MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It can be easy to forget the electricity that crackled through Target Center every time Ricky Rubio walked to the scorer’s table to check in during his rookie season with Minnesota.
That was way back in 2011, a lifetime in the NBA. The flashy Spaniard was a game-changer that first season, breathing new life into a downtrodden franchise and had the lowly Timberwolves nearing a playoff berth when he went down with a major knee injury in early March.
Three years after his debut, essentially two years after his left knee was surgically repaired and three days before the deadline to extend his rookie contract, Rubio feels like he’s as close as he’s ever been to taking his game to another level.
“If you look at the stats, I’m not a big guy to put up a lot of numbers,” Rubio told The Associated Press on Tuesday before boarding a plane to Memphis for Wednesday’s season opener. “I think what I do is change the game. I can do it from defense. I can do it with a couple steals. I can do it by getting the ball to a player who is hot. … Winning games — that’s what I want to do.”
That’s what he did as a rookie. His long-scrutinized shooting has never been worse than it was that first season (35.7 percent), but he found numerous other ways to impact the game.
With his hair flopping and the ball zipping to open teammates, a team that had won just 32 games combined over the previous two seasons and had not made the playoffs for seven straight years was 21-19 and nearing the eighth seed when Minnesota hosted the Lakers on March 9.
“I was coming from a winning team and coming here, knowing they only won like 17 or 15 games the season before, it was kind of shocking. But I was trying to bring everything I learned during my years overseas in Europe and try to change the mentality,” he said.
That night, Rubio tore two knee ligaments in the closing moments of the close loss, and the Wolves’ season quickly swirled down the drain. Kevin Love was injured as well and the team would only win five more games.
Rubio returned to play in 57 games in the next season and all 82 last year, but he never felt as comfortable as he did as a rookie. He shot 36 percent in 2012-13 and 38 percent last season. Critics point to those numbers as reason for the Wolves to be cautious in signing him to a big-money extension even though Rubio has been among the league leaders in assists and steals since he returned from his injury.
If the two sides don’t reach agreement on a contract by Friday night, Rubio will become a restricted free agent next summer.
In six preseason games this year, Rubio averaged 11.3 points in 22.5 minutes and shot 43.5 percent from the field, but only 20 percent on 3s. He also averaged 4.8 free throw attempts while showing more aggressiveness.
“I feel like I stepped up in my leadership,” Rubio said. “I’ve done an extra step by being vocal. That helps my confidence, too. I’ve been more aggressive and the shots have been falling. Just keep doing what I’m doing.”
With Love gone to Cleveland, Rubio has felt more comfortable asserting himself on the court and in the locker room.
“He’s shown good leadership,” coach Flip Saunders said. “I like the fact that he’s a willing learner. I like the fact that he works hard. Like all young players, they all have things they have to work on. But he works at his deficiencies. He’s extremely competitive and he wants to win.”
If the Timberwolves are going to avoid taking a huge step back after trading Love, Rubio is going to have to lead the way. Youngsters Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Anthony Bennett aren’t ready for that responsibility and have yet to show they can make a difference in a regular-season game.
After deferring to Love for three seasons, Rubio is ready to make this team his own.
“A lot of people put us in the 15th seed in the Western Conference,” Rubio said. “If they believe that, I’m not agreeing with that and we’re going to show everybody.”
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