But Ricky Rubio set the bar high for himself with his precocious play. Along the way, he has won championships at every level. Rubio made his professional debut at 14 with DKV Joventut in the ACB league of Spain, mesmerizing spectators with his creativity and basketball acumen.
In 2009, the Minnesota Timberwolves selected him fifth over all in the N.B.A. draft. He elected to stay in Spain, moving across town to F.C. Barcelona, one of the most prominent basketball teams in Europe.
The team won a Euroleague title last season with Rubio playing a somewhat secondary role. For much of the decisive action of the Euroleague Final Four, he watched from the bench. Rubio was just a rookie at this level, and people said he still had a lot to learn.
Last summer, Rubio had a golden opportunity to showcase himself as the future of Spanish basketball, playing for the national team in the world championships in Turkey. With Toronto Raptors point guard Jose Calderon out with an injury and Pau Gasol electing to stay home after winning an N.B.A. title with the Los Angeles Lakers, this was Rubio’s ship to steer.
Instead, Rubio struggled. He shot 28 percent from the field, including 2 of 17 from 3-point range, and averaged 4 points in 25 minutes over nine games. Spain, the defending champion, lost in the quarterfinals. For the first time, cracks began to appear in the Rubio hype machine.
“I didn’t feel good last summer,” Rubio said last month in a postgame interview in Vilnius, Lithuania. “I was nervous. That was the first time I didn’t play well. It was an experience for me. It helped me to learn, to appreciate when things go well that you’re doing the good stuff; when things go wrong, you have to learn, to practice more, to improve more.”
Though 28 games in the 2010-11 season, Rubio has continued to struggle. He is shooting just 32 percent from the field, including 11 of 61 from beyond the arc, and his team has lost more games in the ACB and in the Euroleague than it did all of last season.
Why has Rubio’s development stalled?
Will he be able to turn his potential into production?
Always the youngest pro player on the court, Rubio found it natural to act as a selfless distributor and to defer to those with seniority. That is a defining characteristic of European basketball, particularly in Spain, where it is considered disrespectful for an individual to put himself above the team. Most Valuable Player awards are for the American leagues. All that matters are wins and losses.
That mind-set was a big part of Rubio’s upbringing and could be a major reason he is having a hard time taking the reins for Barcelona. The concept of team has been so ingrained that he appears hesitant to put his teammates on his back.
Among all the magical passes, the biggest complaint about Rubio’s game is that he is too unselfish for his own good.
“I try to help the team,” Rubio said. “It doesn’t matter if you have to score 50 points or zero. If I help the team, I don’t think of my stats.”
The best boon to his development might be to play in the N.B.A., where the best point guards are not only great passers but are also able to carry a team with their scoring. In the more-wide-open N.B.A. style, Rubio could flourish.
The Timberwolves continue to push him toward the N.B.A. as soon as possible, contending privately that they have a commitment from him for next season. But Rubio’s camp does not appear to be convinced.
“The bottom line is, why would he want to play in Minnesota?” a senior member of Rubio’s camp said this month. “He’ll continue to say all the diplomatic things, and Minnesota needs to keep his value up for trade purposes, but the family’s preference is to be on the East Coast, specifically New York, Miami or Boston. He wouldn’t be troubled if he has to stay another year.”
But the Timberwolves have leverage. They hold his exclusive draft rights, meaning they are the only N.B.A. team with whom he can negotiate. Their latest strategy in trying to persuade Rubio to sign may center on the possible N.B.A. lockout of players after the collective bargaining agreement expires June 30. The terms of the new agreement will probably be significantly less favorable for rookies.
According to Larry Coon, an expert on the collective bargaining agreement, Rubio has the option of signing his rookie contract until June 30. Under the terms of the current agreement, that deal would begin in 2011-12 and run through 2014-15, with the final two years as team options. His salary next season would reflect the rookie scale for players picked in the 2011 draft.
By doing so, Rubio would risk losing that salary if the 2011-12 season were to be wiped out by a lockout. He could not return to play in Europe to earn a living. Even if the labor dispute was resolved before the end of the season, he might not have the benefit of playing in the summer league or participating in training camp to help him acclimate.
He could also be passing up a significant amount of money if he did sign. Under the current agreement, an unsigned player who is three years removed from his draft class is no longer bound by the restrictions of the N.B.A. rookie scale, allowing him to negotiate a contract for as much money as the team that holds his rights has under the salary cap. The new labor agreement may not allow such maneuvering.
Rubio will have to make a decision once his season ends in June. Does he stay with Barcelona or reunite with his coach from Joventut, possibly with Real Madrid? Can he make the jump to the N.B.A., and will it be with the Timberwolves?
“I’m not focused on the N.B.A. right now,” Rubio said. “Right now, I don’t want to talk and I don’t want to think.”