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'I am dying to win': a Q&A with the Timberwolves' Ricky Rubio

Q&A with the Timberwolves' Ricky Rubio
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Ricky Rubio: "I know my strengths and that is helping my team to win by knowing exactly every moment what to do."

For the past 4½ years, Ricky Rubio has been the valiant heart and tortured soul of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Coming over from Spain in the spring of 2011 after being taken fifth overall in the 2009 draft, Rubio was the floppy haired, dewy-eyed wunderkind who looked like he just stepped out of a boy band poster on your little sister’s wall. From the start,  he played with a panoramic court vision and an unselfish yet thrilling panache that galvanized this moribund franchise.

Three recurring themes dominate any synopsis of Rubio’s NBA career:

• He is an inaccurate shooter, having never converted more than 38.1 percent of his field goals or 34 percent of his three-pointers in any single season thus far.

• He is prone to injury, missing significant chunks of every season except 2013-14, when he played every game.

• The Wolves are a superior team when he is on the court compared to when he isn’t. Overall, raw analytics has the Wolves improving by 9.7 points per 100 possessions (4.6 more points scored, 5.1 fewer points allowed) during his career to date. The numbers that matter most — on the won-lost ledger — put the Wolves record at 93-120 when Rubio plays and 28-88 when he doesn’t.

Rubio hates to lose — which, as he says below, is a primary reason the Wolves lose less often when he plays. Even so, Minnesota’s aggregate record since Rubio joined the team is 121-308, which accounts for his tortured soul.

The valiant heart? Despite his myriad injuries, Rubio’s 6,756 minutes played are the most of any past or present Timberwolf since the start of his rookie season in 2011-12. Yes, that speaks to the roster churn and slew of injuries besetting the dysfunctional franchise. But it also indicates Rubio’s loyalty to the Wolves as the lone still-functioning bridge between the Kevin Love-Rick Adelman-David Kahn era and the current Andrew Wiggins-Sam Mitchell-Milt Newton configuration.

Rubio rarely grants long interviews, and my request for one resulted in a stipulation that it last just 10 minutes, discouraging probing follow-up questions. It turned out to be 16 minutes (and is reprinted in its entirety here), perhaps as a reward for me waiting nearly an hour after practice as Rubio received extensive treatment on his troublesome ankle, which has again been tweaked since our talk last Tuesday, causing him to miss the past two games.

Rubio chooses his words carefully, avoiding too many specifics on sensitive topics. Reading between the lines, you can tell his left ankle (and area from foot to hamstring) is a chronic concern — it is hard to hear him talk about “fresh legs” in the first quarter and, at age 25, say he took good health for granted “when I was young.”

But he waxes eloquent in his praise of Kevin Garnett and repeats his loyalty to the only NBA franchise he has ever known — one that is finally on the rise.

Minnpost: Why do you think it is that throughout your career the Wolves have played better with you on the floor?

Ricky Rubio: I think I bring something that is unique. The leadership [pauses] — I think it is part of playing the point. When a point guard is unselfish and thinking about the team, about winning first, it relates to the other players. So, I think that is my style of play. I come from a winning team in Europe and I know what it takes to win games and to win championships.

And I am dying to win. When I go to bed and we’ve won that day, no matter what I did on the court, I am happy. And if we lost, no matter what I did, I am sad. That feeling comes from me, on the inside, and I think when I am out there playing I am sharing that with my teammates.

MP: What are the fundamentals of that approach that translate? What do you consider to be the building blocks of winning?

RR: There are a lot of little things, little details that are hard to explain — you just have to be out there and feel it. But of course defense is a key to win games. Sometimes we are too focused on offense, but our offense is good when our defense is good, especially in the team that we have and the tools that we have. It is running on the open court and that only happens if you get stops. If you’ve got to take the ball every time out of bounds, it is harder to score.

I have a knowledge about basketball; I know I have a high [basketball] IQ. I know where my weaknesses are. I am not as athletic as other point guards in the league. I can’t dunk over people. Maybe I’m not a good shooter, or whatever they say. But I know my strengths and that is helping my team to win by knowing exactly every moment what to do.

MP: As you get closer to guys like Wiggins and Towns, how long is that learning process? In other words, how well do you know Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns at this stage? Is there a familiarity and communication?

RR: Yeah, it is getting better every day, but you don’t stop growing — it grows every day. Every practice you learn something about your teammates, something new. It is just a chemistry you are building.

Of course there are just some players that you don’t need a lot of time. I’m out there with KG, for example. I’ve got a feeling that we are on the same page. We haven’t played a lot of minutes, or whatever, but I feel like we are sharing something. It is the knowledge about doing everything it takes to win games.

