Somehow seven and half years have passed since the Minnesota Timberwolves first opened the door to a floppy-haired eighteen-year-old from El Masnou, Spain. On that first day, Ricky Rubio described himself as: not like anybody else.
This has proven true for Rubio, both for the better and for the worse. Over the years, those eager to throw shade upon the Spaniard have accumulated ample ammunition, mostly in the form of his poor shooting and finishing. But just as undeniable as his shortcomings are the strengths—elite court vision, tough defense, leadership, and a high basketball IQ.
These two narratives have created the central question about Rubio: Can a point guard be a bad shooter yet still be a good player?
Quantifying how good (or bad) Rubio is will always be an uphill battle. Comparing him to the “normal point guard” is an exercise in futility. Rubio is the apple to the orange of the league’s other premier ball handlers.
But didn’t he tell us this is how it would be? Maybe Rubio is actually like nobody else. Maybe he is just unique and that’s perfectly fine. In addition to his style of play, his path to the NBA is undeniably unique.
Compared to the all of the other prospects entering the 2009 NBA Draft, definitively, Rubio was not like anybody else. Those who are close to Ricky suggest that this different path has made all difference.
One of those people is Josep (Pep) Claros, the 2009 Head Coach of DKV Joventut basketball club. During Rubio’s three years playing for DKV Joventut, prior to his jump to the NBA, Claros had the opportunity to work with him first as an assistant and then as his head coach.
After connecting with Claros, we were able to uncover what exactly was happening in Spain during a time when the American media was not surrounding Rubio. Claros spoke about Rubio’s legendary childhood, the path of a European megastar, his past and current style of play, and the development of a “sixth-sense” on and off the court.
Dane Moore (SB Nation): I understand you live very close to where Ricky spends his summers. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Ricky and his father Esteve?
Pep Claros (former Head Coach of DKV Joventut): I have known Esteve and his family for a long time because (years ago) Esteve was one of the coaches for the basketball club where I was the Director of Basketball Operations. He was an excellent coach. Little Ricky used to show up when there was a game and he would shoot and run around when it was halftime or a timeout.
How is Ricky viewed in Spain today? Is he the most famous basketball player from Spain?
PC: Ricky is known as a top player. But in Spain, we follow the Spanish League and the Euroleague more than NBA (due to the time difference). So... (Ricky), Marc and Pau Gasol, Jose Calderón, Sergio Rodriguez, Serge Ibaka or Nikola Mirotic are not the only guys.
At this time, Sergio Llull and Luka Doncic, for example, have the same impact in the Spanish media. When the summer arrives, Ricky and the others that play with the National Team are followed closer.
Your first season coaching for DKV Joventut was in 2008, that season Ricky Rubio was 17 years old. Your team won the Eurocup championship. Rubio was voted the ACB League's best point guard. He was also named FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year. After that season, what type of player did you feel Ricky would be?
PC: Ricky’s first pro game was at the age of 14. So everything was a process. He dominated all the young categories in Spain and Europe just like megastars before him; Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, and Arvydas Sabonis.
You had to think at 15 years old when Ricky played in the European final and had 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists, and 7 steals that he would be great. He won that game with a 3-point shot from half court. Who else can do that?
Ricky was more mature than all players at his age, by far. He was kind and humble. With the team, we protected him from the atmosphere. He was not allowed to have interviews or contact with the media.
It was after that first season that Rubio declared for the draft at 18 years old. Did you feel he was ready to be drafted to the NBA at that time?
PC: I can say that in the two years before he got drafted that we had scouts, assistant coaches, head coaches, GMs, even presidents and owners at every game we played. They also saw him practicing plenty of times. So, it was clear for me that he was getting drafted.
You coached American University (Puerto Rico) men's basketball team in the late '90s. From your experience coaching NCAA college basketball and professional basketball in Spain, do you feel Rubio learned more playing professionally in Spain than he would have playing college basketball in the NCAA?
PC: At 17 years old, Ricky played very well in the Olympic final versus Jason Kidd, Kobe, Wade, LeBron, Carmelo, Chris Paul, Bosh, etc... So, at that time his level was already higher than the NCAA level... and he still was in high school.
In Europe, we practice to develop the fundamentals and the game’s perception is different. Obviously, we lack athleticism so we practice more than we play. But the players learn little details to take advantage of when they compete against better athletes.
In Europe, the leagues, in general, are coaches leagues. The NBA looks more like a players league. Our players understand and accept what the team needs from them and how they can help the team. Team comes first. Ego second.
College or pro leagues? I guess that if Ricky, Rudy Fernández, Henk Norel, Christian Eyllenga, Raül López—who all played from my former club—plus Marc and Pau Gasol, Navarro, Ibaka, Abrines, Claver did not play college it means our system is not bad. They all also grew up in an area quite similar to the size of Minnesota— population of seven million.
If you add the Hernangomez brothers, Calderón, Mirotic, Sergio Rodriguez you could make a great roster in the NBA. Actually, in the USA there are 325 million people and you have to fill 450 spots for the NBA. [Of the 450 NBA players] 115 are foreigners, so 1 out of 4 isn’t bad.
In my opinion, college basketball is not always the best option for the best young European players. In general, the best younger players (in Spain) practice and live as a pro from an early age.
The NCAA is the best option for the rest of our younger players to help them to have an education. The NCAA is excellent and has spectacular competition.
Did Rubio improve over his three years playing for you on DKV Joventut?
PC: When I signed as an assistant coach (2008), Ricky was already well known in Europe. Ricky, in those years, was in the same locker room as veterans. Some with NBA pasts. He was always a kid but he was listening to adult conversations where they talked about family, home mortgages, etc. Not typical things for a kid fourteen years old.
