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.