsate from his very being as he plays. Concurrently, there are other qualities that they accentuate by virtue of their sole focus upon on-court actions, their inability to capture the player as a person.

Rubio on the court is flashy, sometimes reckless, a gambler in the best sense of the word. From across the ocean, he was that and only that. He was a cocky teenager, it seemed, the Justin Bieber of basketball before Justin Bieber was a thing. Read newspaper articles from 2008 and 2009, and they’ll focus on the name on the back of his jersey – just Ricky, because that’s all he needed – and his seemingly hyper-protective parents and management. He’s precocious and a little bit of a prima donna, this 2009 Ricky Rubio, with a calculated swagger to boot. He is a sensation in every sense of the word, but perhaps not the sensation you want to convince to sign your contract.

In the months and years after that March game in Madrid, Rubio’s stock has risen and fallen more times than one can count. At once, teams were jockeying for draft order in hopes of picking him, and then he fell to fifth. Oklahoma City was retaining a Barcelona law firm in case it picked him third over James Harden, and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was taking to the radio to tell the world that Rubio wouldn’t make an impact as a rookie. Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings, picked 10th overall that year, told the New York Times before the 2009 draft: “The only thing I’ve seen him do sometimes is when he has a home run pass or something like that. I think the dude is all just hype.”

And all the while, David Kahn watched and waited. Maybe he knew more than everyone else. Maybe he just got lucky.

Whether he was aware the player he was getting was so different from the one in those clips and newspapers – that we’ll never know.

******

Almost three years to the date after that loss, Kahn is watching again, watching as he always does now that Ricky Rubio is his to cheer and develop. It is March 9, 2012, and Kahn thinks he may have built a winner. He’s just declined to give Kevin Love a max deal, and many think it’s to save said deal for Rubio, who’s among the favorites for Rookie of the Year in 2012. His team is looking like it may beat the Lakers, too, for the first time since 2007, and Rubio fouls Kobe Bryant, falling in the process.

He’s on the floor. He’s clutching his left knee.

It’s over.

You know what happens next. Rubio’s ACL is torn. The Timberwolves’ season implodes. “He created an atmosphere around our team that gave everyone a belief that they had the chance to win,” Rick Adelman said the next fall. “No matter who we played or where we played. When we lost him, it was almost like the balloon just deflated.”

You know that it’s not until the next December, the 15th, to be precise, that the point guard takes the court again. You know that the legend grew, over those months, that Rubio’s absence and the team’s inability to function only fed the belief that he was it, the answer, the savior.

What you don’t know is what happened while the legend was growing. What you don’t know is that the team almost immediately linked Rubio to Dr. Richard Steadman, that just the day after his March 21 surgery, Steadman and his team were moving the joint, working to get full range of motion back as is their trademark approach. What you don’t know is that in the immediate aftermath of the ACL repair, the Timberwolves met with Steadman and his team to outline a plan of attack and that the doctor likes to give a target date for players to return to the court at that time, no matter how far off it might be. Those dates evolve, in most cases. Rehab isn’t a perfect process.

Those dates evolve – but not for Rubio. When everyone sat down that day in March, they agreed on Dec. 13. Dec. 13 would be the day he’d return, and so all the way back in March, when Rubio’s graft was just hours old and he hovered on crutches unable even to walk, they’d pinpointed the thing within 48 hours.

******

Last Saturday night, Rubio finished the Timberwolves’ win over Phoenix with a career-high 24 points, along with 10 assists, five steals and five rebounds. There were the passes and machinations that teammate Andrei Kirilenko has this season termed “tricky-Ricky,” but Rubio was more impressive in substance than in style. That’s how it’s come to be this season, with the crazy moves becoming almost taken for granted and the actual contributions slowly ramping up. The general consensus is that Rubio is back, and when he finishes this season with 98 total NBA games behind him, it’ll be almost as if his rookie season has just now ended.

Every day, David Kahn and the Timberwolves coaches receive a team-wide injury report, generated by the team’s medical staff. It’s a process that Kahn has instituted during his stint in Minnesota so as to streamline the information when it comes to injuries, eliminating what he describes as a game of telephone when it comes to his players’ health concerns.

