In a strange recurring daydream, I’m riding in a car in downtown Minneapolis with Ricky Rubio and a couple of his friends, on the way to what promises to be an amazing night on the town. Through a series of wrong turns, frustrating construction delays and one-way streets, we are making no progress. The trip started at Target Center, and after 30 minutes we pull up once again to 600 First Avenue.
Rubio, who has been singing along to the radio and telling stories, keeping everyone cheerful and generally unaware of the lack of progress, suddenly looks out his window and sees Target Center. His wide eyes narrow and he says with accented exasperation, “Guys, we’re right back where we started. What is going on here?”
Before you start the psychoanalysis, I’ll try to beat you to the punch: This daydream is rooted in two facts: 1) even as a member of the media, I think it would be cool to just ride around in car with Rubio because he seems like a genuinely fun and nice person I’d like to get to know better. 2) Because I’m a writer, I’ve imagined a scenario that would make the perfect opening paragraph to a story about Rubio. Like the fictional Rubio in the car making no progress and winding up back at Target Center, the basketball version of real-life Rubio has spent the past six years doing the same thing.
On June 20, 2011 — almost exactly six years ago — Rubio arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport to a scene befitting a rock star. He had been drafted by the Wolves with the No. 5 overall pick almost exactly two years before that — June 25, 2009 — as a precocious 18-year-old from Spain. He represented so many things for a franchise that had been through so much losing, but the one-word crystallization of all of it was “hope.”
Rubio was hailed as a potential franchise savior. He was a marketer’s dream with his charming accent and youthful exuberance. And he had the most intoxicating allure of all: He was mysterious. Nobody knew what to expect.
We know now, of course, how the eight years since he was drafted have played out. Rubio has carved out one of the most complicated legacies of any local athlete in recent memory. Many fans still adore him, but opinions have also calcified around his shortcomings. Rubio still plays with flair and dazzles with his passes, but six years — and no playoff appearances — seem to have taken a piece of him with them.
He is still young, at age 26, and should be entering his basketball prime. But on this version of the Wolves, he’s a veteran — and one at something of a career crossroads.
His career has been plagued by injuries and inconsistent performance, but Rubio has also been saddled with constant rebuilding projects. He played some of the best basketball of his career at the end of last season, but head coach and personnel boss Tom Thibodeau seems to have hand-picked Kris Dunn as Rubio’s potential successor after choosing Dunn with the No. 5 overall pick in 2016. Is Rubio the point guard of the future or the past? Will he be traded — as has so often been rumored — and could that happen as soon as this week during the NBA Draft?
If we can return to the daydream one more time: The car is back at Target Center now, but what is its final destination?
To understand that question, though, we need to start at the beginning. So we’ve enlisted the help of experts to help tell the full tale of Rubio from 2009 until now. In this oral history of Rubio’s time with the Timberwolves, here are the voices you will hear: Jerry Zgoda, Star Tribune Timberwolves beat writer for all of Rubio’s tenure with the Wolves; Jon Krawczynski, Associated Press NBA writer; Steve McPherson, Timberwolves blogger and fan; and Rob Babcock, former Timberwolves executive when Rubio was drafted and several years beyond.
Their insights will lend perspective on the eight-year journey of Rubio. Let’s start at the beginning and work our way forward.
June 25, 2009 — the NBA Draft. New personnel boss David Kahn was running the show for the first time, and Minnesota had the No. 5 and No. 6 picks. It was known Kahn was a fan of Rubio, but it was not known if Rubio would be available when it was the Wolves’ turn to pick. As it turned out, he was. Minnesota chose Rubio at No. 5 and Jonny Flynn at No. 6, leaving Stephen Curry on the board for the Warriors at No. 7. Kahn wrote this week for SI.com that Curry’s representation didn’t want Minnesota to draft him, offering that as a reason the Wolves passed. Regardless, Rubio’s draft night instantly became part of his legacy.