MP: Can you be more specific? Is it anticipation?

RR: Some of it. Some of it is knowing the game of basketball. Some of it is knowing that sometimes you have got to sacrifice your body on the back screen or whatever, and Wigs or whoever is going to score. The focus is going to be on the guy who scores, but actually the person who set the screen sacrificed a lot just to win the game. The only way to teach that is doing it by example. Like you being the guy out there diving on the floor for the ball — that isn’t something you can teach by words.

Last year I was out for a long time and I was trying to tell them [his teammates] what to do, but if you are not out there doing what you are saying they are supposed to do, it doesn’t work.

MP: Would you say KG has had an enormous impact that way, just because he does have that example to show?

RR: No doubt. He changed the culture over here. It is something that I have been so excited to see. A guy who is 20 years in the league, 40 years old, comes two hours before practice and gets some shots up and does some extra work. Now everybody does the same. I used to do the same. I know your body got to rest sometimes, but it is something that, when you are home, you are thinking, “KG is on his way to the arena” and I am just having breakfast at home or whatever. And you feel bad. You feel like, “I should be there.” And that — little things, little details change the culture from a normal team to a winning team. Because the line from winning and losing is so thin, that people don’t realize what it takes to win. There are so many little details that something that small can change a big thing at the end.

MP: Did you and KG have an immediate rapport? Did you look at each other and say, “this guy knows how to play basketball”?

RR: It is not something that we talked. It is something that we feel. When I am out there, I feel like he trusts me. And as the time goes, he makes known the strength and weakness of the teammates. He knows what I like, what I like to do, my strengths and my weaknesses. So yeah, I think we have a good connection. I wish I could have played with him when he was younger because his energy is something that few people have and that special people have. I consider myself to have some of it. And when you connect with people who do feel the same passion — not just for the game but to win games — it is … [voice trails off]

MP: Your game has changed some as you have gotten older. You don’t gamble as much on either side of the ball. There isn’t as much mustard and relish on your passes, it is more fundamental, and on defense you don’t do as much jamming the ball handler or jumping the passing lanes. Is that purposeful or is it just the system you are playing in?

RR: It is something you realize that if you gamble so much you hurt the team. When I came here I was 20, 21 years old. Now I am 25 and I have started learning with more experience. I try to gamble some but of course not as much, for a lot of reasons. But most important it is wanting to help the team be more ready on defense.

MP: Flip Saunders used to tell me that he believed one problem with your shooting had to do with your unselfishness; that you never chose to take the shot until the last moment, when you realized you couldn’t make a shot for anyone else. This year I notice that most of your frequency and your accuracy on field goals come in the first quarter. Is that because the need to establish your own shot and not defer to others is fresher in your mind at the beginning and diminishes as the game goes on?

RR: Yeah, I mean the bad habits come in. But of course in the first quarter I am more focused and I have fresh legs. Usually players like to get easy in the game and I realized as a point guard for a young team as we were, coming off a bad start, and I wanted to lead by example, like I said, and so to be aggressive from the beginning trying to do my own thing and get some shots up in the beginning.

But it depends on the game. But I know my strength. Last night against Philly I don’t think I took a shot in the last quarter, but I feel like I helped the team in winning by knowing that Wiggins was hot and getting him the ball where he needed it and just running the show.

MP: Injuries have been very frustrating to you I’m sure. Can you ever be the same physically as you were before that first major knee injury your rookie season?

RR: Well, we’ll never know. I don’t like to go back in the past and thinking what should or could have happened if I didn’t get hurt — blah, blah, blah. I did get hurt, and things happen for a reason. I will learn. I have already gotten stronger in my mind and I think I am really in shape more. I am being healthy now, being able to be out there playing and enjoying the game. When you are young you take everything for granted, like to be 100 percent for every game, and it is not true. There are a few games you are healthy and some where you are 100 percent all season and then there are ones where you are not. But I don’t see it as an excuse. Of course I would like not being hurt on that play, blah, blah, blah. But it is something that happened and it happened for a reason and I am just here to try and do my best.

MP: We hear a lot about [Timberwolves vice president of sports performance] Arnie Kander. Has he been helpful?

RR: Yeah, of course. He has been in this business for a long time. He is known for being a great therapist and I put all my trust in him. He has been doing this for 25 years, so he knows a lot of stuff. So far it has been good.

MP: You have spent about an equal time in your career now between the NBA and the Euroleague. What is the difference between the two? You have Nemanja [Bjelica] coming over now. What did you have to learn about the NBA coming from Europe, and is it a similar learning curve for him?

