Rubio continues to direct from the bench
NOV 21, 2012 4:00a ET
MINNEAPOLIS – In his yearlong NBA career, Ricky Rubio has been subject to his fair share of fantastical descriptions. It's in equal parts due to his general demeanor, the inspirational tweets he broadcasts across the Internet, the magic he works with the ball on the court and his sheer, unadulterated novelty.
He's a unicorn, a leprechaun, a sprite. It's so fun to come up with these ridiculous designations for the 22-year-old floppy-haired Spaniard, and by the end of last season, they almost seemed true. The injured Rubio was often absent from games, rarely seen around the Minnesota Timberwolves' locker room or practice facility in the days after his surgery. There were sightings, of course, of him lifting weights in a corner or ducking out after a loss, but they were little more than fleeting glimpses.
This season, that's been far from the case. Over the summer, on one of their several trips to Vail, Colo., to consult with Rubio's doctor, the point guard and Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn had a talk. Rubio wanted to be with the team this season in the weeks leading up to his comeback, he told Kahn. He wanted to be on the bench for every game, in the locker room, on the plane. He wanted to be as involved as he would have been if healthy, and so long before the point guard returned to the court for limited participation in practices, he was fully integrated with his team.
Glance down at the bench during a Timberwolves game. Rubio will be there, in his black sport coat, sometimes on a set behind the players, but so often right there next to them, on the edge of his seat. He'll stand up during timeouts, pull players aside, cheer, clap, cringe, even grab Nikola Pekovic's arm in the most distressing of circumstances. He's watching, taking it all in, not only for his own benefit but also for that of his teammates.
"When you are on the court, sometimes you don't realize how things are," Rubio said. "You just play, and sometimes you don't see the problems, or you don't see the good things. You just keep playing. When you are on the bench, you can actually see what's going on, and you can help the teammates seeing from another view."
Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said Sunday that Rubio has been something approaching another coach in the early days of the season. He's been talking to rookie guard Alexey Shved especially, Adelman said, talking him through games and practices, and perhaps that's part of the reason for Shved's early success.
Speak to Shved about Rubio, and his eyes get just a little wider. Rubio is nearly two years younger, but you'd never know it, what with the accent and the braces and the general rawness to all that is Alexey Shved. And to the Russian, he's Ricky Rubio, the European sensation, whom Shved has been hearing about for years from afar. While Shved was a talented European prospect, Rubio was the best, the brightest, the coveted NBA golden boy, and to be on a team with him now, learning from him and playing somewhat in his place must be a lot for Shved to process.
Shved said that Rubio is most helpful during games, when he can tell the younger player during timeouts or between quarters what to do in specific situations. He'll correct errors, point out what the rookie is doing well or how he needs to adjust. The two talk at practices, too, but it's bigger-picture stuff then, Shved said, and right now, those in-game pointers are what he needs most.
"He is a smart player and knows everything," Shved said. "He's young, but he played at a high level a long time, and he's very smart for his age. For sure he help me every time in a game. Sometimes maybe I don't do what I need, but he tell me about that, and I start thinking about oh, it's true. I need to do sometimes like this."
He knows everything. Talk to Shved about Rubio, and you'll hear that multiple times. It's likely a trick of the language barrier, but some toned-down version of Shved's admiration of the point guard's knowledge is duplicated throughout the team. Rubio has gone, in the span of a year, from unknown to overhyped to appropriately hyped to now one of the team's best basketball minds.
Adelman believes it. Kevin Love, too. This kid is smart, they all say. Really smart. And when you think about it, he'd have to be, to do what he did last year when he came into the NBA, to see the court as he does and react as he reacts. It's not all about innate, God-given skills with the Spaniard. It's about watching and learning, and what he's done from the sideline this season is already beginning to show.
Last weekend, Love and Rubio participated with the team in 5-on-0 drills. They're both still limited, a few weeks away from their comebacks, but they can now participate in such non-contact activities. The team was brushing up on its offense, trying to instill it in new signee Josh Howard, and when Rubio took the court after eight months away, he fit back in as if he hadn't missed a beat.
"Ricky's so smart," Adelman said. "I mean, he knew everything, every play we had, he knew where everybody should be. That's just who he is."
This cerebral, pseudo-coaching position is the silver lining of an injury that doomed the Timberwolves' season last March and sent Rubio from potential Rookie of the Year to sob story of the season. But talking to him, you'd never know it. You'd never know how much it pains him just to watch, how aggravating it is that he can't be out there with the game on the line. You'd never know it, solely because Rubio, like he tends to, has found a way to twist even this injury to as much of a positive as possible.
As with everything else Rubio does, he's taking his time with the team seriously right now, even if he can't take the court. He's secure now among his teammates, comfortable as something other than a rookie. He's earned the right to have his voice heard, and there's no doubt that in this situation, the more involved he is, the better – not only for teammates like Shved, but also for himself and the team's chances come December.
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