MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — In the back alleys of Target Center, Ricky Rubio walks down a colorless hallway and steps into a side room. As he lowers himself into a black folding chair, he lets out a sigh and starts to untie his shoelaces.
Nothing is coming easily these days for the Spanish wunderkind that once lit the NBA on fire with his behind-the-back passes and reinvigorated a downtrodden franchise with a shot of sunshine right to its heart. In his third season, which was supposed to be the breakout year for him and his young team, Rubio has lost the sizzle that made his game so unique.
His Minnesota Timberwolves are off to a disappointing 18-20 start, and Rubio places much of the blame on his shoulders. He’s shooting 34.6 percent and averaging 8.6 points per game, the two lowest numbers of his NBA career. But even worse, the energy, the optimism, the unbridled joy that he brought to the team has gone missing as well.
“I’m going to be honest. I’m not feeling comfortable out there,” Rubio told The Associated Press after a light practice on Thursday. “I’m not being myself and the team is noticing. I just have to be back where I was, be myself. I’m working on that. It’s something that’s missing. It’s tough for me, too.”
Rubio’s shooting numbers have never been great, but harping on that always seemed to be nitpicking for a player who sprinkled magic point guard dust all over the court — slipping passes through a defender’s legs for an open 3-point shot, picking a player’s pocket to start a fast break and seeing windows open before the defenders knew what hit them.
Even when he wasn’t starting his rookie season, the arena would crackle when he stepped to the scorer’s table to check in and his teammates’ eyes would widen in anticipation of a passes that came from impossible angles. It was still there last season when he returned from a torn ACL in December, even though his body took some time to ramp back up to the NBA’s pace of play.
“It’s basketball. I love it,” Rubio said. “But I’m just not having as much fun as it used to be. I know it has to be professional. But I just want to have fun. It’s hard to find it right now.”
Having fun may sound trite in the big business world of the NBA, but there is no denying that the Timberwolves derived a certain confidence from the flair, the flash and the precision that come when he’s humming. And the Timberwolves’ once promising foundation is starting to crack beneath his feet.
The Wolves are 0-11 in games decided by four points or fewer, with the offense getting stagnant down the stretch and opposing defenses daring Rubio to shoot while doubling Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. The struggles on the court have leaked into the locker room, fracturing the team.
Rubio watched the entire fourth quarter of an ugly home loss to the Kings on Wednesday night from the bench after turning the ball over five times in the first three quarters.
“He gets really down on himself too much,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. “I think he’s just got to play and make the real easy play. It doesn’t have to be a great play. When something doesn’t happen for him, he tries so hard that he just kind of compounds it.
“So I think he’s going to be fine. He’s going to come out of it. He didn’t play well last night, but he’s not the Lone Ranger in that regard.”
More than anything, these Timberwolves need a leader. And in so many ways, Rubio fits that bill. His unselfish play makes teammates happy and his natural charisma can act as a unifying force. But Rubio is reluctant to be too assertive while he is struggling on the court.
“I would like to be a leader, but leading by example,” he said. “That’s the way I am. That’s the way I’ve been playing my whole career. But when I don’t feel comfortable, it’s hard to be that leader. It’s something that I just have to get back on track and lead by example out there, busting my ass and bringing energy every night.”
For now, he works. Jumper after jumper in long post-practice sessions, working on his form to get some arc on his flat jump shot. The extra work helps him turn the page from the problems of the night before.
“After a bad game, I go home and can’t sleep, can’t sleep,” he said. “You’re waiting until it’s today and you come to practice and you just want to make shots to forget that feeling. You have that feeling that you’re not good enough and stuff. Come here, work hard and tomorrow is going to be the next day.”
For all the hand-wringing over his performance, it’s easy to forget that he is still just 23 years old and has only played in 136 NBA games, a little over a season and a half. There is time for him to improve, time for him to round out his game, time for him to confront the struggles the same way Jason Kidd, Tony Parker and Steve Nash did before becoming All-Stars.
With the Wolves sitting in 11th place in the West and staring up at a power-packed field of teams ahead of them and a playoff drought that is going on 10 years, it just feels like time is running out on this season. If they’re going to make a move, it has to start soon, and Rubio knows everyone is looking to him to make it happen.
“I do like it. I like the pressure. But when things are not going well, it’s hard to carry the team, carry yourself,” Rubio said. “It’s something that I’ve been missing and I just have to get back and it’s something that maybe I push too hard on myself and I blame too much myself when the team is not playing well. That it’s my fault. I just have to find a way.”
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