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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For two years, Ricky Rubio has been little more than a myth for the Minnesota Timberwolves and their success-starved fans.
They salivated over grainy YouTube clips of Rubio’s fancy passing in European games, nervously read reports that the young Spanish point guard did not want to play in Minnesota and fretted over his paltry statistics for Regal Barcelona last season.
And even when Rubio finally announced that he was coming to the Timberwolves two years after being chosen No. 5 overall, everyone in the Twin Cities had to wait even longer. The lockout delayed the start of the season by nearly two months.
The wait has only seemed to ramp up the anticipation. By Friday, the Wolves had sold 15,000 tickets for Rubio’s preseason debut on Saturday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, despite the fan-alienating labor dispute. It was the highest number of tickets for a Wolves preseason game since 2004-05, the year after they reached the Western Conference finals.
The Wolves sold less than 20,000 tickets for two home preseason games last year combined.
Now it’s time to finally start seeing what all the fuss is about.
The transition has been smooth so far, with Timberwolves coaches and players raving about Rubio’s vision, passing and ability to pick up coach Rick Adelman’s new offense.
“It’s been amazing,” Rubio said of his first few practices in training camp. “Playing basketball, I feel so good. Outside the court, I have a lot of people who help me and people in Minnesota have been so nice with me. I feel very good.”
Rubio has been playing professionally in Europe since he was 15, and that experience appears to have served him well as he makes the move to the best basketball league in the world.
“I heard all the talk,” Adelman said. “Until you see him on the floor you really don’t get a feel. He’s a smart young guy on the court, very coachable, wants to be a player. I think he’s going to be fine.”
When the Timberwolves chose Rubio in 2009, he was billed as a point guard prodigy with the kind of innate unselfishness that make others want to play with him and the flash and flair that makes fans want to pay to see him. There have been signs of both in a condensed training camp that Adelman has filled with scrimmaging in an effort to get his team into playing shape and better evaluate who plays the best together.
“He sees everything,” swingman Wes Johnson said of Rubio. “Stuff that we probably don’t see when we’re cutting, you’ve got to make sure to keep your eye on the ball or you’re going to get hit upside the head with it.”
He’s done it all with a youthful exuberance and wide-eyed naivete that has endeared him to the team, even while he has quickly asserted himself as a vocal leader on the court who hasn’t hesitated to direct traffic and tell his teammates where they should be.
“I’ve been pro since I’m 15 so I catch the things like I did before,” Rubio said. “In Europe we have a lot of systems too. It’s a little different from here, but to be able to run the system, the point guard has to know which play to run.”
Of course, doing it in scrimmages and practices against what was one of the worst defensive teams in the league last year is a lot different from doing it in actual games.
His first chance comes on Saturday night against the Bucks and Brandon Jennings, the point guard who skipped college in favor of playing in Europe before going pro in the NBA. Jennings played against Rubio overseas and created a stir before the 2009 draft when he said that Rubio was “all hype.”
Jennings was drafted 10th overall that year, five spots behind Rubio, and went on to win rookie of the year. Rubio declined to discuss Jennings’ comments this week, preferring to focus on the excitement of his first game in front of his new fans.
“He’s a natural point guard,” Adelman said. “He picks things up so easily, whatever he should be doing on every play. He’s got that IQ.”
Still, every rookie struggles in the NBA, especially those who come from overseas. The Timberwolves know there will be some tough days for him, and they’re ready for that.
“He’s going to make a few mistakes early on and you have to expect that but we think that he’s going to take this period to really grow and make leaps and bounds,” All-Star forward Kevin Love said. “He’s going to have a lot of forward progression and forward momentum and we’re happy to have him here.”
It all starts on Saturday night. The first glimpse for eager fans who want to see who Ricky Rubio is, and get an idea of the kind of player he could one day become.
“He’s going to have games where he’s probably going to turn it over just like anyone else just because he’s creative and he’s aggressive,” Adelman said. “As long as he learns from it, it’s all right.”
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