Every day, Rubio is on that list. Kahn checks over the report, which invariably contains some tweak the point guard has suffered the night before. He worries, but without having to ask, without having to go to the coaches or talk to Rubio how he’s feeling. It’s better that way.

“He plays himself to exhaustion, and I admire how he’s persevered through this,” Kahn said. “You can see sometimes when his hips and his legs (start bothering him). You say, ‘Oh my God, did he just hurt himself?’ But he deals with it, and within a few minutes he sort of snaps back. It’s been remarkable.”

“It does freak me out. … Anybody who plays that hard, you’ve got to watch him almost with real apprehension. But at the same time, it’s an apprehension mixed with admiration because that’s how you want everybody to play, with that kind of fortitude.”

In that vein, there’s been the most unorthodox of conversations circling among the Timberwolves’ coaches of late. They watch Rubio, sapping every ounce of his energy in every game in an attempt to almost single-handedly will his shorthanded team to a win, and they wonder: Should they tell him to scale it back? There are no playoffs to worry about, nothing, particularly, to hope for save that next season will be different, so why risk it?

They wonder, but it’s a fine line. How do you tell the player who competes like a coach’s dream to stop? How do you tell the player whose competitiveness rubs off, who’s almost infectious, who Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau described as having “a great spirit about him” to quash that spirit?

The short answer is that you don’t.

You don’t because the confidence is just now back. You don’t because on April 6, Rubio went 0-of-12 from the field before hitting a shot with 54 seconds left in the game to put the Timberwolves up by three points over the Pistons, and the crowd cheered like he’d just notched a triple-double. You can’t because as he watched Rubio have the confidence to think shot No. 13 would fall, assistant coach Terry Porter couldn’t help but think back to Jan. 20, 2012, when Rubio was 0-of-10 before hitting a corner 3 with 20 seconds left against the Clippers in Los Angeles, tying the game at 98 and facilitating the team’s comeback win.

Porter, who works closely with Rubio, says he sees more confidence not only in the point guard’s shot of late but also in his explosiveness and his defense. Kahn, too, thinks that somehow Rubio is even faster this year, even more charged, especially on defense, and the conversation has shifted from whether he can return to his prior form to by how much he might eclipse it.

“He’s fought through all the hurdles as far as how is his knee going to respond, what is going to do when he has to pivot off of it, what if he has to make a movement that’s similar to the one that caused the injury, mentally, how am I going to handle that?” Porter said. “I think he’s gotten past all that.”

******

After Saturday’s win over Phoenix, Rubio was made aware of the fact that Minnesota had hit the 30-win plateau for the first time ever without Kevin Garnett on the team. It’s a twisted point of pride, and the point guard wasn’t having it.

“Yeah, but we’ve lost 50, too,” he pointed out. “It’s more than I thought. But yeah, I mean, of course we’re happy because we’re improving. But it’s not enough.”

That, there, is Rubio in a nutshell. He broods after losses. He kicks chairs, punches stanchions, still puts that towel on his head when he’s teetering on the precipice of frustration like he did all those years ago in Spain. He hates losing with every fiber of his being, and that, on top of his skills, is why Kahn has invested so much. That’s why he’s as big a piece of Minnesota’s future as is Love, who’s arguably proved himself over a far greater sample size than has Rubio.

“I think that if they’re a good enough player like Ricky… then you can almost help shape the team identity around (them),” Kahn said. “I told Kevin (Love) the other day that I really felt that our identity as a team was embodied by that kind of relentlessness that Ricky plays with and that he plays with … I very much believe that he can be, along with Kevin, one of the identity leaders in that respect.”

Identity leader, yes. But on the court, what the Timberwolves are attempting to do is at least slightly unorthodox. Averaging just 10.6 points per game on 35.9 percent shooting, Rubio is arguably the worst scorer among all starting point guards in the NBA. Right now, he shoots on just 34 percent of his drives (less often than 99 percent of players in the league), but he gets an assist on 16 percent (more than 99 percent of players in the league). He’s a pass-first, shoot-second guard, and he always will be, making him a bit of a throwback in a league dominated by scoring point guards the likes of Chris Paul. Rubio will need to improve his shot if this grand scheme has a chance of panning out, and though there’s no need for him to drop 20 every night, a respectable average of 14 or so points per game should be a realistic goal.

