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Loveable Moptop From Barcelona is making a good first impression in Minnesota

By Jim Souhan, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS — If ever a Timberwolves’ draft pick was destined to disappoint, it was Ricky Rubio, the mystery wrapped in an enigma topped by a bird’s nest.

While fans obsess over his reputed passing skills or Barcelona Invasion haircut, empirical evidence described a young, skinny, European backup point guard with an erratic shot who spent two years avoiding Minnesota winters.

I would have argued that if you wanted to get excited about the new Wolves, you’d be better served focusing on Rick Adelman’s savvy, Derrick Williams’ potential, Kevin Love’s dedication or J.J. Barea’s arrival than the debut of LMFB.

Then I watched The Loveable Moptop From Barcelona running his squad during scrimmages on Monday and Tuesday, and saw an NBA point guard. Whatever his flaws, Rubio is making a good first impression.

He’ll need to add muscle and a reliable jumper. He’ll probably never be a star. But it didn’t take Rubio long to persuade seemingly everyone who’s seen him during Wolves’ training camp that he should be able to help this team.

“No doubt at all,” Love said. “He’s kept up with the speed, he’s been a great defender thus far, he’s kept his hands in the passing lanes, been able to shoot it — still needs to work on that a little bit. But the way he distributes, in this offense, he can have a lot of success.”

For a team that chose Jonny Flynn and Rubio, passed on Steph Curry and traded away Ty Lawson during the 2009 draft, Rubio’s projected competence could be a major development. Adelman running an offense led by Rubio and Barea is an upgrade over Kurt Rambis and Flynn in the same way that the iPad 2 is an upgrade over the Etch A Sketch.

I asked Adelman whether Williams or Rubio would have a tougher time adjusting to the NBA. “I think maybe Derrick,” he said. “Ricky’s been a point guard, and played forever as a pro. He’s a natural point guard. He’s picked things up so easily. He probably knows what everybody should be doing on every play. He’s got that IQ.

“I think Williams probably has more problems because it’s a totally different game for him.”
In camp, Rubio has looked more like the kid who helped Spain push the USA in the gold medal game at the Beijing Olympics than the postadolescent who seemed to regress afterward.

“I heard all the talk, but until you see him on the floor, you don’t get a feel,” Adelman said. “He’s a smart young guy on the court, very coachable, wants to be a player. I think he’s going to be fine.

“People talked about his shooting. He’s worked on his shooting, obviously. He just has to learn how to take open shots. He’s not used to it. He always thinks pass first. Those are areas he’s got to strengthen. But when young guys come into this league, they’ve got to have something they can rely on, and he has that. His passing ability, his ability to get in and find people is a unique strength.”

In scrimmages, Rubio finds himself surrounded by players who fulfill David Kahn’s “long-and-athletic” requirement: Love, Williams, Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph and Wes Johnson.

“He really opens up the court for us,” Williams said. “He has a high basketball IQ and that really helps when you have a lot of guys who want to score and cut to the basket.

“He can read a lot of different defensive strategies. Just having a guard like that, who’s going to hit you whenever you’re open — I mean, right now, not after you’ve been open — that’s so important.”

Rubio’s emotional maturity surpasses his physically maturity. “I’ve been in pro ball since I’m 15, so I pick up things like I did before,” he said. “The point guard has to know which play to run and to choose the right thing for the team.”

All he’ll have to do to be an improvement on Flynn is to run an offense and distribute the ball. Now if only he were running the break with Curry…

©2011 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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