ZGODA: My memory is that (Rubio) was then — and would be for the next two years — the unicorn of that draft. Nobody really had seen him on these shores other than either the 2008 Olympic Games or EuroLeague footage. Even few NBA teams had seen him in person in the U.S. right before the draft. His agent, Dan Fegan, wanted to get him to New York (the Knicks had the eighth pick overall) or if not there, California. The big question about him was the buyout with his Spanish club team. I remember Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti hired a Spanish law firm to investigate the buyout’s language. Memphis had the second pick and it was conceivable he’d go as high as No. 2 to the Grizzlies after the Clippers took Blake Griffin first. I think Fegan flatly told the Grizzlies he would not play there, so of course they took Hasheem Thabeet instead. There was a different aura about Rubio even well before the draft just because of the mystery surrounding him, both because he’d never played on this continent and because his immediate future was in such doubt due to that hefty buyout.
BABCOCK: I’d seen Ricky play many times (before the draft). He came onto the scene at a very early age. I felt really comfortable knowing his game, but he was very young. I liked his size as a point guard. I liked his vision and passing ability. I loved his overall instincts for the game, both offensively and defensively. I loved his competitiveness and passion. He was just a winner. The guy is going to play 100 percent to win every time on the floor. I thought he would definitely make the transition to the NBA. What I was concerned about with Ricky was his strength or lack thereof. He’d never really been in the weight room. I wasn’t too worried about that because they just didn’t really have a strong weight program (in Spain), and he still wasn’t afraid of physical contact. He sticks his nose in there. And then of course the other major concern, which has been there his entire career, is his shooting. Those in my mind were the two major concerns.
KRAWCZYNSKI: This was David Kahn’s first big test as the new leader of the Wolves front office. No one really knew what to expect. And I could be wrong, but I don’t recall a ton of steam around Steph Curry during that time. It was pretty widely known that Kahn coveted Rubio and was hoping he wouldn’t go to Sacramento right ahead of them. But from what I remember, the Curry talk was not quite as hot, perhaps because some thought Kahn wouldn’t take two point guards.
MCPHERSON: I distinctly remember the hype around Rubio because of a cover story in ESPN the Magazine. I read about this passing and ballhandling wizard well before I ever thought about the Wolves drafting him and then leading up to the draft, it didn’t seem like he was going to drop all the way to the fifth pick. Players as exciting and galvanizing as Rubio simply didn’t get drafted by the Wolves, it seemed. Kevin Love’s rookie year had been nothing to write home about — although that was mostly not his fault. But even today, Love is not a very fun player, even if he can be effective. Corey Brewer? Randy Foye? Rashad McCants? With however much respect is due any of those guys, none of them held the potential when they were drafted that Rubio did.
ZGODA: At the time, Rubio dropping to the Wolves at No. 5 was widely considered a gift, buyout or no buyout. There was a reason some Target Center draft-party fans starting singing “Olé, olé, olé” after the Kings took Tyreke Evans fourth. I didn’t hear anybody singing the Davidson fight song hoping for Curry. The bigger question at the time was whether Kahn would leverage the Knicks’ intense interest into a deal enticing enough to trade his rights. I believe Knicks GM Donnie Walsh offered young Wilson Chandler to swap the fifth and eighth picks, but I think David Kahn had been so smitten for so long with Rubio that it wasn’t nearly enough. I do remember, though, thinking immediately after the Rubio pick: They’ve got to take Curry sixth, just got to. Neither guy is particularly big, but you’d have one guy to penetrate and dish and one guy to shoot the lights out. When they took Flynn instead, everybody, including me, thought they’d made a trade until Kahn sent Mike Cristaldi down to the media room to say the team was keeping both players because they could play together like Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge once did for the Celtics. What?
KRAWCZYNSKI: Rubio wasn’t incredibly well-known, which may have worked in his favor. He was this exotic, mysterious prospect who didn’t get intimidated against Team USA as an 18-year-old in the Olympics and who whipped crazy passes through traffic on grainy YouTube videos. That was exciting! Not just for fans, but for teams. His breadth of experience, playing pro since he was 16, court vision, flair, all of that made him a popular pick at the time. Few really questioned it all that much.
