MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The flashy passes between the legs of defenders and behind his back to open teammates on the wing have been dazzling.
The stutter-step drives to the basket have been electrifying and the jump shots swishing through from distance have been downright unexpected.
Ricky Rubio has brought energy, excitement and a little bit of magic to the Minnesota Timberwolves in his rookie season, but his true impact on one of the league’s struggling franchises can be measured in a subtle moment from a game against Memphis, his sixth in the NBA, last week.
Timberwolves center Anthony Randolph grabbed a loose ball and dribbled right past Rubio to start a fast break that ended in a missed jumper from Wayne Ellington. As Randolph headed back up the court, the boyish 21-year-old point guard was waiting on the other side.
A puppy dog-like face that is drawing a new kind of swooning fan to Target Center these days quickly grew sharp.
“AR! AR!” Rubio hollered.
He pounded on his chest, glaring at his big center in a clear statement to get him the ball. There have been at least three other similar circumstances since then. All three times, Randolph has quickly dumped the ball off to his point guard.
The wins have been slow to come for the Timberwolves (3-7) so far, but they don’t feel like the same team that lost 132 games over the previous two seasons. Maybe that’s because so early in the season, and so early in his career, Rubio has taken control.
“The game’s starting to slow down for him now,” Wolves All-Star Kevin Love said after a 111-100 loss to Chicago on Tuesday night. “He’s making a lot of adjustments to his game and making shots. We can all kind of follow in his footsteps.”
While coach Rick Adelman is trying to ease Rubio into the NBA life two years after the Spanish prodigy was the fifth overall pick in the draft, he is also showing an incredible amount of faith in him.
Rubio has yet to start a game for the Wolves, but he’s averaging 10.2 points and 7.9 assists and has played 116 of 120 minutes in the fourth quarter this season. He is shooting 51.5 percent (17 for 33) with 21 assists in the final quarter.
“It’s hard, but you always have to think you’re going to score or do something good for the team and you’ll win,” Rubio said. “You always have to think the right way. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it does not. But you have to try. If you don’t try, you’re never going to know.”
Along the way, he’s made believers out of some of the league’s biggest stars and, most importantly, of the teammates he is starting to lead.
Whether it’s LeBron James on Twitter — “Rubio can pass that rock!” — or coaches trying to game-plan against him, the league has quickly taken notice.
“There’s no secret that he can make plays and he sees things before they happen,” Heat star Dwyane Wade said. “Kind of Steve Nash-ish in a sense. He’s going to be a pretty good player if he continues to grow.”
Rubio is still turning the ball over too often and has seemed to have some of the biggest difficulty with games on consecutive nights. It’s all part of making the transition from Europe to the NBA, a process many expected to be much more difficult on a player who has played professionally in Spain since he was 14.
Rubio averaged just 5.9 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists in his final two years in Spain, and some observers worried about his ability to make shots and defend bigger point guards.
He has thrived on the freedom that comes with playing in the more wide-open NBA, where guards are allowed much more movement on the perimeter. His defense on some of the premiere point guards in the league — Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Derrick Rose — has been more than adequate.
“It’s one thing I really admire about him, he’s got a lot of pressure on him,” Adelman said. “The expectations are so high for him. It’s there all the time. He doesn’t seem to buy into that at all. He’s just trying to play his game.”
And the transition to a new culture? No problem there, either. Rubio spent much of the lockout in Los Angeles and has quickly been embraced as the newest rock star athlete in the Twin Cities.
“Ricky knows how to play the game and Ricky wants to win,” said Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, one of Rubio’s close friends from Spain. “He’s going to play the right way, make the right pass.
“Maybe sometimes he’s unselfish to a fault,” Gasol said. “Maybe sometimes he’s too unselfish. But it’s always to the benefit of the team. That’s all he cares about.”
The flair that Rubio plays with certainly is his own, from the lob passes to Derrick Williams and Randolph to taking charges and drawing fouls. In the fourth quarter against Dallas, Rubio even flicked a bounce pass through Dirk Nowitzki’s legs to an open Anthony Tolliver in the corner for a 3-pointer that broke the game open.
Tolliver wasn’t even surprised. He knew the ball was going to get there.
“It’s indefensible,” Tolliver said. “Dirk cut off the baseline and did what he was supposed to do and Rubio made a great pass. I expected it to go through his legs and into my hands and that’s what happened.”
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