Is Ricky Rubio the most puzzling piece to the NBA Draft?

Darnell Mayberry Published: June 21, 2009
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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.

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.


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