Ricky Rubio had barely sat down for his Timberwolves media day news conference when a local sportswriting legend bellowed:
“Do you still want to get traded?”
Rubio rubbed his face, smiled. “You haven’t changed, huh?”
Welcome back to Minnesota. The question pertained to a June interview Rubio did with a radio station in his native Spain. He expressed frustration that he’d gone through five seasons without playing in one playoff game. How difficult, mentally, it can be when goals aren’t met.
“Next season will be crucial for me,” he said at the time.”I’ve been in the NBA for five years. And six years without the playoffs would be a long time. At 26, I’d have to start thinking about teams that can get into the playoffs and win in the finals.”
Hence the question: Do you still want to get traded?
“I didn’t say I wanted to get traded,” Rubio said. “I want to play with a winner. I think we have the right mentality. It’s changing.”
Well, this much is clear: This is a crucial year for Rubio, especially when it comes to his place on a team now coached by Tom Thibodeau, whose first big move upon being hired as the Wolves’ president of basketball operations was to choose Kris Dunn — a point guard by trade — with the fifth pick in the draft.
Rubio will turn 26 Oct. 21. He is, easily, the longest-tenured Wolves player on the team’s 17-man training camp roster. When the first practice starts Tuesday, both Rubio and Thibodeau will begin discovering how the point guard will fit into a new system.
So far, both sides say they like what they see.
Thibodeau already has praised Rubio’s passing ability, his knack of making teammates better, his defensive intensity.
Rubio, meanwhile, sees a culture that’s changing.
“I see a lot of hard work,” he said. “I see we’re setting the tone. We’re putting ourselves in a good position to finally make our goal, which is win and make the playoffs. But we have to go step by step. We have the right pieces. We have to put them together now.”
Is this his year?
Rubio’s work ethic should certainly endear himself to Thibodeau. Last season then-interim coach Sam Mitchell said he’d never coached a player who played every possession with so much intensity. His ability to feed teammates on the break or find them for an open shot is clear.
What isn’t clear is whether all of that makes up for Rubio’s shortcomings as a shooter in the new regime.
But Rubio might be in the best position in years to take a big jump.
An ACL tear in March of 2012 ended his first season, and kept him out until mid-December of the following season. In November 2014 a severe ankle injury essentially ended that season, limiting him to 22 games.
Then, last year, his knee and ankle were fine, but his heart was hurting. Rubio played the season while his mom, Tona, was battling lung cancer. In an interview with the Associated Press in Rio, Rubio said there were times when he wondered why he was even playing. Rubio was able to get back to Spain and spend time with his mom before she passed May 25.
While that sadness lingers, basketball has been there to help him heal. He considered not playing for Spain in the Olympics, but did, and it helped.
“I love playing basketball, but the most important thing to me is my family,” Rubio said. “I was going through tough times; there are a lot of things that make you think. It was a tough summer. But the national team helped me. Basketball always helps. And I’m excited about this upcoming season, being able to focus on the basketball part and not think about anything else than brining my best to help this team to win.”
To that end, he has already been a generous mentor to Dunn, with whom he could play in certain situations this season. In pre-camp workouts, Rubio already can see the emphasis Thibodeau is placing on defense, and he loves it.
“That’s going to bring us where we want to be,” he said.
And that’s the playoffs.
Does he want to be traded? No. He wants to win. And he can finally see that happening here.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” he said. “The first step is a good training camp, all together, working hard. We’re young, but I really think that, talent-wise, it’s the best I’ve been around.’’