After two topsy-turvy years, Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio will finally make his NBA debut tonight at 7 against the Thunder. There was a time when Rubio was an international sensation, a can’t-miss prospect. But the NBA lockout has overshadowed Rubio’s arrival. Recent Blockbuster trades and on-going trade speculation, coupled with the continued love-’em-or-hate-’em obsession with the Miami Heat, have pushed Rubio further out of the NBA limelight. It also doesn’t help that he plays for the Wolves. But starting with tonight’s game, we’ll soon find out whether Rubio has been all hype all these years or is a legit addition to a league filled with extremely talented point guards.
As you prepare for tip-off, here’s a piece I wrote on Rubio back in 2009 leading up to the draft. The Thunder, if you remember, had Rubio on its radar as he began sliding down draft boards and ultimately became the biggest mystery in that year’s draft class.
There was a time when Ricky Rubio was considered a lock to be the No. 1 overall pick whenever the teen-age Spanish point guard sensation decided to cross the waters.
A can’t-miss prospect, they said. A future NBA star.
Twelve months later, Rubio has made his long-awaited jump, only to land in the U.S. as the most puzzling player in this year’s NBA Draft. You’d have a better chance solving a Rubik’s Cube than cracking the complex Rubio case.
No longer is Rubio, 18, perched comfortably atop draft boards as the consensus No. 1 prospect. Blake Griffin tugged at that crown with each rim-rattling dunk and 20-rebound performance he registered during his sophomore season at Oklahoma. Rubio has been meeting with teams like the Sacramento Kings and the Oklahoma City Thunder, teams with the third and fourth picks of the draft. Thunder officials reportedly flew to Los Angeles to meet with Rubio on Saturday.
Still, Rubio enters Thursday’s draft widely regarded as the second best prospect behind Griffin and the only other player regarded as a franchise-changing talent.
So how is it that in a weak draft the mop-haired playmaker who has drawn comparisons to Pete Maravich could fall as low as fifth to Washington?
It’s a phenomenon best explained by a wacky finish to last month’s NBA Draft Lottery, an ugly and pricey buyout with his Spanish club team that only a lawsuit can settle now, stringent demands from his representatives and lingering questions about how good the kid really is.
“All of that is sort of the perfect storm to say we don’t know where Ricky Rubio’s going to go,” said Chad Ford, who covers the NBA Draft for ESPN.com.
Rubio is easily the most celebrated player in the draft since LeBron James in 2003. He’s the most publicized international since the late Drazen Petrovic entered the league in 1989, surpassing the buzz that followed No. 1 overall pick Yao Ming in 2002.
Rubio’s legend was officially launched when, at 14, he became the youngest player ever to join Spain’s ACB League, one of Europe’s premier leagues. His legend grew in the 2006 FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship when he posted 51 points, 24 rebounds and 12 assists in a double-overtime victory over Russia — a game in which he forced the first overtime with a buzzer-beating halfcourt shot.
By the time Rubio became the youngest player to ever play in an Olympic basketball final at age 17 against the U.S. last summer, he had already become a YouTube sensation. The teen only added to his rep when he played the final three quarters of the championship game after injuring tendons in his wrist in the first period. The NBA couldn’t wait for the skinny 6-foot-4 kid with the fancy dribble and flashy passes to declare.
“There’s no question that the biggest thing he will have to overcome is the expectations that have been created for him in the YouTube era,” said ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla.
But NBA general managers who own the top selections are no longer floored by their fascination and are now proceeding with caution. What they ultimately decide could greatly shape this year’s draft and several of next season’s rosters.
Griffin is the no-brainer selection for the Los Angeles Clippers at No. 1 even if they would like to unload Baron Davis’ contract and bring in an exciting young point guard like Rubio.
That leaves Memphis and Oklahoma City, owners of the second and third selections, to then decide whether to take Rubio despite drafting their respective point guards — Mike Conley Jr. and Russell Westbrook — with the fourth overall picks in 2007 and 2008.
Rubio’s agent, Dan Fegan, reportedly doesn’t want him to play for the Grizzlies and wouldn’t schedule a visit or workout with the Grizzlies. A stalemate could ensue if Memphis picks him anyway.
The Thunder likely would have to move Westbrook to shooting guard if it selected and kept Rubio, a decision that is more of a last-ditch option rather than a preferred one. The Grizzlies, or Thunder if Memphis passes, also have the option of selecting Rubio and brokering a trade to teams like Minnesota, Golden State or New York, who pick sixth, seventh and eighth and all have point guard quandaries.
Sacramento is in need of a point guard but lost all its leverage when the draft lottery’s ping-pong balls determined it would pick fourth despite finishing with the league’s worst record.
Fegan is directing Rubio to the Kings, and Rubio recently wrapped up a two-day visit to Sacramento, his only appearance with an NBA team thus far.
But the Kings could be searching for a different style of point guard than Rubio. Memphis guard Tyreke Evans and Florida guard Nick Calathes are both scheduled to work out today in Sacramento for the second time, this time in a session that will include Davidson’s Stephen Curry.
There are plenty of reasons to love Rubio, his passing, floor leadership and marketability. But for every admirable characteristic lies a chink in his armor — gambles defensively, turnover prone, streaky shooter, average athlete.
And then there are the legalities.
Rubio has a buyout with his Spanish team, DKV Joventut, estimated at $6.6 million. Rubio’s camp has filed a lawsuit against the club, claiming that the figure is disproportionate to the estimated $97,000 the player made last season. If an agreement is not reached, Rubio could be forced to return to Spain, and his buyout is believed to increase by another $1.4 million next season.
The issue could leave Rubio overseas another two years after a team drafts him.
“There could be all sorts of legacies for this,” Ford said. “If he turns out to be a fantastic player, some guys could lose their jobs over passing up a guy like Rubio. He has that sort of talent.
“On the flip side, if he decides to stay in Europe if he’s unhappy with his team or he can’t work out of his buyout, he could become the cautionary tale for GMs for a long time about drafting a kid without really understanding all the circumstances around who he is and what you have to take on.”