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Ricky Rubio: The Engineer of Minnesota’s Youth Movement

ricky-rubio

When Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio were drafted in 2008 and 2009, respectively, Timberwolves fans were reminded of the strangely brief era of Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury. SLAM Magazine hearkened back the late 90s with their parody cover, while a long suffering Timberwolves fan base became optimistically rejuvenated. Similar to the KG and Starbury connection, the Rubio and Love tandem flashed potential, but ended in overall disappointment.

Although drafted in 2009, Rubio did not join the Wolves until the 2011–12 season. In terms of basketball aesthetics, the Timberwolves became an exciting watch. Rubio’s passing flair and Love’s monster numbers ignited league-wide discussion regarding Minnesota’s potential future … potential that never fully materialized.

Ultimately what they did not bring — a single playoff appearance — led to Love’s irreparable relationship with the front office. The breaking point came this summer when Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations, Flip Saunders, assumed head coaching duties because no one else wanted the job. His first move was to openly criticize Love, a major no-no in the NBA when dealing with a star in flux. This criticism, coupled with Love’s impending free agency in 2015, made the trade of the Wolves star inevitable.

The drama tirelessly played on throughout the summer with Golden State, Chicago, and Cleveland all jockeying position in the trade auction for Love. Without star swingman Klay Thompson being included in Golden State’s final offer, Minnesota decided upon the package offered by Cleveland, featuring 2014 number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins and 2013 no. 1 pick Anthony Bennett.

The recently official trade creates Big 3 part deux for LeBron, Kyrie, and Love in the East. Minnesota adds the last two first overall draft picks, Wiggins and Bennett, plus the versatile Thaddeus Young. Rarely does a trade result in a win for both sides, and losing a superstar is almost never positive for a small-market franchise, but this may be as close as it gets. The Love-Wolves dilemma marked another chapter in the league’s constant power struggle between superstar players and front office management.

Kevin Love is gone. Superstars are an irreplaceable commodity from a basketball and business standpoint. However, as the Denver Nuggets displayed after the loss of Carmelo Anthony, successful teams can be built on a foundation of young talent. The blow of losing a stud like Kevin Love is softened by the newly acquired youth. Setting a record in ticket sales for the upcoming season, fans are embracing the youth movement in Minnesota.

The face and the future of Minnesota hoops is now Wiggins, the prized centerpiece of the season’s biggest trade. He has drawn comparisons to Tracy McGrady, Paul George, and perhaps most optimistically, a young Scottie Pippen. The Canadian native and former Kansas Jayhawk possesses a 40+ inch vertical, and those hops come with elite speed and explosiveness; this nightmarish combination makes him a walking highlight reel, and his physical gifts create a defensive potential that may be even more exciting than his offensive potential. At 6’8” with long arms and a growing frame, Wiggins could become an elite two-way star on the perimeter, a rarity in today’s NBA. For basketball fans, Andrew Wiggins and the Wolves are officially #LeaguePassAlert-worthy.

Joining Wiggins in Minnesota is a fellow Canadian in Bennett, another one-and-done out of college. Plagued by injury and weight problems last season, Bennett suffered through a historically bad rookie season (4.2ppg, 3 rpg) in Cleveland for a player of his draft status. A slimmer, healthier Bennett utilized the Vegas Summer League (13 ppg, 7.8rpg) to showcase the immense potential Cleveland coveted before selecting him 1st overall in the 2013 draft. As a 6’8″ tweener, Bennett may elicit memories of failed Wolves 1st rounder Derrick Williams, and if his outside jumpshot does not improve (35.6 FG%, 25.5 3P%) that comparison may be valid. Still, versatility and ball handling skills at his size make Bennett an intriguing piece. Minnesota represents a much needed clean slate for the 21-year-old forward.

As a result of the 3-team Love trade, Thaddeus Young escapes from a Philadelphia 76ers team destined for yet another lottery appearance. As a versatile power forward coming off a career, 17-ppg and 6-rpg season, he should fit in well next to starting center Nikola Pekovic. For a very inexperienced Wolves team, Young brings a needed veteran presence and seven years of NBA seasoning.

