SALT LAKE CITY – If the bushy beard, a head of luxurious hair now grown long enough to scrunch into a man bun and a full sleeve tattoo on his remarkably muscular arm don’t appear suspicious enough, consider Utah’s next pass-first point guard also finished a preseason game with 20 points and no assists.
All of it is alarming enough to ask: What have they done with Ricky Rubio?
Turns out, only traded him from the Timberwolves to the Jazz last summer for a future first-round pick after he finished last season playing the best basketball of his life.
Four months later, he is something of a new man, certainly in appearance and maybe even in spirit for a Jazz team now moving on, too, without star Gordon Hayward.
On Friday night, Rubio brings the Jazz to a freshly remodeled Target Center he might not quite recognize in a reunion with a Wolves team playing its home opener.
“I mean, I wanted to change a little,” Rubio said. “Change the look, change a little bit of everything. Life is short, so you’ve got to change.”
Life also is change and in the past 18 months Rubio has encountered it both personally and professionally.
His mother, Tona Vives, died in May 2016 at age 56 after a long fight with lung cancer, seven months after his coach, Flip Saunders, succumbed to cancer as well.
The June trade that sent Rubio to Utah ended his time in Minnesota, where he was greeted like a rock star upon his arrival at the airport in June 2011 two years after he was drafted. He was traded essentially to create salary-cap space to sign his replacement, free agent Jeff Teague, who said some Wolves fans have told him how much they loved Ricky.
In those years between, Rubio found adoration, wealth, contentment, everything but a confident and consistent jump shot in a northern outpost where his agent once postured he’d never play.
Now he comes back to a city where his charm, matinee-idol looks as well as the joy with which he plays won over fans. He said they made him feel truly beloved during six seasons that brought a serious knee injury his rookie season, but never a playoff appearance, even when he and All-Star Kevin Love played together.
“It’s just the weather, it’s cold,” he said. “Everything else is amazing. All I thought is it was going to be freezing and I leave after six years sure I’m going to go back.”
All that Jazz
Gone to the mountains now, Rubio is the Jazz’s next point guard in a lineage that includes playmaking Hall of Famer John Stockton, scorer Deron Williams and from another time and place before them, a guy named Pistol Pete Maravich.
He calls himself proud to be part of a franchise that nurtured and loved a creative point guard such as the great Stockton — “I will try to be at the same level” — and praises after only one full preseason Utah coach Quin Snyder and a Jazz “culture” he never experienced in Minnesota because of constant coaching and management changes.
“I had like four coaches in six years, it’s hard to build a culture like that,” said Rubio, who played for Rick Adelman, Saunders, Sam Mitchell and Tom Thibodeau. “It’s hard when you have so many coaches going on and on. It was everything: coaches, GMs, players going by. I don’t know how many players I played with in six years, but it was a lot. It’s hard when you have so many changes. But they’ve started building something good now with Thibs.”
The Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations, Thibodeau traded Rubio after their one season together, saying at the time he opted for Teague’s speed and pick-and-roll prowess because “we have to get out of this hole” having not made the playoffs since 2004.
Rubio heard his name in rumored trade discussions for two or more seasons previously, well before Thibodeau was hired for two jobs.
“At the end, rumors come true,” Rubio said. “Carmelo Anthony was going to be traded for the last two years, too, and finally it came up. When a rumor comes, there’s something true behind it. It’s not 100 percent, but at some point it’s true. It was true they wanted me to be traded. They did what they thought was the best for them.
“Of course, it didn’t feel good seeing your name in the paper the last two years, but at a certain point you understand it’s a business. It’s nothing personal and you have to move forward.”
A changed player
He has done so, traded away even though he became late last season the complete player for whom everyone waited six years. Always a gifted passer and disruptive defender, Rubio improved his shooting percentages and became an offensive threat that opposing teams could no longer ignore. He averaged nearly 16 points and 10.5 assists after the All-Star break and had games of 22/19 game one night, a 33/10 game another.
He considers that season finish a launching point to become the player he still can be. He turns 27 on Saturday.
“When you play with that type of confidence, it’s a different player and I was playing great,” he said. “It was the best I felt since I came to the NBA. I see I can do it and I can do it consistently. I show myself that if I trust what I do and keep working hard, I can become a great player in the league.”
His improved play convinced the Jazz to trade away a first-round pick owed it by Oklahoma City. At the time, Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey called Rubio a “2017 facsimile of Jason Kidd” and envisioned Rubio becoming a dynamic partner on both ends with star center Rudy Gobert.
Snyder said he wants Rubio to be decisive, unafraid to fail and uninhibited, too.
“I want to empower him,” Snyder said. “I want him to enjoy playing and I think he’s at his best when he’s having fun.”
Snyder praised Rubio’s leadership in Wednesday’s season-opening victory over Denver and praised the passion he showed at a crucial moment on a nine-point, 10-assist night during which Rubio made one of five three-pointers. On that same night, Teague sat the entire fourth quarter while Thibodeau played Tyus Jones in the Wolves’ opening loss at San Antonio.
Love is all around
Rubio admits he still might be playing in Minnesota and maybe even still with Love if he hadn’t torn his knee ACL just as the Wolves fought for playoff position late in his rookie season.
“I’m sure that would have changed a lot, but I think that happened for a reason,” Rubio said. “It taught me a lesson. It’s hard to accept that because we never know what would have happened. We’d be talking about a different team right now. It’s just one play that happened in a game, but at the end of the day, it happened the way it was supposed to be.”
And now he says he is where and what he should be, a man “all grown up” with an appearance befitting a true mountain man (“I can go in a cave and spend days in there now,” he joked).
He calls the significance of his tattooed armed “private,” but it appears to be a lioness protecting her cub.
Jazz teammate Joe Ingles roomed with Rubio when they both played for Barcelona nearly a decade ago, and he likened it to following Justin Bieber on a European tour with all the screaming fans.
All these years later, the Australian was asked for a comparison regarding Rubio’s new look.
“Hugh Jackman,” Ingles said without hesitation.
Reunited this season with his old friend, Ingles sees, understandably, a different Ricky Rubio tempered by life and by six NBA seasons.
“He has been through some stuff,” Ingles said. “It probably hasn’t been the easiest journey for him. Not that growing up in Europe was easy, but he was so much better than anyone else his age then. A few things have happened to him the last six, seven years. He’s definitely a lot older and wise.”
On Friday night, Rubio will be back at Target Center, facing former teammates he still calls “my guys,” and back in Minneapolis, which he calls America’s “most underrated” city.
“Minnesota is always going to have part of my life because of the way all the people treated me,” he said. “I was feeling the love.”