MINNEAPOLIS — A strange kind of excitement has surrounded Ricky Rubio’s arrival in the NBA.
It’s a contradictory kind of hype. He’s a phenom, a key part of what could be a Timberwolves turnaround — but he can’t shoot and he may struggle with the transition.
There’s a flaw in that conversation that’s become obvious in the rookie’s first five games. The negatives really don’t seem to be there. He’s shooting well — 57 percent from the field — and he’s been a pro since he was 15. This can’t be that dramatic of a change, and there’s no better team to point that out than the San Antonio Spurs, whom the Timberwolves defeated 106-96 on Monday.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and point guard Tony Parker know only too well what Rubio is experiencing thus far in Minnesota. Ten years ago, a 19-year-old Parker was in much the same position as Rubio: a European import transitioning into a top NBA point guard. Parker, who was raised and played two years of professional basketball in France, downplayed the difficulty of shifting to the NBA.
“Obviously you have a lot of expectation, but he’s been playing with the pros since he’s 14,” Parker said of Rubio. “He’d been playing for Barcelona, and it’s one of the best teams in Europe, so he’s been in pressure situations a lot.”
Yes, it’s a new country, different teammates and opponents, a faster pace. But on the court, there’s little difference. So no, Rubio isn’t exceeding expectations, unless they’re those of the fans and media who’ve set too low of a bar.
“He’s not impressed with what goes on in the NBA,” Popovich said. “He’s been in championship games. He’s been doing it for years, and this is no big deal for him. He’s ready to go.”
Then the next question undoubtedly follows: Culturally, how is he adjusting to the United States? To Popovich, it seemed almost ridiculous. Drawing upon his experience with European players, the Spurs coach first took playful a jab — “Have you watched TV lately or seen what Americans do? How many languages do you speak? And you wonder about how they’re going to adjust to our culture?” — before pointing out that players like Rubio and Parker have traveled extensively and are far more worldly than most of their teammates.
Then maybe the biggest adjustment for Rubio comes with the attention, which has been almost manic. It’s an outgrowth of the star power that the NBA ascribes to players, creating individual celebrities at the expense of teams. Rubio has not been an exception to that trend. He appears on the Timberwolves website, his intense expression the centerpiece of an ad for a ticket package. He’s on the JumboTron, a giant, televised version of himself urging fans to get on their feet in that distinctive accent.
“It’s weird,” Rubio said. “Sometimes I’m shy, and I don’t want to hear it. I stop listening. But it’s fun to watch the show.”
That same emphasis on the individual is something that Parker sees as distinctive to the NBA, whereas European teams focus more on passing and playing as a cohesive unit. Parker was fortunate enough to join a successful Spurs team — it finished 58-24 the year before he arrived — whose coach’s vision emphasized team over individual. Rubio’s arrival, however, has brought a revival in the Timberwolves’ offense, especially their passing game.
It’s almost inevitable. To use Rubio to his full potential is to pass, and that style of play has become contagious. Luke Ridnour is passing with more agility than ever, and the team is realizing the value of moving the ball.
“A point guard has to share the ball, has to make his teammates realize that when you share the ball, it’s fun,” Rubio said. “It’s more fun to play. That’s what maybe European teams do, maybe that’s what’s missing in some teams here in the NBA.”
Parker, whose career Rubio has followed for as long as he can remember, found it difficult to think of any advice to give the younger point guard. Perhaps that’s because Rubio may already know most of what he would say. And instead of being forced to adapt to the U.S., Rubio seems to be forcing some change on his teammates.
It’s a change for the better, a sort of meeting in the middle. Rubio will adapt, and his team will adjust in turn. The ceiling may just rise even higher for the young point guard.