Possessing insane athleticism that rivals Wiggins’, UCLA combo guard Zach LaVine was selected 13th overall by Minnesota in last June’s draft. LaVine, a point guard in high school, came off the bench at the 2-guard position for UCLA and invoked comparisons to Russell Westbrook before declaring for the draft after his freshman season. Inconsistent but talented Michigan forward Glen Robinson III was selected 40th overall. These additions, coupled with developing center Gorgui Dieng and former UCLA one-and-done Shabazz Muhammad, fills the Wolves roster with a multitude of high-ceiling prospects. The sting of seeing Kevin Love making yearly title runs in Cleveland will be lessened if any one of these newly acquired prospects can reach their lofty potential.

How many of these young prospects will reach their ceiling or even come close? That is the question plaguing the Wolves, who have traded their superstar and are gambling the team’s future on the potential of 19–22 year old prospects. Patience and long-term commitment to the development of these chips will be needed from ownership, coaching, and the Wolves fan base. Helping to offset the loss of Kevin Love, the talent acquired in the off season has breathed new life into a perennially sad sack franchise. And as a result of Minnesota’s offseason dealings, the spotlight is now on point guard Ricky Rubio.

Rubio arrived in the NBA with tremendous hype and cult-like fanfare. At age 14 he became the youngest player ever to play in Spain’s top pro league, at 16 he debuted in the EuroLeague, and at 17 years old he was named to the Spanish Olympic team, competing against the USA “redeem team” in the gold medal game. As the prodigal son of Spanish basketball, Rubio became a mythical figure amongst U.S. basketball heads. Dubbed “Ricky Mania” by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Spaniard was a hit sensation amongst Timberwolves fans before even playing a minute in the league.

In the three years since “Ricky Mania” arrived in Minnesota, the hype has flashed in spurts, but overall expectations have tapered.

Rubio is a playmaker, no doubt. Normally the reverse button on the DVR is designated for monster dunks, skillful dribbling moves, and whatever JaVale McGee may be doing that night, but with Rubio, you find yourself rewinding because of the no-look passes from impossible angles that you have to see twice to believe. He is a showman. Fundamentals be damned, Rubio’s passes would make “Pistol Pete” proud.

This passing ability led to Rubio finishing second in the league in total assists last season (704), and his 3.17 AST/TO ratio placed him sixth overall amongst league leaders. His 8.1 career apg is evidence of his pure point guard label. In addition to his excellent passing skills, Rubio is a crafty defender, leading the league with 191 steals and averaging 2.3 spg for his career. Steals equal more transition points, and for the young Wolves more transition is now an exciting prospect with LaVine and Wiggins running on the break. If Saunders allows Rubio to showcase his full arsenal of passes while running and gunning with the abundance of youth; Wolves fans will be in for a surprisingly exciting season regardless of how many wins this roster accumulates.

But a shaky jumpshot (career .38FG%, .32 3FG %) and non-existent offensive game (career 10.1ppg) remain the main criticism of Rubio. He is a non-threat offensively (except for the right wing I guess?). Defenders are comfortable sagging off and daring him to shoot. Head coach Flip Saunders recently sought out the help of a shooting coach for Rubio and other veterans including small forward Chase Budinger. Rubio’s mechanics are not nearly as bad as, say, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (cover your eyes kids), but they are similar to fellow point guard Rajon Rondo’s struggles as a jump-shooter. Shooting coaches are not usually miracle workers, but if Rubio can make defenses at least honor his shot from 15–18 feet, the Wolves offense will greatly benefit. New player additions and floor-spacing improvements are not the only question marks in Minnesota. Signing the 23-year-old point guard to an extension remains a top priority for the Timberwolves front office.

After reportedly turning down a four year deal for $43 million, Rubio is seeking a five year MAX offer, and his status as an impending restricted free agent is looming over the Timberwolves franchise. Rubio wants to get paid, but there is little reason to believe Minnesota is willing to offer the max contract he is seeking. Leading the league in steals and finishing second in assists certainly warrant the discussion of an extension; investing max dollars into a player with glaring offense holes, however, is something Minnesota cannot afford to do right now while rebuilding. Rubio must become a threat offensively. Developing his jumpshot is a start. Fulfilling the point guard’s duty by making the game easier for his younger teammates is what will make him great.

The Kevin Love era is over in Minnesota. During May, Rubio pointed out Love’s lack of leadership. Now the Timberwolves leadership falls squarely on the 23-year-olds shoulders. Will “Ricky Mania” once again take hold in Minnesota?

Like defending a Rubio no-look pass, the answer may soon hit an unsuspecting NBA.

 

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