You may have heard that the Timberwolves really love themselves some point guards. Like, a lot. Why, over the past three years alone we somehow managed to acquire twelve of them, field nine of them, and name seven of them starters at one point or another. (Those jokes don't see quite as funny anymore, huh?) And we're about to add two more.
So we're no strangers to new point guards, and the league has taken notice. And with the arrival of the Spanish
Enchantress Sensation** actual factual, you just knew the signing of JJ Barea was going set off another storm. Why pay him so much? Why pay him for so long? Why pay him at all? We already have our prize rookie and last year's starter, who turned in a very respectable season.
The answer, ironically, came when Ricky and JJ checked in together in the first preseason game. Three minutes in, I was struck with a rather interesting thought:
This looks an awful lot like the backcourt in Barcelona.
The Comfort Factor
Sadly, Juan Carlos Navarro will never play in the NBA again. He spent one season here (07-08), ending with All-Rookie Second Team honors and a feeling of deep betrayal over the mid-season trade of Pau Gasol. He subsequently signed a 5 year deal with Regal FC Barcelona, never looked back, and thus was there when Rubio arrived.
Since then, the two have been a rather dynamic backcourt. Ricky's specialty is setting up plays. Navarro's is most decidedly finishing them. At 6'0" even, he and Ricky were not unlike, say Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. Or Jason Kidd and Roddy Beaubois. Or...Jason Kidd and JJ Barea.
By putting Rubio on the floor with Barea....especially early in the season....the team will have a built in comfort level for Ricky. JJ is a lot like Navarro....small, fast, equally good with or without the ball, able to score in streaks, and a product of the international style of basketball. For a 20 year old kid being thrown into a new league in a foreign nation, a little familiarity can go a long way.
The Language Factor
I kid you not, the first I heard of the team trying to sign Barea was a friend's Facebook status:
"What's the point of signing Barea? To speak Spanish to Rubio???"
I laughed. Then I realized that was probably a lot closer to the truth than anyone had thought about.
In 2008, the Suns drafted a Slovenian point guard named Goran Dragic. They thought he was talented and the credentials backed that up: 2005 Slovenian Rookie of the Year, 2006 All Star, 2008 Slovenian national champion. Phoenix had high hopes he could prove to be an heir apparent to Steve Nash, or at least a worthy substitute.
Things didn't turn out that way his rookie year. Dragic struggled mightily with his point guard duties, shooting under 40% and averaging just 2 assists while committing 1.3 turnovers. His play sunk to a such a low that Suns fans started referring to him as "Goran Tragic". They cringed when he checked in. The team got lost.
Phoenix was ready to write him off when something interesting happened: Dragic became good. He started hitting his shots. He started making plays. The team stopped looking lost and started looking functional. Dragic finished his second year in the NBA with an epic scoring outburst against the Lakers in the playoffs, laced with an equally epic trash talking/elbowing/flopping contest with fellow Slovenian Sasha Vujacic.
But most noteworthy was the reason for his change. When asked, his teammates contradicted reports that he had put in countless hours in the gym over the summer or anything physical. Rather, the response was pretty simple: he learned to speak English.
If you're a point guard, one of the worst things that can happen is your teammates not understanding what you say. If you're a Slovenian (or, perhaps, Spanish...) point guard who doesn't speak English particularly well, then having teammates not understand you is probably going to happen a lot. As in, all the time.
If you want any one reason why the team was so hellbent on Barea...why they went to such great lengths to outbid the competition rather than just find another respectable guard....I'd say this is it. Barea can help Rubio bridge the Spanish/English gap.
The Shooting Factor
I've watched a lot of Celtics basketball since Kevin Garnett left. And I've enjoyed that, for the most part. The Celtics play a very complete, very team-oriented brand of basketball. But while the Big Three are the obvious draw here, the most enjoyable part of the last few years of Bostonball has been the ascendance of Rajon Rondo.
