A few things have received more hype. Color TV. The final episode of Lost. Commercial space travel. Few basketball players, however, have been as ballyhooed as 20-year-old Ricky Rubio, who has been on the NBA's radar since 2005, when he was a mop-topped teenager on YouTube skipping crosscourt bounce passes in Spanish youth leagues. Now, finally, the Rubio Show is coming Stateside: Last week the fifth pick in the 2009 draft agreed to join the Timberwolves. (Terms haven't been announced, but the deal will likely pay Rubio $3.5 million next year.)
An exceptional passer, the 6'4" Rubio thrives in the open floor, where his court vision and ballhandling make him a weapon in transition. He's equally adept in pick-and-rolls, with a probing, Steve Nash--like ability to draw in defenses and either hit the open man or finish around the rim. "He has an unbelievable handle," says one scout. "His feel for the game—it's like he was born to play point guard."
Flawless? Hardly. But most criticisms of Rubio are couched with qualifiers. His defense is suspect...but his fast hands will make up for slow feet. His numbers leveled off the last two seasons with FC Barcelona...but its style is more controlled and deliberate than Rubio's previous team, Joventut. "NBA coaches are better at developing individual skills than European coaches," says the scout. "Put him in the right system and he can be an All-Star."
Minnesota's will need some tweaking. The T-Wolves don't run much—they ranked 23rd in the league with 11.9 fast-break points per game last season—and Kurt Rambis's hybrid triangle--low post offense seems ill-suited for Rubio. But team sources say if Rambis returns (general manager David Kahn has not committed to bringing him back), he will have to install an up-tempo, pick-and-roll-heavy offense to maximize Rubio's talents.
And more help is on the way. The T-Wolves hold the No. 2 pick in the June 23 draft and are eyeing Arizona's 6'8" Derrick Williams, an athletic forward who could complement Rubio. Minnesota is also shopping once-promising point guard Jonny Flynn, who was taken one pick after Rubio in '09, in an effort to ease the logjam at the position.
It didn't take long for Rickymania to take hold. Within minutes of reports of his signing, Rubio was trending on Twitter. The St. Paul Pioneer Press speculated that Rubio's jersey sales could quickly jump past All-Star Kevin Love's as the team's top seller. Even Love got into the act, tweeting, "Just thinking about pick and rolls" when Rubio signed. All the hype, all the buildup has reached its peak. Now it's time to see if Rubio can live up to it.
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Who's the next European phenom likely to cause a Rubio-like buzz? Several scouts believe it's Croatia's Mario Hezonja, a 16-year-old swingman who last month powered KK Zagreb to first place at the Nike International Junior Tournament. At 6'6" and 200 pounds, Hezonja already has an NBA-ready frame. He can finish at the rim in traffic, and his range extends beyond the three-point line. Hezonja plays three positions and has drawn comparisons to Sarunas Marciulionis. "He's a freaky athlete," says one international scout. "He moves well and has a real powerful burst on his first step. And he's got a swagger. He thinks he can dunk on anybody." He'll be eligible for the 2013 draft; until then, U.S. fans will have to settle for clips from his ever-expanding YouTube portfolio.
HRVOJE POLAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (RUBIO)
SPANISH HOSS Rubio led Barcelona in assists as the team made it to the quarterfinals of the 2010--11 Euroleague.
LANCE KING/ICON SMI (HEZONJA)