Ricky Rubio will make the Timberwolves better. It’s what he does, and who he is.
By JACE FREDERICK | firstname.lastname@example.org | Pioneer Press
PUBLISHED: December 4, 2020 at 10:37 a.m. | UPDATED: December 4, 2020 at 11:28 a.m.
Easier … at times?
Devin Booker just came off the best season of his young NBA career, earning his first appearance in the all-star game and pushing Phoenix to within one game — one shot, really — of the postseason after the Suns went 8-0 in the Orlando bubble to cap off their late regular-season surge.
That such a campaign came in the lone season Booker played with Ricky Rubio was no coincidence, something he made apparent this week, when a reporter asked Booker this week if playing alongside Rubio made life for the elite scorer easier “at times.”
“Easier at times?” Booker asked. “Easier at all times.”
Finally armed with the proper complementary pieces around him, Booker elevated his play from merely being a scintillating scorer to someone many now believe you can build a championship team around. Veterans seeking an opportunity to win are now flocking to Phoenix to team up with Booker and chase postseason success.
That has everything to do with the steps Phoenix took last season, which Booker said had everything to do with Ricky Rubio.
From his playmaking to his impact on the franchise’s culture, Rubio changed the trajectories of both Phoenix and Booker for the better.
“I’ll never forget what he’s done for my career,” Booker said.
Now, Rubio will try to do the same for the city where it all started. He’ll attempt to do what he previously could not: get the Timberwolves back to the playoffs.
And while he won’t be asked to be “the guy” to carry the franchise to glory in his second stint in Minnesota, he may be just the right teammate to help others do so.
Zach LaVine was 19 and green when he entered the league. At that point in their careers, LaVine said guys are looking for someone — anyone — to guide them down a path of NBA success. Luckily for LaVine, Minnesota had a few such mentors. The Wolves traded for Kevin Garnett during LaVine’s rookie season. They also had a semi-established point guard from Spain.
“Ricky was great for me. A pass-first point guard, he was somebody who’s so unselfish, he’s looking to make plays for others,” LaVine said this week. “Usually, you don’t get that as a rookie, a guy coming in who’s telling you where to go and be ready for a shot. I knew with him, if I just ran the floor and used my speed, the ball would find me. Ricky is always going to be my guy.”
The Timberwolves hope he is the same ‘guy’ for Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver … the list goes on and on.
Anthony Edwards is a big reason why Ricky Rubio is back in Minnesota. It was no accident Rubio was acquired within the same hour the Wolves selected Edwards with the No. 1 overall pick in last month’s NBA Draft.
“He’s played with other guys that are similar to Anthony early in their development, and that played a big part,” said Gersson Rosas, the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations. “As we locked in and we knew that Anthony was going to be the No. 1 pick, we tried to set up everything possible to make sure that he is going to be successful. We feel that Ricky can be a big impact to him, to our wings, to our offensive system and to our defensive system in terms of how we want to play.”
It was Rubio who helped LaVine — widely viewed as a project entering the NBA — become a top-flight scorer just a couple of years into his pro career. There is an argument to be made that Andrew Wiggins has a max contract because of the success he experienced playing alongside Rubio. Donovan Mitchell played with Rubio in Utah for the first two years of his career and is now one of the league’s top young guards, and Rubio helped Booker reach all-star status.
The day after the Wolves selected Edwards, Georgia coach Tom Crean was asked which part of Edwards’ game could be unlocked playing next to Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell.
So, of course, the first player Crean mentioned in his response was not Towns nor Russell — both all-stars — but Ricky Rubio.
“Ricky is the epitome of the old quote, ‘The ball finds energy,’ ” said Crean, who called the Wolves’ acquisition of Rubio one of the best draft-night moves made by any team.
Like LaVine said, when you run the floor, Rubio will get you the ball. When you cut hard to the hoop, Rubio will get you the ball. When you’re open on a roll after setting a strong screen, Rubio will get you the ball.
In Rubio’s first stint in Minnesota, when the Wolves possessed what some considered to be the most exciting young core in the NBA — with Towns, Wiggins and LaVine — now-Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders remembers Rubio’s thirst to get his young teammates involved.
“He wanted to help them on the court,” Saunders said. “He’d do that by thinking, ‘OK, what can I run to get KAT a shot right now? What’s my package to get so and so a shot right now?’ ”
It was deja vu for Saunders earlier this week, when he had a conversation with the 30-year-old point guard in his office, and one of Rubio’s first questions was, “What are my go-to actions to get a guy like Ant a shot?”
“He’s wired that way,” Saunders said. “That’s just who he is.”
The veteran point guard both rewards players for making the right plays and also informs you as to what those “right plays” are.
“We have a core and young group that will need guidance, and not for any other reason than that it takes time in this league to find your way,” Saunders said. “Having somebody of Ricky’s character, having somebody of Ricky’s basketball and NBA knowledge, he’ll be able to help these guys along.”
RUSSELL AND RUBIO
Booker has already told Russell — one of his best friends in the league — he’s going to “love” Ricky Rubio.