The other portion of that was there was legitimate question about the kind of player Curry would become. We’ve seen undersized shooters tear it up in college forever. But the NBA is a whole different world and those guys are often exposed in the league. Some worried that Curry was just a shooter and had nothing else in his game. No one had any idea he would develop the handles he has today. And as good of a shooter as he was in college, nobody knew how quickly it would become clear that he is the best shooter anyone’s ever seen.
That said, I was there at Target Center on draft night. The vast, vast majority of fans wanted Steph. I was in the arena bowl waiting for them to announce his name. I remember saying to myself, “Here comes Steph.” And we all know what happened.
But on draft night, few were saying, “Why did they take Rubio?” It was all, “Flynn over Curry?”
BABCOCK: I thought there was a chance he would be there at No. 5. There were a lot of other names under consideration. DeMar DeRozan (the eventual No. 9 pick) I thought could go higher. Steph Curry was someone I thought could go higher. But those guys were all in the mix and talked about by a lot of different teams. Jonny Flynn, it didn’t work great for him in the NBA, but his stock was pretty high. He was coming off a tremendous year at Syracuse. My thought was Rubio could be there at No. 5 but he could be gone, too. My feeling was we were going to get a good player at No. 5, and I liked the other players as well. I liked Curry. I liked Flynn for different reasons. I didn’t like Flynn as a point guard, just as an explosive player — a scorer. And then I liked DeRozan a lot.
MCPHERSON: Anything Kahn did is worth both second-guessing and marveling at for sheer ineptitude. However, it’s easy in retrospect to fault something like 75 percent of draft decisions — there’s just too much uncertainty. I don’t remember being put out by not picking Curry with the fifth pick. I definitely remember being put out by picking Flynn sixth, but I’m not sure I was salivating over Curry at the time. Of course, I was 100 percent just a fan of the NBA when it happened and not a writer, and I knew nothing about college ball.
The love affair, arrival and injury. Rubio stayed in Spain for two years before arriving to a rock star welcome in 2011 — a time of great hope for the Wolves and their fans. In Rubio’s rookie season, the Wolves were 21-19 and had gone 14-9 in their past 23 games. And then … Rubio tore his ACL, perhaps altering the course of Timberwolves history forever.
KRAWCZYNSKI: I was at the airport when he arrived. I saw him walk into the terminal, where he was greeted by team employees and fans. Let’s face it, a lot of people didn’t believe he would ever step foot in Minnesota. Too many bought into inaccurate speculation that he didn’t want to play in Minnesota, and by that time many figured Kahn would screw things up as well.
When he finally came over, there he was. People didn’t have to search YouTube anymore. They could just show up to the games and watch him. And then when he played so well and galvanized a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs in so long, I think there was finally a sense from fans that an organization that had done so many things wrong over the past decade had finally gotten something right.
As far as first impressions go, Rubio’s was pretty great. This baby-faced, Spanish kid with floppy hair comes over from Europe, knocks his introductory press conference out of the park with some well-timed jokes and stories in broken English and then starts whipping passes all over the court that no one else in the league could. He was just ... fun. And for an organization that had endured so much misery over the previous five years, it was exactly what everyone needed.
It was truly infectious. His enthusiasm and his ability to get everyone involved just made teammates gravitate to him. He was fearless and flashy and there was just an absolute joy that surrounded him at all times. And he truly made an impact on the court as well.
Rubio was a legit rookie of the year candidate, maybe the favorite for the award. Fans chanted “Rubio! Rubio!” to get coach Rick Adelman to get him in the game, something Rubio hated because he felt it was insulting to starter Luke Ridnour. But it didn’t take Adelman long to understand what he had in this precocious kid who could thread the needle. Defenses didn’t really have a book on him yet so they had no idea what to do with this kid.
BABCOCK: I was trying to look at it from Ricky’s standpoint. I thought he’d stay in Spain for three years. But David Kahn pulled it off and we got him here. I was impressed with him. He was under a lot of scrutiny, not just in Minnesota. On the road, he got a lot of attention. That’s a lot of pressure. It’s hard not to like Ricky. He goes out there to win. Fans everywhere appreciate that, especially fans in Minnesota. He’s such a good guy, and that comes across in interviews or community work.
