In a Young Spaniard, N.B.A. Sees Next Maravich
By PETE THAMEL
Published: August 15, 2008
BEIJING — With his floppy hair, incandescent smile and palpable swagger, the Spanish guard Ricky Rubio has created the biggest basketball buzz at these Olympics. Rubio, 17, is seen as the top point guard prospect in the 2009 N.B.A. draft, and he has received significant playing time on a Spanish team stocked with N.B.A.-tested guards.
But what separates Rubio from the dozens of European players who have invaded N.B.A. rosters the last two decades is that he has become a global icon by his senior year of high school. He is brash enough to wear a game jersey that is simply labeled “Ricky” on the back and flashy enough to be a YouTube sensation. At least six of the nearly 500 Rubio clips that come up on the site have been hit on more than 100,000 times, and comparisons to Pete Maravich have arisen because of his looks and ability.
“He’s big time,” said Steve Wojciechowski, one of Team USA’s scouts and an assistant coach at Duke University. “He’s going to be drafted very, very high as soon as he’s able to be drafted. If he were in the States, he’d be someone that people would be drooling over.”
When Spain, the defending world champion, plays the United States on Saturday in a matchup of the two most talented men’s basketball teams here, the eyes of the world will be on Rubio. It is not something new to Rubio, who first played in Spain’s top professional league at 14 and has been on the N.B.A.’s radar ever since.
Rubio comes off the bench for the Spanish team but was on the floor swiping steals and leading fast breaks when the Spaniards erased a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit to beat China in overtime earlier this week.
Rubio is not a household name yet, but the buzz around him is already bigger than any other potential European import. His emergence is another indication of how the world’s basketball axis is gradually shifting from America.
Among those who have viewed Rubio’s YouTube résumé is his biggest competition for the top point guard prospect in next year’s draft, Brandon Jennings. In what was perceived as another blow to the American youth basketball system, Jennings became the first star player to choose to play professionally in Europe directly out of high school. He signed a deal with Virtus Roma in Italy and said that he had already circled the dates of the two games against Rubio’s Spanish club, Joventut.
“I’ve seen him on YouTube,” Jennings said in a telephone interview. “I’m looking forward to playing against him. I know I’ll be going against one of the best point guards overseas, and he’ll be going against one of the best point guards in the United States.”
Rubio speaks a bit of English but perhaps communicates better through his arched eyebrows and giant smile. He deflected most questions about the N.B.A., and there was still a question of whether he would come over for the 2009 or 2010 draft because of his contract with Joventut and concerns of his family.
While Rubio says all the right things about wanting to play in Spain’s A.C.B. League next season, he also grew up idolizing Jason Kidd and Chris Paul.
“It’s one dream to go to the N.B.A.,” he said. “It’s true. I have to say the truth. It’s a dream for everybody to play in the best league in the world.”
Dan Fegan, Rubio’s Los Angeles-based agent, declined to comment on the Joventut contract issue or the timeline for Rubio to enter the N.B.A. But Fegan said he would be ready when the time comes.
“In terms of his development as a player, he’s shown on and off the floor maturity beyond his years, which is an important factor that N.B.A. teams look at when drafting a young player,” Fegan said.
In the N.B.A., his sizzle and flair would sell tickets and his smile would make any marketer’s knees wobbly. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he admired Rubio’s “verve.” Wojciechowski called it “a moxie beyond his years.”
Rubio plays with the nonchalance and flare of a playground legend — he can dribble on a string and can dissect defenses with improbable passes. His shot is still shaky, but he is well on his way to being a well-rounded point guard.
“He doesn’t play like a European,” said Jim Boeheim, the head coach at Syracuse University and an assistant with Team U.S.A. “He plays like an American.”
N.B.A. scouts and executives are not permitted to talk publicly about Rubio because he is not yet eligible for the draft. But an informal polling of three N.B.A. front office people yielded a consensus that he would be a top-five pick whenever he decided to come to America. What has impressed N.B.A. scouts is Rubio’s defensive ability. He has long arms, quick feet and the strength to defend N.B.A. guards immediately, something that few American college players are ready to do.
“He’s got the quickest hands that I’ve ever seen,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “And the fact that he plays on the Spanish national team as a senior in high school shows the confidence that he brings to the table.”
Rubio is by far the youngest player on the Spanish national team, which is stocked with players like Pau Gasol, José Calderón, Rudy Fernández and Juan Carlos Navarro.
Coach Aíto García Reneses called Rubio “wonderful” and said his only hope was that Rubio kept improving.
Gasol, who was the No. 3 pick in the 2001 N.B.A. draft and starts at center for the Los Angeles Lakers, said Rubio’s game was well suited for the N.B.A.
“I was nothing compared to him when I was 17,” said Gasol, who was drafted when he was 20. “His maturity and confidence level is extremely high for his age and for what’s he doing.”
Saturday’s game will offer Rubio the biggest stage and stiffest competition of his career, especially with the pressure defense the United States guards showed against Greece.
It is his grandest opportunity to build his Internet fame, as a worldwide sensation grows one click at a time.
Howard Beck contributed reporting from New York.