Ricky Rubio is an aberration not because of his exotic hair or nationality, nor his endearing accent or teen-idol charm. Rubio is an aberration for reasons as fundamental and useful as a bounce pass.
He's the rare subject of hype who turns out to be better than advertised. He's the rare NBA player who prides himself on unselfishness. He is the rare athlete who succeeds because of savvy and intelligence rather than athletic ability.
Whether this should be considered a compliment to him or an insult to his team, it is true: 10 games into his NBA career, Rubio is the second-best player on the roster.
Tuesday, Rubio faced his toughest NBA challenge, in MVP point guard Derrick Rose and defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau of the Bulls. Unlike many 21-year-olds, Rubio won't have to hide the test results from his parents. The Wolves' 111-100 loss was that close largely because of Rubio's gamesmanship.
He was often brilliant, leading a dramatic second-quarter comeback and challenging an elite team in a game that looked like a blowout midway through the second quarter.
By the end of the first half, Rubio had a sizeable crowd at Target Center roaring, and his coach, Rick Adelman, pumping his fist. By the end of the game, Rubio had 13 points, 12 assists and four rebounds in a season-high 36 minutes. He produced his third double-double in five games, and started the second half for the first time this season.
"I'm not happy," Rubio said, shaking his head. "We can't be down by 20 and then react."
The Bulls led by as much as 24 in the second quarter. Rubio led the Wolves on a 20-2 run to end the half, reducing Chicago's lead to 53-47.
He did it with three assists that led Anthony Randolph to the rim, three assists on Kevin Love three-pointers, by twice grabbing a rebound and leading a fast break, and by displaying a competitive fire that has rarely been so obvious. After missing a free throw in the midst of that run, Rubio stepped back and punched himself in the chest, then cursed himself as he retreated on defense.
"He has a lot of poise, even at his age," Love said. "He wants to win very bad. The game is starting to slow down for him now. He's making lots of adjustments to his game, making shots, and we can all kind of follow in his footsteps, because we all need to slow down at this point."
A child shall lead the Wolves, and a relative child already leads the Bulls. Rubio is an effective defender, but most mortals are helpless against Rose, who can blow by or shoot over just about anybody. Tuesday, Rose scored 31 points on a variety of power drives and power jumpers, twice rising to hit threes as the shot clock wound down. "He's great," Rubio said. "Maybe he is one of the best if not the best player I ever played against."
Entering the game, Rubio led all rookies in assists per game and also in a more shocking category: most fourth-quarter minutes played among all NBA players. In his first nine NBA games, Rubio sat out only seven seconds of fourth-quarter play. He sat out almost four minutes Tuesday, having played the entire third quarter.
"He's the one guy on our team that can get into the paint, going to the basket, and find the right people," Adelman said. "He's got the vision. I'm surprised he's been able to do that consistently."
The Wolves roster remains horribly flawed. After all of these rebuilding seasons, they possess no NBA shooting guards or centers. Most of their worthwhile players are either power forwards or point guards.
When Rubio runs the offense, though, the Wolves' limitations recede like wrinkles under a layer of pancake makeup.
What could have been an easy night for the Bulls turned into a game close enough to cost Thibodeau his voice in the fourth quarter.
By then, Wolves fans may have had the same problem.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org