ZGODA: I remember hundreds of fans and media waiting in the airport’s arrival area, peering through restricted glass doors waiting for Rubio to come down a set of escalators and onto Minnesota soil. I remember the anticipation — and disappointment — as everyone saw passengers’ legs appear through the windows until they realized it wasn’t Rubio. Then, finally, he emerged, wearing a Wolves cap and accompanied by Kahn. He was surrounded by fans and all kind of media. There were cameras and flashing bulbs. I remember thinking at the time that it must have been a little like what accompanied the Beatles when they arrived here in 1965, without the girls’ screaming. That sort of rock-star appeal continued after the lockout ended in time for Christmas games, partly because he was paired with another young rock star in Kevin Love.
But it also is the flare and unselfishness with which he plays. Remember the same kind of folk-hero status that surrounded Jason Williams when he broke in with Sacramento? You can’t discount his teen-idol good looks and that accent, either. The way he speaks, mixing the structure of the way he thinks in Spanish with his English almost always comes off charming in spite of its flaws. I think even guys think he’s cute.
MCPHERSON: There was — and still is, though maybe not quite so much — something so amazingly joyful about the way he played the game, especially in those first few years and extra especially in that first year. Stripped of the emotional component of it, I suppose you’d call it flair, but whatever you want to call it, Minnesota had been lacking it for years. Big Al (Jefferson) was fine, but he wasn’t exciting. The subtle joy of flawless footwork in the post just doesn’t make you jump out of your chair. And Love, again, has just never been fun as a player. But Rubio was out there giving guys gifts all the time. I felt at the time like guys on the receiving end of his passes wanted to do better with them because they were so pretty. I mean, he nutmegged a pass through Dirk Nowitzki’s legs in his FOURTH GAME. That combination of bravado and skill was intoxicating.
Personally, it was a strange year for me because it was the year I started writing about basketball. I started as a season-ticket holder and then in January I started a blog called Feelings Aren’t Numbers. In February, I started writing for Hardwood Paroxysm, and then by the start of the next season I’d joined A Wolf Among Wolves. In that way, it’s kind of a difficult season to track because my approach to the game changed so much. But I remember Ricky’s performance at the Rookie-Sophomore game at All-Star Weekend particularly well because I was in the hospital with my wife for the birth of our first daughter. The timing was actually great because I didn’t have cable at the time! He was, of course, a ton of fun in that game and I remember feeling like things were on the right track for Minnesota.
Of course, it all came crashing down when he got injured.
KRAWCZYNSKI: And that night against the Lakers, Target Center was on fire for the first time in such a long time. Fans were there not just to see the Lakers, but to enjoy this electric point guard who could throw passes between defenders' legs to three-point shooters. What would’ve happened that season if Rubio had not torn his ACL remains one of the big “what-ifs” in franchise history.
ZGODA: It certainly quashed whatever momentum Love, Rubio and the Wolves were building and it offered further evidence to beleaguered Wolves fans that their franchise indeed is perpetually doomed. I don’t think the knee injury has had a lasting impact on his career. I’m not sure if he had continued uninjured that he still would have magically discovered how to shoot better. The continuity might have helped some and speeded a process that maybe he finally figured out around All-Star break this past season. We still have to see about that.
KRAWCZYNSKI: (The injury) was enormous. He was playing with so much confidence, and the team was just feeding off of it. Those injuries are tough and as hard as Rubio worked to get back, it took a couple of years before he was really back to his previous burst. It also prevented him from working on his jumper that first summer, when it is often said an NBA player makes his biggest leaps between years 1 and 2 and 2 and 3.
Had Rubio remained healthy, I’m convinced they make the playoffs that season. Had that happened and had Rubio been able to enter that summer healthy and able to work on his game, it could have changed the course of the next five years for this team.
MCPHERSON: I think it was pretty massively important not because I think they were headed to a playoff berth or anything that season but because it took him quite a long time to come back fully from the injury. For someone with both some mechanical and some confidence issues when it comes to shooting, I think that hiccup in his start to his NBA career became a real roadblock. I’m not exactly saying that he could have become a good shooter without it — because I think he’s not going to be a good shooter period — but I think had he been able to work at full strength more early on that his game would have fleshed out in a more natural way. Whatever he might say about it, I think the shooting thing weighed on him a lot over those first few years, and it turned him into a more sober, less exciting player.