Having watched so many of his games, I'm a thorough believer in the idea that Ray Allen is the guy who makes Rondo work. KG might be the guy who taught him defense and intensity, and Paul Pierce might be the guy who taugh him leadership. But Ray Allen is the guy who helps him stuff the boxscores. Ray is the ultimate bailout. He's the guy who lets Rondo get away with all his crazy drives and spins and suicide dives, because with Allen, he always has an out. When in doubt, kick it out to Ray.
It's not like it's a particularly complicated formula. Take a point guard with exceptional court vision and surround him with shooters. We've seen it with Chris Paul. We've seen it with Steve Nash. We've seen it with Jason Kidd. We're hopefully seeing it now with Rubio.
Barea, Kevin Love, Anthony Tolliver. Hopefully Wes and Webster and Williams. Beasley, when his head is on straight. The Wolves have nothing if not guys who are or theoretically will be good shooters. Guys who can space the floor and give Rubio plenty of 'bailout' options. The results looked pretty promising against Milwaukee. Hopefully they will everywhere else too.
The Coaching Factor
Young NBA point guards are possibly the most puzzling group of any young NBA player corps. Any rookie is going to be under scrutiny and have his potential and whatnot talked to death. But because point guards have the ball in their hands so much from day 1, there's an added level of complications that most coaches lose sleep over. Is he going to listen and be coachable? Is he going to put in the time to learn the playbook? Is he going to earn the respect of his teammates?
Some point guards really don't make it. Some come in out of shape and fight with their coaches (Deron Williams). Some freelance too much, make kamikaze drives and cost their teams with their recklessness (Steve Francis). Some can't handle the role of being a distributor first, being a second option of having second billing (Stephon Marbury) Those kinds of players can sink whole franchises.
Fortunately the Wolves have a double barrier against such insanity.
One is that Rubio is really a rookie only in name. In reality, he's been playing professionally since he was 14. Not only that, he's been doing in in a European league where star power means next to nothing. As Brandon Jennings learned in his euroxperiement, those coaches are not afraid to bench you for not playing the right way. As a pass-first workaholic who's played for multiple coaches (and in fact, has had multiple coaches bench him before), I think we can safely rule out 'attitude' as a potential issue.
Which leaves just the one element that every point guard and coach deals with: decision making. Even Steve Nash and Jason Kidd have moments where they still go overboard and drive their coaches nuts.
Fortunately the Wolves have a barrier for that as well: Rick Adelman.
It's a little ironic to say that, as Adelman is a self-professed lover of veteran teams that more or less run themselves. But think about his history for a moment.
In 1999, the Timberwolves and Kings opened the regular season with a four game series in Japan. The two teams were considered the next big things in the NBA: our Pups had appeared to have sufficiently recovered from the Marbury debacle with Terrell Brandon, and had just drafted Wally Sizzlerbean. The Kings were rising fast on their two big acquisitions from the year before: Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic.
I remember a lot about that little series but one thing will always stand out in my mind: the Kings were led by this crazy white kid who would put the ball behind his back about 128 times*, sell hard no-look fakes at a full sprint (think Rajon Rondo), and threw no-look, over-the-shoulder alley-oops while spinning in midair like a top.
Turns out his name was Jason Williams. You remember him, right?
Any concerns that Adelman might crunch Ricky over occasional bouts of recklessness flew out the window when I remembered this. JWill was as reckless a
point guard player as the league has ever seen. I've watched him make layup attempts on 1-on-5 fastbreaks. I've watched him pass by bouncing the ball behind his back and hitting it with his elbow. I once saw him try to ally-oop to himself off his own head, soccer style. And he did all of this with Adelman as his head coach.
Will Rick get on Ricky for a bad decision? Probably. Will he be phased by it? Not a chance. Adelman once coached the infamous White Chocolate and lived to tell the tale. He's seen it all.
*It wasn't really 128 times. But damn, it sure seemed like it.
The Anticipation Factor
You got to love a point guard who can throw an alley-oop from his hip, flat footed at the three point line in a halfcourt set 14 seconds into the shot clock.
Rajon Rondo is a master at seeing plays happen. Not as they happen, or even a couple steps before they happen. More like, they're over in his mind before his hands even start them.
