MINNEAPOLIS — Ricky Rubio has watched from afar this season as a pivotal offseason for the franchise that drafted him painstakingly unfolds.
Earlier this summer, he bounced around Brazil at the FIFA World Cup. Held a camp in his home country. A week-and-a-half ago, he bested his younger sister, Laia — a sensational Spanish basketball player in her own right — and mother, Tona Vives, in chess. And last Wednesday, according to his Twitter feed, he showed up in Madrid to start preparing for the FIBA World Cup along with his host countrymen.
According to him, his current contract negotiations with the Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t weighed on his mind too much.
"I’m not thinking about my contract right now," Rubio told Sportando. "Of course, I speak with my agent and I’m trying to understand what’s the situation but the new contract, it’s a thing about my agent, not about me."
Back in the United States, that agent is working the phones diligently.
A powerful broker whose client list includes Amar’e Stoudemire, Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons, DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall, Dan Fegan is faced with a nearly impossible task: convince Flip Saunders and the Timberwolves to give their flashy point guard a maximum contract extension.
Rookie deals are signed on potential and dictated by the NBA’s rookie pay scale. The next contract, though, is generally predicated upon performance.
So the five-year, "designated player" deal that would start Rubio off at around $14.7 million more than likely isn’t in the cards.
Last season, his first full NBA campaign, Rubio averaged a career-low 9.5 points per game and shot 38.1 percent from the floor and 33.1 percent from 3-point range. Those marks drew understandable criticism, as he ranked 27th among NBA starting point guards in scoring.
Although he ranked third in the league in assists and has a knack for creating turnovers (he surpassed the Wolves’ single-season steals mark last year), Rubio’s skills beyond that are limited. In European play, where he spent the early portion of his professional career, he could get away with being a deft passer, opportunistic defender and little else.
But in the age of the NBA’s scoring point guard, that doesn’t cut it.
"I think it’s going to be difficult for anyone to sit back and say exactly the type of player that he can be yet," Minnesota owner Glen Taylor, the guy who cuts Rubio’s paychecks, told FOXSportsNorth.com in mid-April as the season wound down. "I just don’t think we’ve had the consistency during this year that we saw him having at the very beginning."
A torn ACL cut short Rubio’s rookie campaign and kept him out early in 2012-13. In three seasons, he has averaged 11.5 points, 9.2 assists, 2.6 steals and 4.7 rebounds per game while shooting 36.8 percent from the field and 32.3 percent from distance.
No all-NBA recognition. No All-Star appearances. A 2012 first-team all-rookie selection is Rubio’s only postseason award of note.
That doesn’t quite match up with the likes of Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and John Wall.
Those three point guards are all designated, five-year-max players. Their deals prevent their respective teams from signing any other rookie to a five-year extension.
The Wolves can’t conceivably deem Rubio worthy of that kind of money and privilege. How close he can get, however, is up for debate — one that’s currently taking place between Saunders and Fegan.
Assuming Rubio falls into an unofficial second tier of starting NBA point men — or, some might contend, the third tier — he likely falls closer to the $8 million-$12 million range. Two comparable point guards who have signed their second deals since the league adopted its current collective bargaining agreement, Atlanta’s Jeff Teague and Detroit’s Brandon Jennings, signed for four years and $32 million and three years and $25 million, respectively.
The Wolves will have future cap room to play with in regards to Rubio’s salary, especially if the Kevin Love saga ends in a trade featuring locked-in rookie deals like Cleveland No. 1 overall picks Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, who the Cavs reportedly have offered. Including Rubio’s $5 million he’s owed this upcoming season, Minnesota is up against the cap and needed a midlevel exception just to land reserve Mo Williams on Monday.
But with a handful of contracts expiring next summer, the Wolves are currently in line for roughly $20 million in cap space. Dump Love’s $16.7 player-option salary along with an unwanted contract like that of J.J. Barea and Kevin Martin, and the number would increase.
With Love on his way out, Saunders must tread lightly. Damaging the relationship with his remaining franchise cornerstone could prove costly down the road, though that doesn’t seem as likely with Rubio than it did with Love, who voiced his displeasure when he didn’t receive a max extension of his rookie deal.
"I will continue to play in the best way I can," Rubio said in the Sportando interview. "The money will not change who I am; that’s it.
"I need to have fun as a kid when I play basketball. It’s not about the contract for me."
If the sides don’t reach an agreement by Oct. 31, Rubio would play out his contract this season and become a restricted free agent next summer. Minnesota would be able to match any potential offer sheets from other teams, but in this round of negotiations, it has complete control over how much money is on the table.
And if Rubio wants that amount to register as elite someday, he’s going to have to play like it.