There’s been a shift in mindset, though, of late. Whereas the Rubio of old would profess that it’s hard for him to look for his shot – in such a way that you’d wonder if he even wanted to – the Rubio of April is telling a different story.

“It’s something that I have to work and work hard on, and I know it,” Rubio said of his shooting. “I’m going to do it. I’m not going to stop working. It’s something that … takes time.”

And as for all those misses, the four-game stretch from April 5 to April 10 when he went just 6-of-41? He knows it’s less than ideal. But he’s also asking for some slack, some understanding that, yes, he’s hardly a premier shooter, and to get there might not be pretty.

“Even Kevin Durant and Kobe miss shots,” he said. “Why can’t I miss shots? … You just have to play and get through bad moments like that, and my teammates trust me and my shot.”

Ricky Rubio will never be a scoring point guard. The name Jason Kidd is batted about, though, when it comes to his career; Kidd has never shot greater than 44.4 percent from the field, but at his peak he averaged 16 points per game and was a premier 3-point shooter. That’s a reasonable goal for Rubio, though a lofty one, and for now, the Timberwolves have to hope that his shift in mindset offensively can facilitate such growth.

It’s a gamble they will take. It’s a gamble they signed up for when they picked Rubio fifth in 2009, when they waited two years for him to come to the United States, when they weathered the rumors that he didn’t want to play in Minnesota, didn’t want any part of this northern outpost of the NBA that makes Barcelona feel like a world away.

It was a huge risk, at the time, for a player who some chalked up to nothing more than a PR boost, a sideshow that might never pan out.

But that’s the beauty of Ricky Rubio. For all the fanfare, all the buildup, all almost nauseating marketability that he brings his team, he’s better in the flesh. He has the on-court talent and intensity that led Kahn to hitch his career to him all the way back in 2009, but it’s the off-court charm that seals the deal. You might say he’s too good to be true, but in reality, he’s just so easy to embrace that the flaws are impossible to find.

That will be an issue going forward. There will be struggles, both for Rubio and for the Timberwolves. They have the longest-standing playoff drought in NBA history, dating back to 2004, and Rubio is still largely unproven and recovering from a catastrophic knee injury, no matter how easy that all is to forget. He’s a 22-year-old human, fallible, flawed, improving. He knows that. It’s just that no one else seems to, and the idea that Ricky Rubio is not the perfect solution to all of the Timberwolves’ problems is anathema in the great white north.

But those are issues for the future, issues of which Adelman and Kahn are well aware. For now, the Timberwolves have gotten more than any might have imagined from their Spanish point guard, and they look poised to reap even further rewards.

******

Before Rubio returned from his surgery, he spent every game perched behind Minnesota’s bench, his back just inches from the passing fans. He was a spectacle, an idol, a lithe Buddha to be patted, smiled at and photographed. There were teenagers wearing shirts bearing messages of “Marry me, Ricky Rubio,” and grown women who made their husbands snap pictures of them with the point guard. He was accessible, if not quite one of them.

Now that he’s back in uniform, though, little has changed. To be Ricky Rubio is to issue a continual succession of high-fives. Everywhere he goes, it’s Ricky, Ricky, Ricky. Acknowledge me, sign this, high-five, please? And he does. Over and over. Before games. In the tunnel after halftime. After games. The fans wait, and Ricky comes, and all is well in Minnesota.

He’s no human action figure. He’s a bit too real for such a designation. No, Ricky Rubio is Minnesota’s adopted superhero. He’s faced his Kryptonite in the form of that utterly fallible knee, and now he’s back, and to Timberwolves fans, it’s as if there’s nothing he can’t face, not anymore.

It’s unrealistic. It’s a vision bound to falter, bound to take hits. But for now, there’s only the future, only the promise of wins and success and Rubio as the catalyst. It’s too perfect, perhaps, but then again, so is this human caricature that is Ricky Rubio.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.