Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio reported to work for another NBA season on Monday, greeted by a gallery of unfamiliar faces and missing the team’s superstar with whom, once upon a time, he was supposed to grow old together.
Kevin Love is long gone after finally being traded away to Cleveland in August, and Rubio is back for his fourth NBA season while questions about ongoing contract-extension negotiations and which direction his career now might veer both loom.
“For me, it’s just strange,” Rubio said. “Of course we’re going to miss him. He’s one of the best — if not the best — power forwards in the league, but we just have to move on.”
Rubio will do so with new teammates — rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, veterans Thaddeus Young and Mo Williams, remade youngsters Anthony Bennett and Shabazz Muhammad — beside him rather than a three-time All-Star with whom Rubio once was projected by some NBA insiders to become a modern-day version of Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone.
“Of course we’re going to miss him, but we don’t want to talk about could be or what it has been,” Rubio said. “It’s what happened now and we’re ready to talk about the players we have, like Andrew Wiggins and players like that. I think it’s exciting. … Kevin was a superstar last year. It was his team. Now we all have to step up and put this team higher than it has been the last 10 years.
“We’re going to make it, and I think we’re excited to do it. That’s it.”
Rubio followed along from June’s World Cup soccer tournament in Brazil and then from his home in Spain in July and August as spring turned to late summer and it became obvious that Wolves president of basketball operations and new head coach Flip Saunders would trade Love before he walked away as an unrestricted free agent next summer.
The only question was the matter of when, and Aug. 23 it finally came to be after a month’s delay because of an arcane NBA rule.
If anybody had the inside scoop on betting the exact date, it was Wolves center Nikola Pekovic, who shares the same agent with Love.
“My agent informed me what was happening,” Pekovic said. “I think the loss of Kevin Love, there was something in the air toward the end of the season. Still, we had some hope that he would stay. But we tried to make our team younger and I see a lot of new faces, a lot of younger guys. We’re just waiting to see how Flip and the rest of the coaching staff are going to put everything together.”
Pekovic knew of the news well before it happened, even though he was half a world away back home in Montenegro. Meanwhile, such word apparently travels slower to places like Ohio, where Wolves veteran guard Kevin Martin spends part of his summer.
“I didn’t know Kevin Love got traded until yesterday,” Martin said with a straight face at Monday’s annual media day at Target Center that preceded a midnight start to training camp in Mankato. “I’m not big on looking at blogs and all that.”
On Monday, Martin and his teammates — both new and old — began that process of moving on.
Saunders spoke Monday at length about mentoring and his team’s need to integrate its rookie and youth with veteran influences such as Pekovic, Martin, Corey Brewer and newcomers Young and Williams.
Young reiterated what he said when he and the other new Wolves were introduced at the Minnesota State Fair five weeks ago: He’s filling the team’s starting power-forward spot, but he’s in no way replacing Love there.
The only way the Wolves will do that, Young suggested, is all together.
“I’m not going to try to replace 26 [points] and 12 [rebounds],” said Young, acquired from Philadelphia in that three-way trade that brought Wiggins and Bennett from Cleveland. “Twenty-six and 12 hasn’t made it to the playoffs. If we can make it to playoffs with me getting 10 to 18 [points], I’m great with that. I’m trying to win games. I’m not trying to come out here and be a stat-stuffer.”
Now at age 26, Young is among the team’s veteran leaders on a roster built with them for now and for the future around Wiggins and LaVine, who still are both teenagers. To put it in perspective, Brewer noted both players were in grade school when Brewer was a high school senior.
“They’re only 19 years old, which is crazy to think,” Wolves veteran forward Chase Budinger said. “But you can tell how talented they are.”
A young player’s potential, however, has gotten more than one coach fired. Coincidentally, Saunders holds both coach and top-executive jobs.
“With our rookies, we’ve got a lot of potential,” Rubio said. “I wouldn’t say we took a step back to make two forward; we just have to see how they fit in the league. A player can be all hype and have great potential, but not everybody fits well in this league. We’ll see how the rookies fit and how they fit with us, too.”
The young Wolves, particularly Wiggins and LaVine, are built, though, to fit with Rubio’s love for the open court and his vision once he gets there with the ball.
“I like to run and I like to throw the ball up in the air,” Rubio said. “They’re players who can catch the ball. Hopefully, they make me look good. I haven’t seen them in real life, but I’ve seen them in video and they can jump high. So I’m going to throw the ball over the backboard and see if they can catch it.”