|Kevin Love (42) appreciates Rubio, though the Spaniard hasn't cracked the starting lineup yet. (US Presswire)|
WASHINGTON -- A few thousands folks were spending part of their Sunday afternoon in the nation's capital watching an abysmal display of basketball, and they would've gone home bitterly disappointed if not for a certain 21-year-old with a stubby beard and a messy Beatles haircut.
Everything changes when Ricky Rubio jogs to the scorer's table and checks in. The game changes, and so does the mood of whoever happens to be watching.
So, too, perhaps, does the fate of a franchise.
Rubio finally has come to the NBA, and in case you haven't noticed, he's already made the NBA a better place. Nine games into a stateside journey that began in earnest when he turned pro in Europe at 14, Rubio already is exerting his unique brand of basketball majesty on the pre-eminent pro league in the world.
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He's unkempt and unafraid, charismatic yet unassuming. His magnetism and passion for playing the game are trumped perhaps only by his court vision and creativity.
Yep, I was one of the many skeptics who thought Rubio was all hype, no substance -- thought there was a decent chance he'd fall flat on his face when he finally came to the NBA two years after the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted him in 2009. And he's converted me already. It's only one of the things, you'll find, that Rubio does with maddening ease. He turns people into believers.
"I love playing basketball and I will love it forever," Rubio said before using the Washington Wizards to produce his own personal highlight show Sunday in a 93-72 victory. "I enjoy playing and that's what I try to do, have fun."
Oh, if only he knew how much more fun it is to watch him having fun.
"He's been a pro since 14 years old, so he's had his fair share of fame and he's had his fair share of playing against some of the best players in the world," teammate Kevin Love said. "He played in the Olympics, played great, and I know a lot of people said he had a down year last year. But he came in with a lot of confidence. He's a guy that works his butt off every day and has some electricity about him. He's an energetic kid and we love being around him."
Rubio did have a nightmarish year with FC Barcelona as well as with Spain in the FIBA world championships in Turkey. The missteps only added to Rubio's mystique and fueled doubts about whether his game would translate to the NBA.
"He struggled over there," said Wizards coach Flip Saunders, who would be coaching Rubio now if Washington hadn't traded the fifth pick in 2009 to Minnesota for Randy Foye and Mike Miller -- both long gone. "A lot of times he didn't start for their team, played limited minutes, didn't shoot the ball well, just didn't do a lot of things. There's some guys that play in college and are better players when they end up getting to the NBA. He might be one of those guys as a European player."
It's too early to make room for Rubio in Springfield, or even in the Timberwolves' starting lineup. But to focus on his recent struggles ignores a previously spotless resume for a player his age. Rubio has won every kind of championship imaginable -- Spanish League, Euroleague, Eurobasket -- and he did it all as a teenager.
Nine games into his NBA career, the Spaniard has been nothing short of dazzling. And it's a surprise only to those who haven't competed against him or watched his game grow since he was 14.
"A lot of people doubted him," said former Timberwolves assistant general manager Tony Ronzone, who was key to persuading the Spanish phenom to finally come to the NBA this season. "Scouts in the NBA doubted him. Even when he played in Europe, they were questioning him. He just knows how to win games."
Ronzone, a prominent member of the staff with Team USA, tells a story about how the multiple All-Stars on that team were "foaming at the mouth" to get a shot at Rubio during the 2010 FIBA world championships. Before an exhibition game against Spain, the U.S. scouting report was riddled with ways to attack Rubio, who'd stunned the basketball world in 2008 when he guided Spain to the gold medal game against the U.S. in the Beijing Olympics -- and almost defeated the Americans as a 17-year-old.
In the exhibition game, Rubio stole the ball from Derrick Rose two of the first three times down the court. The U.S. hung on for an 86-85 victory. On the way to play Turkey in the gold-medal game, veteran point guard Chauncey Billups approached Ronzone and said, "Tone, I really like your guy."
"Put him on our team and put me on their team, and who's going to look better?" Billups said, according to Ronzone. "He's going to look better. He'd be throwing the ball to Rudy Gay and Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant. In the NBA, he's going to shine even more because the talent is going to make him better."
This is true, but Rubio also makes the talent around him better.