BABCOCK: It was so unfortunate. The kid had worked so hard to get here and then that happens. It certainly was a setback for the team and for him. You have to come back a better player — not just physically stronger, but it’s an opportunity to grow as a player, watch the game and study it. He took that time and he really got in the weight room, got stronger. He got smarter. He studied things and worked on his game. Would it have taken longer to learn those other things if not for the injury? He came back strong, and I think that says a lot about Ricky.
Coming back to the present. Rubio has been part of multiple rebuilding efforts with the Wolves but has never reached the postseason during his six years here. The young Wolves had playoff aspirations a season ago, but they ended up winning just 31 games. Rubio averaged 16 points and 10.5 assists on 42 percent shooting in his final 24 games last season. At age 26, he’s neither young nor old. But these questions remain: Can Rubio sustain that level of production and is he still the Wolves’ point guard of the future? And if there is a parting of ways between the Wolves and Rubio, how will we view the Rubio Era?
ZGODA: Certainly, many NBA players don’t completely blossom until they’re 26 or 27 and Rubio is just coming into his prime. I think he also maybe just has gotten completely healthy after the knee surgery and then that nasty ankle injury he had a couple of years ago. All this stuff you hear from people that says Thibodeau doesn’t like him or likes him doesn’t matter. It all comes down to a couple questions: Can you win in this league with a point guard the other team doesn’t have to guard in the game’s final moments — the answer is no in Thibs’ mind, I believe — and can Rubio be just enough of a consistent offensive threat to make teams guard him in those minutes. You can’t win, particularly in the playoffs, playing 4-on-5. The other question is, can you win without a dynamic scoring point guard in this league? You look at all the contenders — and that term has to be used loosely given Golden State’s dominance — and they all (except for maybe San Antonio and an aging, injury-prone Tony Parker) have that kind of point guard: Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, James Harden, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, even Rajon Rondo in these playoffs. Rubio will never be that kind of player. Maybe he doesn’t need to be if he’s surrounded by Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, and eventually they become all that they can be. But that’s still a considerable If. I doubt Kris Dunn is that kind of point guard, either, but the Wolves can’t dismiss that there might be one available in this point guard-heavy draft just because they’re already invested in Rubio and Dunn. With Rubio, the Wolves have to decide whether he’s just finally becoming the player everyone thought he’d be or do you relatively sell high now?
KRAWCZYNSKI: I do think what we saw from Rubio over the second half of last season wasn’t a fluke. I think he’s capable of being a decent shooter. Not Steph. Not Ray Allen. But not terrible either. And when he is able to knock that jumper down with some consistency, he becomes a lot harder to guard and it opens up so much more for his teammates.
Tom Thibodeau deserves some credit for coaxing that aggressiveness out of Ricky. Many have tried, but he really got through. It took a while for the two of them to figure each other out and find some common ground, but there’s no question they did find it later in the season.
MCPHERSON: He’s gotten more serious and probably a little more beaten down because he’s fully taken on the weight of Minnesota miserableness, I think. It’s kind of too bad because it’s not as if getting more staid as a player has improved his shooting measurably. In some ways he might be better as a player now with more maturity, and he certainly had a strong end to the season, but I miss the flashy, fun Rubio quite a bit. I sort of always hoped for him to be an NBA Peter Pan who played the game his way. But it’s amazingly hard to maintain that when the demands of the job are directly in front of you.
Thibodeau gave Rubio a longer leash and Rubio rewarded that by showing what he could do, but I think ultimately for Rubio’s benefit as much as anyone’s, it might be time for him to move on to a different situation. I’d love to see him go to a situation where he could really contend without having to be a cornerstone piece. Whether that means he’s a starter alongside some bona fide All-Stars or a sixth man, I think the fresh start would do him good.
KRAWCZYNSKI: I think he’s the best point guard option on the roster right now. He’s a veteran who plays good defense and gets others involved.