RR: It is just a different type of game. Of course, when you only play one or two games a week you can get ready for that game. You watch video for like three, four hours before that game. You know exactly what plays they are going to run. You know you will only play like 20, 25 minutes max. And you will pressure full court. Every possession is different. Over here, you play four or five games a week, it is more athletic. It is a different type of game and you learn a lot of things.  

I think it is a little different for me than him [Bjelica]. For a lot of reasons — I am a point guard, he is a forward. But there are some things I see on him that happened to me. Over here, it doesn’t mean you have to have a different mentality, but when you lose a game, you can’t get too down because the next game you have another opportunity to come back and win. Over there, you lose a game, for two or three days you are in a bad mood. Over here, you can’t have that. You can’t have that feeling back on practice because the next day you have a game. So it is kind of like changing the mentality. I am not saying don’t get mad if you lose. But try to learn quicker for the next game.

MP: As you are going forward with the franchise, you had a lot of losing and you don’t take losing easily. Was there a period of time where you thought, “Maybe this isn’t a good fit that isn’t going to work out”? Now, of course, you are in a situation where you have a long-term contract and there are a couple of cornerstone talents on the roster, which are so important in the NBA. Can you describe that evolution?

RR: No, I never thought about leaving this franchise, for a lot of reasons. One of them is because they trusted me from the beginning. And I trust them. My first year I think we would have made the playoffs if I wouldn’t get hurt, but like I said, you can’t blame it on what happened — we didn’t make the playoffs. But I feel like I really didn’t have the opportunity to take this team to the playoffs. My first year we almost did it, my second year I was hurt. My third year we won 40 games, which is a pretty good amount, and then last year I got hurt again.

So I felt like I never really had the opportunity to take this team to another level. And I think this is the year where we have great pieces in place and we are trying to win as many games as we can, to, if not this year, next year to be in the playoffs.

MP: You’ve got three very distinctive veterans in the locker room now. In many respects you are a veteran also, as well as being the point guard. What are the three veterans like in terms of the locker room dynamics and how have you worked that into the way you approach and contribute to the team?

RR: It’s been great. For a lot of reasons. I am not that type of leadership leader where I like to be vocal — I like to lead more by example. I give that more to KG, who is more vocal. Andre is kind of a leader like me: He doesn’t talk much, leads by example. He tells you what to do in every single situation with the experience that he has. Tayshaun, kind of the same thing.

So we have the three veterans, one in each position where they can really teach the young guys, and myself too. I can learn a lot of things from them. It has been great sharing that type of role, as a veteran even. I have only been five years in the league but I have been playing basketball for a long time, knowing the game of basketball with a high IQ and [yet] sharing a lot of things with them and learning. I am learning every day.

MP: Are there players on this roster you feel you have a special connection with in terms of teaching?

RR: Well, of course, I like, I see a lot of good things in Zach [LaVine], where he just has to learn how to use all the tools to be a great player. But he is only 20 years old. And he has to learn how to use them. Same thing with Wiggins, trying to help him every time on the court. But I am trying to help all my teammates get in a better spot every time and give them a better opportunity to rise and shine.  

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Comments (14)

Good get

There's definitely a guardedness with so many players that probably speaks in some ways to the media landscape where everything gets dissected within an inch of its life. What's been created is so superficial that it drowns out the deeper analysis. He did speak to something that gets overlooked about his and KG's importance on the court: basketball IQ is so important and is usually a reason why some guys can stay in the league long after they're physically dominant.

It'd be remiss to not bring up the Jackie MacMullan piece on KG to see what your thoughts are, Britt. Local media members from other sports were using the term "bully" and implying that MacMullan was trying to write a puff piece that unintentionally revealed KG's "true nature" as a jerk. Beyond the silliness of calling a grown adult a bully in a situation where he's trying to help fellow millionaires as opposed to the way children and adolescents experience bullying, it was amazing that anyone would assume an article that included the words "cruel tutelage" in the title was taking it easy on him. KG is somewhat crazy in his habits and more bark than bite when it comes to how he deals with opponents, but I just can't get overly worked up about him going after guys like Patrick O'Bryant (who was already considered a bust when he got to Boston), Rick Rickert, and Wally Szczerbiak. This is different than what Kobe and Jordan have done to young players in that he's trying to help them while introducing them to the reality of how hard it is to survive in the NBA.