Rondo basically creates an entire play out of what looks like nothing, because where we see nothing, he sees something. He sees Shaq fronting Garnett in the post; that means a backdoor alley-oop is open. He sees the rest of his teammates outside the three point line; that means no help defense can undercut KG when he turns around. He also sees Rasheed Wallace is to close to him. If he throws it now, Sheed's defender Antawn Jamison will end up to close to KG when he steps out to sell the fake pick. That means he first needs to wave Rasheed further away to buy KG space for the sell.
All this goes through Rondo's mind so quickly that by the time he actually throws the lob, his mind has already seen the dunk and is running back on defense. Genuinely special point guards have that ability.
Rondo Rubio can instantly process where every player on the floor is, where the ball needs to go, and how to best get it there, so that when Rondo Rubio throws that alley-oop from beyond the three point line, he knows that Shaq Leuer will be out of position and Jamison Hobson won't have enough time to rotate over to stop KG Derrick Williams from getting an easy two points.
Wolves point guards have been big in quantity but rather lacking in anticipation lately. Ridnour is a by-the-book guy. He sees the plays as they happen. Same with Kevin Ollie. Sessions was a step ahead (when not drunken Sessions...) and Telfair was sometimes two. But of course, Flynn was usually a step behind, and Foye...well, Foye typically didn't see the play happen no matter how long you gave him.
It's going to be especially shocking for us to watch Rubio this year. Celtics fans, watching Rondo? They're used to it. Not us. Players see plays as they happen. Good ones are two steps ahead. Great ones are ten. Rondo is ten steps ahead of everything that happens on his basketball court. It looks like Ricky will be too.
The Creativity Factor
One of my favorite all time basketball plays is Jason Kidd's "bowling ball pass". 2002, when he was still with the Nets, Kidd knocked the ball away from Howard Eisley (there's a name that brings back memories...), then turned and rolled it the entire length of the floor to Lucious Harris.
That play is awesome for both it's simplicity and extravagance. It's simple because it was effective: the ball got straight down the floor and into the hoop. That's why they teach the bounce pass. Because no one ever thinks to try and pick off a pass at ankle level. Two points, hooray.
It's extravagant because....well, look at it.
There are some point guards that not only see the floor at a superior level, but use the floor in a superior way. Kidd is one of them. Steve Nash is another. Chris Paul. John Stockton. Magic Johnson. Pete Maravich. Those players aren't special just because they have great court vision. They also have the creativity to make the most of it. They invent opportunities out of nothing on a dime.
When Kidd was asked about that play, he just shrugged and said "it was the only way to get the ball to Lu". He didn't do it to show off or anything. He simply saw where the ball needed to go and invented a way to get it there.
We've seen that ability in Rubio as well, and that's what really sets him apart.
The 'It' Factor
Let's be selfishly honest: the Timberwolves are in dire need of good publicity. Hell, even the Clippers are getting national coverage now.
"It" drives some people nuts. "It" can't be defined, can't be quantified, can't be recorded or repeated or replicated. "It" just is. He gets "it". He sees "it". He has "it".
Ricky Rubio has "it". He got the NBA's attention early and hasn't let it go. People want to see him. Some out of excitement, a lot out of curiosity. Some hoping to see him on their team someday, or even hoping just to see him fail. If you want an explanation for the sudden resurgence in Laker/Rubio chatter, look no further than the color of Chris Paul's jersey.
What I will say about "it" is this: I'll bet you Ricky Rubio will sell more tickets this year, get us more nationally televised games, and more ESPN highlights than anyone else on the team. I'll bet you he gets his picture taken on more iPhones than the dance team, and gets seen in public more than Crunch. And I'll bet, if/when the team starts winning, other coaches will be saying Ricky's name first as the reason why, and other players will cite Ricky first as the teammate they'd most want to have.
That's "it". That's Rubio taking a team with potential and turning into a team with buzz. "It" is something the Wolves desperately need.
**And yes Ricky, I'd still trade you for Penelope Cruz. Nothing personal.