HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Yes, his jumper needs work and that’s why the Minnesota Timberwolves hired noted shot doc Mike Penberthy to help Ricky Rubio. Shots can be fixed, but when it comes to enhancing a player’s leadership, outside of hiring a team psychologist — which the Dallas Mavericks do, the Wolves do not and more teams should — there’s really not a coach, a sage or swami to bring in for a quick “fix.”
Leadership mostly has to evolve naturally to develop the maturity, self-assuredness and self-confidence that emboldens one to direct others. In Minnesota, that job is on Rubio. The Wolves, sans Kevin Love, are his team.
Nineteen-year-old No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins might one day become the face of the franchise, but in this transition season, it is up to the young Spaniard, still a couple weeks shy of his 24th birthday, to manage the emotions of an intriguingly athletic squad of relative pups who are likely to go through this season riding alternating waves of fun and frustration.
“It’s a different team, of course, but we have to move on,” Rubio told NBA.com in a phone interview Thursday. “We have to step up, especially me as a leader, be more vocal. Our young guys, they need someone to guide them. I think we have a lot of vets here that can do that. Mo [Williams] is a great example. Me and Kevin Martin can do the same thing.
“What I’ve been doing, since I am young, is leading by example, practicing hard and doing everything on the court. I have to learn how to be more vocal. I’m not good at that and I have to improve.”
One key for Rubio is to block outside noise. At the team’s media day earlier this week he didn’t want to discuss ongoing contract negotiations because he thinks it affects him on the floor. Last year he grew weary of the media’s inquiries into an increasingly restless Love.
“Of course we had a lot going on last year and the media was talking, they were wondering if Kevin wanted to be here, blah, blah, blah, and that hurt the team and hurt himself,” Rubio said. “Now that he’s not here, the media’s not going to talk about that anymore. I think that’s going to be good for him and for us.”
With the Love chapter closed, Rubio, fully healthy and now more experienced as an NBA player, could be headed for a big year, the year everybody has been waiting to see. For critics who wonder why he’s yet to make an All-Star team, it’s easy to forget the turbulence of his first three seasons.
A terrific start to his lockout-delayed rookie season — 10.2 points, 8.2 assists — ended abruptly in Game 41 with a torn ACL in his left knee. He didn’t return until December of the following season, one which Love played 18 games and Rubio never truly bounced back from the devastating injury.
“It was tough for me, physically, but mentally. That hurt me,” Rubio said. “When you come back, you’re thinking you’re going to be back 100 percent; you’re not. You can be in shape after a tough injury like I had, but you are not in game shape. That comes with games and it took me time to realize that. I was playing and I was going home thinking about what’s going on with me and all this stuff. So it was tough, plus people talking made it even tougher. So my second year was tough.”
There again he references “people talking” about his performance. And maybe such chatter has played mind games with his shot, too. Still, his Year 3, although ending again with no playoffs amid a slew of close losses and Love’s declining interest, finished strongly, with Rubio playing as assertively as he has in the NBA. He’s carrying that confidence into training camp, understanding the new responsibility before him.
He is excited about the new makeup of the team and the up-tempo style it will play. Whether an extension gets done by the end of the month or he goes into next summer as a restricted free agent (Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher predicts the Wolves will trade him), Rubio says he believes he can win in Minnesota. He said he’s not putting that type of pressure on his young team just yet. But, he said, ending Minnesota’s decade-long playoff drought is his focus no matter how improbable it might seem in a rugged Western Conference where Phoenix and New Orleans appear next in line to challenge for a final playoff spot.
“I feel more mature. I’ve been through good things and bad things that helped me grow up,” Rubio said. “Every season you can learn a lot of things even if you don’t make the playoffs like we haven’t done the last three years. Every time you don’t make the playoffs, you have something inside that you want to prove again next year. So it’s growing up. It’s something that we have to be patient, take our time and make it.
“I want to put my team in the playoffs, so all I’m thinking right now is growing up with my team and being the best I can to help my team win.”