It’s Rubio’s fit with Russell — one of the cornerstones of Minnesota’s building process and another high-end playmaker — that served as one of the few concerns some had with the Timberwolves’ draft-night trade. Both are point guards. Both operate well with the ball in their hands. How is that going to work for a backcourt combo?
“I like it,” Russell said. “Any time you can add another ball-handler — a playmaker, at that — that can make things easier for everybody at the end of a game when teams are making defensive adjustments, it just gives us another piece, so I like it.”
Saunders already has said the two will share the floor. The Timberwolves firmly believe in featuring multiple ball-handlers on the court at the same time.
“We want guys who can put the ball on the floor, guys who can get in the paint, guys who are able to make plays for others, who can play more of a read-and-react type system when a set that’s called may break down,” Saunders said. “Because it’s not going to work every time. Ricky’s ability to do that helps us.”
From Russell to Edwards to Malik Beasley, there are a number of scoring guards Rubio will play alongside, though Russell is the only ball-dominant player of the bunch. Rubio doesn’t see that as an issue. He has played alongside other ball-handlers for most of his career, dating back to his days playing with Elmer Bennett as a teenager in Spain.
Playing off the ball is where Saunders has seen some of Rubio’s biggest on-court growth over the past three years. Rubio has an understanding of how to impact the game, even when he isn’t orchestrating every play.
“I feel like my game really fits with a scoring guard right next to me, just because I can try to find great play or great system to really fit in their game, too. I feel like I’m comfortable doing that,” Rubio said. “I feel like I can pick their brain out or where they like to get their spots and then try to get them easy buckets. Sometimes when you have a scoring guard right next to you and he’s having a tough night, you just have to give him a couple of easy buckets and he will get it going.”
That doesn’t just apply to guards like Russell, but also Towns.
“I mean, if I have to say something about me and what I bring, I played with KAT here, with Wiggs, with Donovan Mitchell, Book,” Rubio said. “I think I really fit with those kinds of players to bring the best out of them.”
Young scorers, Russell noted, “tend to make things harder” for themselves, particularly at the end of games as opponents make adjustments against you. They may deny the ball. If you get it, they may send a double team to force it out of your hands. In those moments, you need a teammate to provide relief. Russell thinks Rubio is that relief.
“It’s just going to make the game easier,” he said.
Russell has played with a number of point guards, but doesn’t think he’s ever played with someone of Rubio’s caliber with his skill set.
“Playing along someone who can score and still make plays, that’s not foreign for him,” Russell said. “But for me it is, because I’ve never had that dynamic.”
Booker called Rubio after the Spaniard was traded to Oklahoma City in the mid-November deal that brought Chris Paul to Phoenix. He had to say thanks. Thanks for coming to the Suns and, in one season, helping change the franchise’s culture.
“Showing what an NBA team (does) and having a leader around that’s going to come in here and work hard every day and try to compete,” Booker said.
Saunders said Rubio’s competitiveness brings out a different level in his teammates.
Rubio has said multiple times that he is returning to Minnesota as a changed man. He’s an even better defender now, Saunders noted. He’s now both a father and a winner. He has been to the playoffs multiple times. He knows what it takes to succeed at a high level.
“You definitely see a strength to him,” Saunders said. “It’s like anything, time changes you, and life changes you. He left here probably a young man, and he came back a man.”
When he went to Phoenix, Rubio made a concerted effort to build the team chemistry and center the efforts of a young team on fighting for one goal — to make the playoffs.
The mission will be the same in Minnesota. Rubio said it starts with paying attention to every detail. He toured the team’s practice facility this week, which was built when Rubio was with the Wolves, but now has a totally different vibe. Rubio walked around and noted the various boards and messages, and appreciated all of it.
“You realize how important the details are for the big success, then you start doing it,” he said. “I believe that there is a lot of talent here, that if put together in the right way, we can have a lot of success. But success, you have to really see it. And at the end of the day, you have to work at it every day to really reach that goal.”
Rubio sees a “a lot” of similarities between the teams in Phoenix and Minnesota, two young franchises with talented core players. Minnesota, too, is in the midst of a culture shift. But as much as Saunders and Rosas talk about establishing winning ways, in the NBA, change starts with players.
The Timberwolves’ young roster needs to be molded. Rubio can be an architect. In that way, he doesn’t think his job will change much between the two teams.
“Helping the young team grow and help the talent already here to really get the best out of them,” he said.
That’s what he has always done, regardless of where he’s been or who he’s with, because of who he is as a player and person. Jazz coach Quin Snyder noted that Rubio has a genuine joy for making plays for others, for finding a teammate coming off a screen and delivering the perfect pass that hits you in the hands at just the right time.
“He’s just a selfless player. There isn’t any one thing that you ask Ricky to do that he doesn’t embrace, and that makes him a great teammate,” Snyder said. “So when you start there, no matter who you’re playing with, you’re going to have a positive impact. … His game, his mind, his heart, it all lines up to making people around him better.”
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