Ricky Rubio still is not 100 percent healthy. That ominous nugget surfaced on the eve of the Timberwolves’ first practice.
Rubio either did a real number on his left ankle last season or he’s a remarkably slow healer. Whatever the case, the team’s admission that Rubio will be eased into camp didn’t exactly strike a promising tone, given his injury history.
The Wolves can’t afford to labor through another season of lengthy absences from their point guard.
“I’ve been working all summer long to get healthy,” Rubio said.
He’s close, he said, but not 100 percent after having surgery in mid-April. Doctors cleared him to play 5-on-5 a month ago, but General Manager Milt Newton acknowledged that Rubio still isn’t ready for all the rigors of training camp.
“I wouldn’t say fully healthy,” Newton said. “We’re going to take it easy. So if we’re doing that then obviously he is not 100 percent where he needs to be.”
That’s a concern, even if the team tries to downplay its significance by saying Rubio expects to be ready by the start of the season. What if he has a setback? Or needs even more time to ramp up his workload?
This is a critical season for Rubio. Injuries have limited him to 202 games in four seasons, including a career-low 22 last season because of a severe ankle injury.
If Rubio received a report card for his NBA career to date, he’d get an I. Incomplete. He’s entering his fifth season and we can’t say definitively how good he is, or if he can stay healthy long enough to identify his true ceiling.
“Every year you’ve got to prove yourself,” Rubio said, “but I think this is very important for me.”
Important for his team’s development, too. Andrew Wiggins has emerged as the Wolves’ best player. Zach LaVine is their most athletic player. Karl-Anthony Towns has the most upside.
Rubio remains their most important player. By metrics or optics, the Wolves function better with him than without him.
In a league saturated with stud point guards, the Wolves need Rubio to fill that role. The only way that happens is if he can stay on the floor.
“I believe a healthy Ricky is a very good Ricky,” Newton said. “One who is capable of leading any team.”
This is Rubio’s chance to establish himself as a franchise point guard. Interim coach Sam Mitchell lumped Rubio with his team’s cast of youngsters, but Rubio is no longer a wide-eyed newbie. He even describes himself as a veteran.
“I always felt like the point guard, especially the way I play, I feel like I’m a leader,” he said. “[But] I don’t think a team needs only one leader. It needs a lot of them.”
Rumors surfaced this offseason that the organization was willing to trade Rubio, despite giving him a four-year, $55 million contract last season. Even if those rumors held any validity, the Wolves face a Catch-22 with their point guard.
Rubio’s trade value would rise only if he’s healthy and playing at a high level. But if he’s healthy and playing at a high level, why trade him?
The Wolves drafted local hero Tyus Jones, but he’s not a threat to replace Rubio any time soon. The Wolves felt compelled to sign veteran Andre Miller as Rubio’s backup, and Newton also noted that Jones could spend time in the NBA’s developmental league.
This is still Rubio’s team to run. And his influence has never felt more far-reaching than it does as catalyst for a nucleus of talented but inexperienced players.
The Wolves are depending on Rubio to serve as a facilitator who will push the pace and get their athletic wings the ball in the right spots so that they can develop and flourish, as well as set a defensive tone by being disruptive on the perimeter.
And shoot the ball better, which remains a problem area.
“We want Ricky to take open shots,” Newton said. “We don’t want Ricky to have to prove to someone that he is a better shooter.”
And yet he needs to prove that precise point. Rubio said he made 89 of 100 three-pointers in a recent workout, a personal record. But he wisely added a caveat.
“Let’s see in the game,” he said.
That’s the bottom line with Rubio. The success of this season — and the Wolves’ overall blueprint — hinges on him being on the floor in games.