Glad you asked

I loved the MacMullan piece and thought it was the best thing I've ever read about KG--and there have been some wonderful pieces by Paul Flannery, Steve Aschburner and many others.
As for the "bullying" aspect--a bully thinks only of himself and his own stature, and is very insecure about that stature. Kevin Garnett has always done what he's done--jerk or not--for what he regarded as the long term good of the team. Folks can question his judgment, but not the source of his motivation.
It is great that you cite Kobe and MJ, who are perhaps the greatest successful exponents of "hero ball" in crunchtime. By contrast, KG was always ripped by critics for failing to be that hero. The difference here is in approach to the game--Kobe and MJ led by pulling the team along, KG led (and leads) by bringing the team along. It is a crucial distinction. KG is the overheated version of the Tim Duncan approach. Temperamentally, KG and TD are night and day. But they seek the same thing for their team and prioritize accordingly. That's why KG resisted leaving Minnesota even when everyone was slamming him for his loyalty.
As for "cruel tutelage," I prefer to remember the incredibly genuine smile on the face of Bill Curley, a nondescript forward for the Wolves who could never stay healthy enough to contribute. But there was one game where Curley spurred the team on to victory, and as he was emerging from treatment in the training room after the game, KG--in that exhorting voice fans know from his "it's the 4th quarter!" chant that get replayed frequently--started launching into how hard Curley had worked to come back from injury, ending it with "Bill Curley! Bill Curley ladies and gentleman! Bill Curley!" Curley was so happy I thought he was going to cry.
Don't know much about O"Bryant, but Szczerbiak spoke as if from a script every interview I ever witnessed and didn't play a lick of defense. Rickert, like Szczerbiak, was permanently cursed by an unhealthy and heavily edited over-appreciation of his own skill set.

On the MacMullan piece: she

On the MacMullan piece: she quoted Doc Rivers as saying that Garnett "destroyed him" (meaning O'Bryant) and that it was mean-spirited.

I was a 12-year old Timberwolves fan when they drafted KG, so it's pretty much impossible for him to be anything but a hero in my eyes, but it sometimes requires some separation of art and artist. There's a side to him that is off putting, even if I'd want him on my team (provided he didn't put me in the O'Bryant category of people to treat a certain way) any day of the week.

(Great interview with Rubio, especially enjoyed reading his insightful take on European ball versus the NBA.)

"Destroyed"

When Patrick O'Bryant came to the Celtics it was as a free agent. A top 10 lottery pick two years earlier, his career to that point included more games in the CBA than the NBA--in other words, a high-caliber bust.
After 26 games and 108 minutes with the Celtics, Boston was able to trade O'Bryant to the Toronto Raptors for a 2nd round pick in February of that season. Thus, O'Bryant went from"free agent" value to "2nd round pick" value during his brief time with the Celtics.
That's not destroyed, and either not mean-spirited or a botched attempt at it.
Meanwhile, consider the source: the man coaching this scene of destruction, with the power to intervene if necessary. If we're going to blame KG for increasing O'Bryant's value, I guess we have to blame Doc too.
Thanks for the Rubio interview praise. I wanted a lot more out of him, but am grateful that he gave me the time he did.

On basketball ability, maybe

On basketball ability, maybe "destroyed" was the wrong choice of words. You're right that PO didn't exactly seem headed for stardom before KG derailed it all. Still, the piece paints an ugly picture of how that went down. In his final seasons here after the conference finals run, KG had some teammates with questionable dedication and work ethic (putting it kindly). Did you ever notice these dynamics then? I'm thinking of Ricky Davis of course.

downhill spiral

The seasons after the Cassell trade and the Spree flight were grim indeed. It is perhaps worse to suddenly be mediocre going down rather than marginally improved from being abjectly bad. Like Houston this season, the Wolves were suddenly very dysfunctional and a team some had picked to win it all suddenly was adrift. KG was in a very uncomfortable place, caught between Flip and management and his teammates Sammy and Spree.

If anything, the next couple of seasons were worse. Two reliable sources have told me that KG had a lot to do with Casey being axed, despite a 20-20 record, and his pushing of the team to resign Trenton Hassell and Troy Hudson to high-priced deals compounded the problem.

Which is all to say that the plethora of problems included some with questionable dedication but couldn't be isolated that way in context. When you are in a downward spiral, everything bad blends into each other.

Very good read, Britt

I was hoping you could expand on your comments in the article and on twitter regarding how hard it is to get a good and long interview with Ricky due to time limits, discouragement of probing follow-up questions, etc. In this case, your queries were good and his answers intelligent and charming,

Is it his "handlers" who impose these conditions? Or is it RR doesn't want to spend time on "distractions" from his basketball prep? His English is good, he doesn't come across as someone aloof or suspicious. Just curious.