"After two years of him not being here, we're happy to have him here now and to be growing with him," Love said.
Rubio checked into the game Sunday against the woeful Wizards with 1:30 left in the first quarter, and immediately began orchestrating what turned into a 17-2 run. Suddenly the Timberwolves were no longer the Timberwolves. Rubio may just have that kind of power, that kind of sway on the basketball ecosystem to take one of the perennially half-assed franchises in the sport and turn it into something worth watching.
He had 13 points and 14 assists by the time he was done, his third double-double so far. Though it isn't the numbers, but the court savvy, creativity and sheer joy that go into producing them that make Rubio such a pleasure to watch. The weight of the world that was on him last year in Barcelona -- playing and struggling in his hometown under relentless pressure and expectations -- has been lifted.
"Sometimes you have too much pressure on you and you don't enjoy when you're on the court and you want to enjoy it," Rubio said. "Sometimes you have to forget everything and just play."
So far, he's faced Russell Westbrook, Brandon Jennings, Jason Kidd, Tony Parker and John Wall -- and the challenges just keep on coming, in relentless waves during this compressed, lockout-shortened season. On Tuesday night there would be another foe from Rubio's Olympic past, Rose of the Bulls. Although Wolves coach Rick Adelman said he's "getting tired of answering that," it's only a matter of time before Rubio takes his rightful place in the starting lineup.
"The one great thing about him is that he doesn't buy into the hype," Adelman said. "He doesn't play like that. He doesn't approach things that way. He just wants to get better."
Watching him Sunday -- the way he turns the corner, ball on a string, shoulders always square to the basket, head up and eyes wide -- it haunted me that I couldn't think of whom Rubio reminded me. Yes, there's some Steve Nash in there, as some have suggested. But there's someone else, too. And you're not going to believe who I finally came up with.
My eyes were drawn to Rubio the way they've been drawn to no other primary ballhandler I've seen since Allen Iverson. I watched two straight years of Iverson's career from a seat under the basket in Philadelphia, and I kid you not when I tell you I could never take my eyes off him. Not for a second. Same with Rubio, who also happens to have the longest arms on a guard I've seen since Iverson.
Take away the obvious, um, stylistic differences and throw in the fact that Rubio is four inches taller and uses his eyes to find teammates instead of a path to the rim, and Rubio will have a much different kind of career. But their methods of attacking a defense startled me for how similar they are, even if the end result is so different.
I asked Rubio what NBA point guards he watched growing up, and the fact that he rattled off a list that included not only the veterans Kidd and Steve Nash but also Rose and Rajon Rondo only underscored what a basketball newborn he is. When I asked if he'd ever watched Iverson, he nodded, but said, "Yes, a little bit. But I was, like, 10 years old."
Rubio laughed a little when he said that, and I laughed too -- after I picked myself up off the floor of the visiting locker room.
The obvious holes in his game are defense and long-range shooting, though Rubio has put some of those doubts to rest by making 45 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range in his first nine games.
"Everyone criticized his shooting, but his release is fine," Ronzone said. "He's more of a spot-up shooter, but he can make shots. ... He does stuff that coaches can't teach. Coaches can direct you in your offense or defense or what play needs to be called, but they can't tell the kid how to make the play."
Is Rubio sturdy and tough enough to hold up under the physical demands of the NBA? I'm a believer. He's 6-4, and even at only 21, his body isn't frail. He's also a rookie, and some nights he'll be OK and other nights he'll be exposed -- like all rookies. But the things he can do that few, if any rookies have been able to do at this stage of their careers? Those are gifts that will keep on giving and getting better. Those are God-given talents we'll be privileged to enjoy for the next decade or more.
Unless my eyes are deceiving me, the few thousand folks who stopped by the Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon to watch an otherwise unwatchable basketball game were feasting their eyes on a 10-time All-Star. Could I be wrong? Sure, but so what? I'm going to be having way too much fun watching Rubio to worry about that.
In fact, I came away from Sunday's experience with more than an appreciation for Rubio's game. I came away with a piece of advice from a 21-year-old that I intend to follow.
"Just play what you love and forget about everything," Rubio said. "Just enjoy when you are on the court and don't think anything else."