At the heart of Ricky Rubio’s game is, well, heart. Joy. Generosity. This is a guy who, when he finally arrived in Minnesota in 2011, two years after he was drafted fifth overall, explained his love for passing by quoting Magic Johnson in charmingly broken English: “A basket make one guy happy, an assist two guys happy."
He was just what the Timberwolves needed. Two years removed from trading Kevin Garnett -- the only franchise cornerstone the team had ever known -- the Wolves’ starters in 2008-09 were Sebastian Telfair, Randy Foye, Ryan Gomes, Craig Smith and a rookie named Kevin Love who stepped up when Al Jefferson went down with a torn ACL.
Rubio, though, was a star. At least, that’s what we’d heard for so long. In 2008, the NEXT issue of ESPN the Magazine touted him as “the best point guard you've never heard of.” An Eastern Conference exec didn’t stop there, calling him “the European LeBron James” and “a top-three pick.”
"If I can do some magic,” a 17-year-old Rubio told Chad Nelsen back then, “I do it."
But by the time Rubio arrived, Love had become the face of the franchise, more or less by default. I mean, look at that lineup -- what other option was there? It’s hard not to be sucked in by 31-point, 31-rebound games amid 132 losses (an NBA high) in the two seasons spent waiting for Rubio. By 2010-11, Rubio’s rookie season, Love had turned into a double-double machine headed for his first All-Star appearance. He was a superstar. He was Minnesota’s superstar, and everyone knew it.
Everyone except David Kahn. Instead of offering Love the team’s only five-year maximum contract extension, the Wolves GM infamously handed the power forward a three-year deal with a player option for a fourth. The fallout from that move is well known, with Love forcing his way to Cleveland this past summer for an admittedly attractive package including Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett.
But its impact on Rubio is harder to gauge. At the time, the common perception was that Kahn wanted to reserve the five-year max for Rubio, his own draft pick, rather than Love, who was selected by former GM Kevin McHale. Injuries and the lockout limited Rubio to just 89 games in his first two seasons, and last season, with the Wolves saddled with the pressure exerted by Love’s contract situation, Rick Adelman nearing the end of his coaching career and a combustible roster with a suspect bench, the 23-year-old point guard again struggled to live up to the immense hype once foretold for the floppy-haired teen.
Now two years later and with Love in Cleveland, it’s Rubio who wants the five-year max contract from a GM who didn’t draft him. To earn that contract in a point guard-heavy league, he’s going to have to make a better case for himself not as the best player on the team, necessarily, but as its leader.
Viewed charitably, Love led by letting his play do the talking, shouldering scoring and rebounding loads no other Timberwolves player could take on and setting a tone that was stoic yet steadfast. He worked hard -- harder than he’s given credit for -- and did a lot for the organization off the court with his coat drive and other community-oriented activities. Viewed less charitably, Love cared more about his own numbers than the team as a whole and when he led, he did so unevenly, with weeks spent moping followed by a sudden decision to air locker room grievances in public. No matter his words, he set a tone on the court of unearned entitlement, complaining about calls and lagging on defense, particularly in transition. For his part, Rubio often seemed to defer to Love’s seniority and position as Best Player on the Team. But as the team’s relationship with Love frayed over the summer, that changed.
In a much-circulated interview with French station Canal+ in May, Rubio was up front about some of Love’s shortcomings as a leader, while also pointing out problems from the coaching staff on down. “He leads in scoring, in other things,” said Rubio, according to a translation. “But in voice he is not the type of player that wants to be or that can be [a leader], no? Still, it did not have to have been him -- even I can take a step further and start to be the definitive leader."
One of the newest (but also most veteran) Timberwolves players, Mo Williams, thinks Rubio has started to take those steps. “From the time I’ve been here, he’s taken that level,” Williams said on the first day of Wolves training camp. “Yesterday he was reading a book on the way up here and it was in a language I can’t read so I said, ‘What kind of book is that?’ And he said, ‘It’s a book on how to be more aggressive and lead and things like that.’ That lets you know it’s in his mental. He wants to lead and he’s in a great position now. It’s not, ‘Whose team is it?’ It’s his team.”
Rubio’s glaring flaws -- inconsistent midrange shooting and finishing -- might never go away. That might not also matter a bit when it comes to stepping into a lead role with the Timberwolves. The things he does do well were enough to make Minnesota 11.3 points better per 100 possessions when he was on the court last season. As new coach Flip Saunders observed recently, if Rubio scores zero points and the team wins, no one is happier; if he scores 20 and they lose, no one feels worse.
He’s certainly making the effort. The book on leadership, the way he’s tried to shut down any questions about his next contract, the hundreds of shots he takes at practice, his commitment to Spain’s national team: All of it points to someone serious about improving himself. But just as important is finding his way back to the joy that animated his early days in Minnesota.
That pass through the legs of reigning NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki to a waiting Anthony Tolliver as the Wolves sealed a win over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks came in Rubio’s fourth game in the NBA. Nutmegs don’t win championships, but look at the giant grin on Tolliver’s face as he runs back down the sideline after hitting the 3-pointer. A mechanically sound shooting stroke is a fundamental, but the foundation of basketball -- of any game -- is play.
There are things Rubio needs to do better to be a more productive player, but there are already things he does that few players can. To call this upcoming season a fresh start for Rubio is to discount all he’s already gone through in his first three years in the league. But with running partners as athletic as Wiggins and Zach LaVine, it’s a chance to follow his own advice and change his face. To not only be handed a team, but to make it his. To do some magic.
Steve McPherson contributes to the TrueHoop Network, Grantland and other publications. Follow him @steventurous.