And regarding the Garnett discussion above, Rickert may not have been a positive presence on the team, but no one deserves to get sucker punched by the team's superstar (or by anyone else). Unless I've heard the story wrong.

expansion

I think Rubio is a very very smart individual. He knows his role on the team, he knows the proclivities of the media, he knows a couple of the areas where he is fragile (his injuries and his shooting) and he knows that the last thing the team needs right now is comment-related controversy.
I don't begrudge him the defensiveness. I admire the hell out of his game and I admire his desire to play through pain as well as his wisdom in listening to Arnie Kander and sitting out games. I would have loved to get into a more thorough discussion of the Xs and Os, especially as it relates to how he feels Towns and Wiggins can more specifically succeed and how specifically the defense has changed under Mitchell. But it was apparent Rubio isn't going to venture into specifics on any teammate for fear it could sound like criticism, and I never got around to asking about Mitchell and defense because of the way the conversation unfolded.
I also would have loved to get into a more thorough discussion of exactly how hindered he is on an ongoing basis by all the ailments in his left leg and ankle, but it was very clear he would have no patience with this--the "blah blah blah" he mentioned twice while discussing his injuries made it plain he is really tired of the subject and if I wanted to push the 10 minute limit I couldn't go any further there.
Yes his English is good but not totally in command. There are a few places where I cleaned up the grammar simply to ease communication (in every case knowing his intention--if it might have changed the meaning I left it alone).
In sum, it wasn't a bad interview and I appreciate your kind words about it. But as a fan of the inner workings of the game, I wanted to unlock a little bit more of that from someone who doesn't boast but doesn't shy away from declaring that he knows what everybody should be doing every minute he is on the court.
As for KG, I went back and looked at media accounts of the Rickert punch. If they are accurate, yes, that was classless of KG. I do remember Rickert however, and his account, years later, is the most damning one on the record. I will respect his latest version and hope he understands that he is making his greatest claim to fame as someone who was sucker punched by Kevin Garnett. Because he squandered a fair bit of talent overestimating his pace of development both in college and the pros.

Thanks for the explanation

I can understand your desire to get even deeper inside Ricky's basketball mind, but think you still got good answers from him. I can understand his not wanting to talk about injuries, etc., and admire his sagacity in putting what's best for the team ahead of being in the spotlight.

Note to all good Wolves: talk to Britt, not Adrian Wojnarowski.

Ricky is a nice piece to a

Ricky is a nice piece to a good team but does not have skill set to be a top 2 or 3 player on a championship type team. Once this current team gets better, and they will, all of Wiggin's elbow or wing iso's will have Ricky's defender double teaming him. Ricky reminds me a bit of Rondo. I remember during the championship runs in Boston Doc Rivers closed with Eddie House on the floor, instead of Rondo, for floor spacing. Ricky is fun to watch but can you win big with him?

Disagree

I think the biggest danger to Rubio going forward is health.
We agree that Ricky is somewhat reminiscent of Rondo, who took a bad rap from the Wolves announcers (Peterson and Lynch) about his defense, which I always thought was very strong. While Rondo has indeed fallen off in the past few years, he was nearly as vital as Garnett and Pierce, on a par with Ray Allen, during the Celtics run to a championship, and was Boston's best player on the floor in many occasions during the postseason. And while Doc did occasionally put in House late in games, if the game was close and not likely to involve timeouts in the transition from offense to defense, Doc preferred to suffer Rondo's shooting over Eddie's defense.
Bottom line, I believe Rubio is the third cornerstone on this team. I do not believe he is as crucial going forward as Towns or Wiggins, simply because he doesn't have a superstar ceiling. But he can be a glorious enabler of those superstars, should he stay healthy.

The closer for Boston was

The closer for Boston was Pierce and Doc had to have Rondo off the floor late to give Pierce the room he needed to operate. Pierce is like Wiggins, more of a dribble drive than catch and shoot guy. When he did not, Rondo was forced to put up a jumper late in the clock because his man never closed him out to give a driving lane. Rondo was a better Ricky and even he had to be taken out many games at the end. Like all non shooters at the end of tight games they are liabilities not assets. I agree that Rondo was great in many games and was a big part of that team. That doesn't diminish the fact that being a non shooter, in close games (many more close games in playoffs), is a liability whether your name is Ricky or Rondo.

Selective memory doesn't beat real numbers

Popcornmachine.net has tracked game substitutions for almost a decade. For the non-blowouts in the '08 Finals, Rondo was in for the final 5 minutes in 3 of the 5 games. In 2010, House was no longer on the team, and Rondo finished all of the non-blowout Finals games.

i was thinking more of the

i was thinking more of the year they won it in 08. Maybe the reason they lost in 10 was no shooting around their playmaker.