Fellow countryman believes Ricky Rubio has become smarter, stronger this season

Ricky Rubio's 2.8 steals per game this season are the highest among players who have played in 24 or more contests, and his 8.3 assists an outing are tied for third in the NBA. That has impressed his close friend, Jose Calderon, of Dallas (left).  

Brace Hemmelgarn/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Jose Calderon remembers when Spain’s basketball boy wonder first took the Iberian Peninsula by storm.

Calderon was a rookie with the Toronto Raptors then, playing his own role in an influx of Spanish talent to the NBA. But even he marveled at what 14-year-old Ricky Rubio could do in the country’s ACB League.

He wasn’t alone.

"When you’ve got a kid playing in the first division at 15, 16 years old, I think everybody was like ‘just keep an eye on him,’" said Calderon, in town with the Dallas Mavericks earlier this week. "It’s something different. It’s something you’re not used to seeing, so that’s why everybody in Spain was kind of surprised.

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"Everybody was like ‘Whoa, look at this kid.’"

Folks in the Twin Cities say the same thing today, albeit likely in a different language. And for much different reasons.

Eight years later, the Rubio trick passes, darting drives through the paint and pesky backcourt defense are no longer a surprise, neither in his home country (he’s led the Spanish national team to an Olympic silver medal and gold at the 2009 FIBA European Championships) nor abroad (during his two-plus years in the NBA, he ranks sixth in assists per game with 7.8 and second with 2.4 steals per game).

The 2011 No. 5 overall draft pick has grown a lot since those early days in Spain’s top professional basketball league, Calderon said.

"You could see all that talent, but I think he’s doing better at most stuff," said Calderon, now 32 and in his ninth NBA season.

"I think you get used to the speed of the game, the speed of the NBA, what you can do, what you can’t, what the defense is gonna give you. You learn every day. I think that’s what’s happened with him."

Still 23, Rubio became bigger and stronger, too, as Calderon found out during a mid-air collision during the Mavericks’ 100-98 win on Monday. With a little more muscle has come uncanny court awareness and defensive aptitude.

Heading into Saturday’s home tilt with Oklahoma City, Rubio’s 2.8 steals per game are the highest among players who have played in 24 or more contests, and his 8.3 assists an outing are tied for third in the league. His +/- of 155 is astronomically better than he had in injury-limited 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, too.

But he’s not without his knocks, the most widely publicized being that he’s not a consistent scorer. Rubio’s career shooting average continues to hover around 35 percent — 35.3 this year in which he’s averaging 8.9 points per game.

When he chips in nine or fewer points, Minnesota is 5-13. When he hits double figures, the Timberwolves are 11-3. It’s not an all-telling figure but one that reflects the importance of possessing a scoring threat at the point in today’s NBA, coach Rick Adelman said.

"We do need him," Adelman said. "Sure, you’d like to have Ricky get more production, but I keep saying that’s gonna come. He’s doing the other things — he’s distributing the ball, he’s getting steals, he’s playing hard. That’s gonna come."

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Calderon agrees, based on his national teammate’s track record.

"I think every year, he’s just smarter," Calderon said. "He’s more intelligent."

Some credit for Rubio’s development goes to Calderon, who has mentored him since Spain came close to upsetting the United States in Beijing in 2008. Like Rubio, Calderon had to adjust to a new style of play — and life — when he cracked into the NBA.

Calderon’s point production (12.1 points per game in 2013-14) has steadily increased throughout his career and appears to be peaking so far this season, his first in Dallas. Through Jan. 1, his 46.9 3-point percentage was fourth in the league.

Calderon followed the footsteps of big man Pau Gasol as Spanish phenoms who stuck in the NBA. While Rubio became an international sensation, he looks to Calderon as one of the pioneers that put him in this position.

Working against him during practices and sharing a backcourt with him in certain game situations throughout their international careers hasn’t hurt, either, Rubio said.

"He’s a role model to follow, you know?" Rubio said. "Just practicing and playing against and with him, you learn a lot of things.

"He’s a hard worker, and I’m trying to follow his thing."

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