As good as Kris Dunn can be one day, and I think he can eventually be very good, he has not shown the signs that he is ready to run the show right now. And this franchise, with a 13-year playoff drought, needs a veteran in that position if they are going to make a playoff run next season, which I believe is crucial to the development of this young core and to the psyche of a tortured fan base.
If they do trade Rubio, I think they need to get a veteran point guard back in return or off the free agent market to come in and hold things down while Dunn and Tyus Jones continue to develop.
BABCOCK: His shot still has a long way to go. He’s never going to be a pure shooter. But he’s worked his butt off on it, and he’s at the point where you have to respect it. For a while defenders were just going underneath picks and just begging him to shoot. That really hurt his effectiveness. Now you think twice about doing that. He’s just entering his prime. He’ll continue to get better. I think what you saw at the end of last year is what he’s capable of doing on a regular basis. He’s a point guard who makes his teammates better. In this day and age, we have a difficult time finding true point guards who make teams better. Offenses have revolved around the fact that there aren’t those true point guards. Coaches are running point guard-less offenses. Just push it up and move it. But most coaches, even if they have an offense like that, if you ask them if they’d like to have a true point guard who makes everyone better, they’ll say yes, we’d love to have a guy like that. Ricky knows every play and knows where everyone is supposed to be on every play. You just don’t find players like that anymore.
ZGODA: The other thing is there’s a narrative here that goes unnoticed and Rubio isn’t a bit to blame. The Wolves never became what they could have become because of Kahn’s decision to withhold that five-year designated player contract to Love in 2012. Kahn swore it was because of concern about investing so much length and money (five years, $80 million-plus) in any player’s health (and particularly Love’s knees) and he swore it wasn’t because he was holding that slot open for Rubio, but I don’t buy it. He had so much of his reputation on the job invested in Rubio and remember he didn’t draft Love and more than once explored trading him before he fully became a three-time All Star. I saw no evidence that the matter drove a wedge between Love and Rubio personally, but that decision stung him so much that his departure was only a matter of time. Who knows what they might have become together with Rick Adelman coaching if Kahn had given him that designation and then worried about signing Rubio to a four-year deal later.
MCPHERSON: I love Rubio, as a player and — to the extent that I’ve been around him — as a person. I never did an extended sit-down with him, but I’ve talked to him several times over the years for various articles and he’s a very genuine, heartfelt person who honestly wants to just be the basketball player and human he can be, I think. The things that have gotten in the way of the former are some on him and a lot on the situations he’s found himself in, either directly or by proxy. The way Kahn completely botched every single inch of Love’s time here affected Rubio, for sure, and I still think he’s never had a coach who’s truly meshed with him. Rick Adelman’s system called for Love to be the primary playmaker out of the high elbow and neutered a lot of what was best about Rubio’s game. Neither Flip Saunders nor Sam Mitchell’s systems — which were pretty similar — maximized him either and we know Thibs’ system hasn’t been ideal either.
In that sense, I will continue to wish in some ways that the team had catered more to him, while at the same time recognizing that you can’t build the team around him because as good as his passing, defense and general court awareness are, his shooting is absolutely a liability in the current NBA. I look at Rondo, who blossomed early on when surrounded by a bunch of All-Stars, and I see that as the ideal situation for a niche player like Rubio. You almost can’t make the niche, but just have to find yourself in it. The Wolves overall have, of course, been a disappointment during his time here, but I don’t peg that to him basically at all.
KRAWCZYNSKI: He has represented the franchise the right way, been quietly active in the community and delivered some wildly entertaining performances on the court. But there’s no doubt it’s not been all puppy breath and cinnamon, as the “Rubiobos” like to say.
I still would like to see what he is able to do with a team full of veterans that aren’t learning on the job as so many of his teammates have been for the last five years, but there is no doubt disappointment that six years in he is still looking for his first postseason appearance.
He has grown up a lot in his six years here, been through a lot with the injuries, the coaching changes and the death of his mother. But seeing him in the open floor, running the fast break and dropping no-look dimes to teammates who had no idea how he got the ball to them has been the one consistently fun thing about the Wolves in the last 10 years. And for that, I think he deserves the fans’ appreciation.