Entering his fifth NBA season, Ricky Rubio has only given the Minnesota Timberwolves glimpses of the creative brilliance that made him an overseas sensation as a teenager.
After playing in memory of his former coach sparked one of the best performances of his career, Rubio will try to help Minnesota start 2-0 on the road for the first time in 14 years Friday night in the home opener for the Denver Nuggets.
Rubio was the youngest player in Spanish ACB League history at age 14 before rising to stardom as a flashy playmaker in the Euroleague. The point guard, however, has been plagued by injuries and has played more than 57 games only once in four NBA seasons.
He missed most of the preseason following ankle surgery and also dealt with a sore quad, but three days after learning longtime coach and team president Flip Saunders had died due to complications while battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the 25-year-old had a career-high 28 points and 14 assists in a season-opening 112-111 win at the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I think we had a little help," said Rubio, who shot 10 of 17 and also protected the ball with just one turnover. "It’s been a tough week. It’s hard to explain. Everybody went through a lot of pain. But even though Flip’s gone, he will stay with us forever."
Saunders and Kevin Garnett guided the Timberwolves to their last playoff appearance in 2004. Garnett, who had seven rebounds to begin his 21st season, was persuaded to return to Minnesota by Saunders last season and left without speaking to reporters.
Kevin Martin contributed 23 points while shooting 5 of 11 from 3-point range and top overall draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns added 14 points and 12 rebounds in his debut.
"It’s been a tough last couple of days, but the guys, they get a safe haven playing basketball," said interim coach Sam Mitchell.
The Timberwolves haven’t won their first two road games since a 4-0 start under Saunders in 2001. Rubio has averaged just 8.0 points on 31.3 percent shooting in four career games at Denver and should be tested defensively by Nuggets rookie Emmanuel Mudiay.
The 19-year-old Mudiay, the seventh overall pick in the draft, finished with 17 points and nine assists but also committed 11 turnovers in Denver’s surprising 105-85 win at Houston on Wednesday.
Danilo Gallinari had a team-high 23 points and was 3 of 5 from long range, and Kenneth Faried scored 18 with nine rebounds as the Nuggets shot 50.6 percent and made 13 3s.
Coach Mike Malone, who was let go by Sacramento in December, won his Denver debut after taking over a club that finished 30-52 last season.
"This should not come as a shock," Malone said. "Everybody outside of our organization can pick us last if they want, but we feel we have a chance to do something special this year and I think the way we played showed that promise."
Faried averaged 16.3 points and 13.5 rebounds to help the Nuggets take three of four meetings with Minnesota last season. Andrew Wiggins scored 23.3 per game in the series, but the reigning Rookie of the Year hopes to bounce back after finishing with nine on 2-of-10 shooting in the opener.