I believe from that, Ricky developed something like a sixth sense. He became extremely intuitive. He was always alert to the little details that would help him to survive first and excel later.
After having watched Rubio's play internationally and in the NBA, what are his biggest weaknesses as a basketball player?
PC: Ricky has won more championships and medals than the best international players and he’s still 26, very young. That means that he understands how to win. He knows what is good and what is not correct to reach the winner’s level. Anyone who has achieved a championship learns from those crucial games, from the last minute to the last possessions, and to what happens inside the locker room.
This makes you understand what kind of responsibility and pressure you will live in if you are successful. Ricky has lived plenty of that since he was very young—with his teams and almost every summer with the National Team. He can make the team play well, even if he doesn't play well individually. Ricky knows and accepts what the team needs.
I'm talking about reading tactical situations—recognizing who will be the second help defender, using this set or another, knowing who takes the next shot, etc.
If your question is more about his individual capacities, I would like to see his shooting percentages improve but I don't feel he must shoot better.
I remember when he broke his wrist at 17 years old. During his recovery period, I started to practice with him individually on his shot. Ricky was practicing hard on his shooting, and it was incredible. With specific drills to improve the details of his catching, his release, etc. I believe he could return to that level.
If I’m his coach, he is in the gym needing to make 100 shots per miss from the previous game.
But when it is time to play and attack the pick roll, for example, his priority is to create a problem for the defense. It doesn’t matter if they go under the screen or try different stuff, he always finds the best option for the team. Normally he assists. And in this way, he helps the team.
If his primary option was scoring first, like others, I assume he could score more. After all these years, I'm sure he could obtain a better percentage than he has now, but the coaches...logically...use him well. He delivers the best for the team.
From this, you see a player with a scoring mentality (Lowry) who became a scorer after missing but kept the confidence to keep shooting, no matter what. And you see another player who became a pure point guard (Rubio) trying to help the team in a different way.
Ricky is now 26 years old, will his jump shot ever improve?
PC: I guess I explained in some ways already, but I'm sure many coaches tried to help him, but every player shoots different. All the best shooters shoot different. What is good for a “shooter” maybe isn't good for Ricky. It depends on biomechanics, the way of teaching, etc.
If his shot does not improve, can Ricky still be the point guard on a great NBA team?
PC: He has been on the podium and getting trophies more than almost anybody in the league so, he just needs to find the right place. He can be one of the special pieces on a championship team. I always thought Minnesota was building in this direction but from a distance, it is difficult to tell.
Ricky in some way is like a chess player. Every time the opponent makes a move he can read the next 24 moves. This make him see the game differently. Personally, I am sure Ricky will be the point guard for a great team.
You mentioned Rubio's ability to attack the defenses weakness as the point guard. If you were coaching Rubio in the NBA, how would you use him?
PC: I see basketball from a European point of view and maybe the way I would use him would not always work out in the NBA. He has good coaches who will find what is the best for the team and for him. Ricky will find what is the best for the team.
When I see the Ricky clips you put in your article I can see some issues. There are no good screens.
The big guys often arrive late in transition and are not in good rebounding areas on misses.
All of that brings you a scenario of ‘all or nothing’ when Ricky shoots. And in the end, it becomes a bad team shot selection. Also, if Ricky makes the basket nobody sees that... of course... only misses.
Rubio has played much of his career with young and/or inexperienced players with the Timberwolves. If Rubio played with older and more experienced players, how would this change the way Rubio's is used as a point guard?
PC: I think all changes change a team. Obviously, a veteran who has won before and still wants to win more could help. But I suppose it is not easy to find on NBA rosters. You need to find a mix of experienced players with a team mentality who want to help the other teammates.
Rubio led the Spanish league in steals in 2009 and won the Defensive Player of the Year that season. What makes Rubio a unique defender?
PC: First: Perception
Ricky uses intuition and anticipation instead of reaction like most of the best defenders.
Second: His position on help defense is unique.
Ricky defends his player and all the area around or close to him. His position off the ball is on the line and sometimes ‘up the line.’
Third: He takes risks.
His risking with his position creates doubts for the passer. Ricky reads what could happen.
When he's off the ball, you see how his position is different than other defenders. He usually breaks the triangle of "ball-me-man" and he will draw almost a straight line.
Fourth: His long arms help him.
Most of the opposing point guards are used to being defended by guards with 6-3, 6-4 arms. Ricky’s arms are longer, similar to a 6-8, 6-9 guy. So he has a lot of steals but also deflections.
All of that creates doubts to the passers and drivers. Ricky is always thinking what to do on offense but these four concepts are always there on defense.
Do you have a favorite Ricky Rubio story (on or off the basketball court) from your time coaching him in Badalona?
PC: The year before I signed, the coaches told me a good one. They wanted to film his warm-ups because he wasn't doing them properly. They put a small camera behind a seat in our gym. As soon as he entered the court he acted differently. When the coaches were watching the film they realized that Ricky was looking around, feeling something. He had that sixth sense. When the coaches continued watching the film, they saw how Ricky was looking directly at the camera for a long time. He ‘caught’ them.
What about off the basketball court?
PC: When Ricky enters a restaurant, in a second, he sees who is sitting everywhere, what the waitress brings to the table, what they are eating at the other table, what game is on TV, and what the couple at the other table are wearing. He takes a picture of it. Every time. Ricky sees it all.
From your perspective, what is Ricky Rubio's personality like?
PC: He's a simple guy, intelligent. and a good person. But talent and character belong to the individual. In those ways, Ricky is unique.