NOTHING ABOUT Ricky Rubio is scary, which is why nothing about Ricky Rubio's joining the league's nightly cage match at point guard seemed like a good idea for him -- or the Timberwolves.
A skinny European kid going up against Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul? With the Justin Bieber shag? The singsong cartoonish name? The voice and cadence that suggests the Spaniard learned English from Latka? (YouTube it, youngsters.)
Add in, as a drawback, the two years of breathless wonder over when Riiiicky!, drafted fifth by Minnesota in 2009 as an 18-year-old, would grace the team with his presence. All the talk of his being a modern-day Pistol Pete while he struggled to get burn in the Spanish League? It was almost insulting. Anyone could see the crosshairs on his back the minute he stepped off the plane from Spain.
Which explains the shock to everyone -- including the Timberwolves -- that in one month the now-21-year-old has muscled his way into not only the starting lineup but also the rookie-of-the-year conversation after being named the Western Conference's top freshman for January.
Well, not everyone was shocked. Clippers guard Chauncey Billups, Mavs forward Shawn Marion, Cavs center Ryan Hollins and every other pro who ran up against the 6'4" Rubio this past fall in pickup runs at the 360 Health Club in LA already knew about the swagger. The labor lockout left the Timberwolves unable to work with him, so his agency, Lagardere Unlimited, arranged a program: three times a day, five days a week and once on Saturday. Lift in the morning, scrimmage in the afternoon, shoot at night. "He was always there," says Marion.
And he was always being tested. "Obviously, when you're playing summer pickup ball, it's different. There's arguing. It's way more physical," says Billups, recalling one particular 360 league run-in with Rubio. "I was mad about something else that had happened earlier in the game. It wasn't his problem, but I just ran him over going to the hoop. He got up, didn't say anything and just kept playing hard. I thought, That's good. He's going to be all right."
Cue a sigh of relief from David Kahn. In 2009, Kahn flew to Europe -- on his own dime -- to scout Rubio, among others. Months later, after becoming the Wolves president of basketball operations, he told anyone who would listen
Kahn then hired coach Rick Adelman, who's made a career out of developing point guards of all shapes and assets, from Terry Porter to Jason "White Chocolate" Williams to Kyle Lowry. Adelman's corner offense and the presence of a second point guard on the floor allows the Wolves to play through Rubio only when he has a favorable matchup. "They've camouflaged his limitations," says an opposing GM.
Still, the Wolves sensed that the incubator might not be needed when Rubio browbeat the coaches into giving him a playbook and then a few days later tried to run a set called "Point" that was at the back of it. From the very first regular-season game, he was part of the finishing lineup. Ten games in, with the Timberwolves stuck at three wins, he forced his way into the starting five and they went 7-4 over their next 11. Even Rubio's defense, which was supposed to be suspect, has been far better than expected.
"He's probably our best defender getting to the right spot," says Adelman. "I knew he was a great passer and had great vision, but I didn't realize he was the competitor that he is."
Rubio, of course, has been helped by a compressed schedule and little universal knowledge of his game. A better measure of just how good he can be will come when opponents face him a second time. "He's going to get the Rondo treatment," says the opposing GM, referring to the J-challenged
The Teen Beat look disguises it well. But beneath it are the eyes of a hawk and a mouth that bites. Consider the scene on Jan. 29 after the Lakers beat the Wolves. Kobe Bryant ran into Rubio and Pau Gasol, who were discussing the Olympics in the hall, and Rubio asked Bryant if he'd be playing for Team USA. When Bryant said yes, Rubio pounced. "You know you're getting the silver medal, right?" he barked, a Chihuahua baiting a pit bull. "You know that."
Bryant, eyebrows arched, let loose a long expletive. "I'm taking bets. If I win, I get the key to Barcelona."
"I bet what you want," Rubio chirped back, ceding no ground.
And that's just it. Every player who has his sights set on Rubio should know: Ol' Latka Bieber has you in his too.
Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.