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Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

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The Real Ricky Rubio Is Finally Ready to Stand Up

The point guard has been many things in his 13-year professional career: prodigy, ghost, fan favorite, outcast. Now with a Utah team on which he feels fully wanted, Rubio is ready to stop trying to fast-forward to what’s next and instead embrace being something else: himself.

Ricky Rubio looks confused. He’s standing near midcourt on a Wednesday night in November at Vivint Smart Home Arena in downtown Salt Lake City, surrounded by teammates and screaming fans, and he is staring blankly, registering the weight of the moment. His Utah Jazz teammates are high-fiving each other and body-bumping Rubio. The fans are standing and clapping. On the other side of the court, the Portland Trail Blazers are walking to their huddle, heads down.

All of this commotion has developed because just seconds ago, Rubio did something he is not supposed to do: He put the ball in the basket. Deep in overtime, with the Jazz up four, he dribbled around a screen from Rudy Gobert, stepped into a top-of-the-key 3 over the outstretched arms of Damian Lillard, and buried the shot and the Blazers all at once.

Rubio after hitting a 3-point shot against the Portland Trail Blazers
Rubio after hitting a 3-point shot against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 1, 2017
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

This is not the kind of play we’ve come to expect from Rubio. Long before Utah traded a first-rounder to Minnesota for him in June, Rubio’s reputation had been established as one of basketball’s best-ever passers and worst-ever shooters. But on this night against Portland, Rubio finishes with 30 points and only one assist. “Who was that?,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder says to me, laughing, a couple of days after Rubio’s scoring explosion. “I thought we had a pass-first point guard!”

Years before he ever showed up in Utah, Rubio’s existence felt like a myth. His first highlight tape appeared on YouTube in August 2006, showing him with the Spanish youth national team making round-the-back passes and spin moves through helpless defenses when he was only 14. His name showed up on a report from the Under-16 European Championships that same month. Still half a decade from making his NBA debut, Rubio was already sealing his place in basketball prospect lore. He was the next Pistol Pete. He was White Chocolate with defense and leadership skills. He could become the greatest passer the game had ever seen. He still barely needed to shave.

Now 27, Rubio has been a professional basketball player for nearly half his life. He is still better known for being a former prodigy than for his solid-but-unspectacular NBA career. As a boy, he seemed to progress on fast forward, always years ahead of expectations. Once he reached the NBA, he quickly downshifted from phenom to flawed-but-solid starter, and he’s remained there ever since. Now, as he enters what should be the prime years of his career, the Jazz are banking on the possibility that their new point guard can still improve. “A lot of guys at his age, you think they’ve maybe reached a ceiling in their careers,” Snyder says. “Either you’ve just developed all you can develop or you’re not hungry enough to try. With Ricky, we have a guy who’s already a veteran and has had success in this league but who still has a strong desire to take coaching and improve. He’s someone who’s not necessarily at his ceiling.”

Rubio has been many things in his 13-year professional career: prodigy, ghost, fan favorite, outcast. Now, sitting in a nondescript office one morning this month, in the practice facility of the team that has made him finally feel fully wanted, he leans back and says, “I feel ready to do something special. I feel ready to take the next step.” He pauses for a moment. His hair has grown long, his beard unruly. His voice carries a quiet confidence. “I’ve played with a lot of doubts the last few years. I don’t have any doubts anymore.”

He likes Utah. Correction: “I love it,” Rubio says. He left the only NBA home he’d ever known to come here. At first, emotions were mixed. “It’s like moving to a new school,” he says of the trade. “You’re sad because you’re leaving all your friends. But when things are not working well in one school, you want to move on, but you’re still not sure. You go to unsure-land.” Trade rumors had surrounded Rubio throughout his last two years in Minnesota, but from the day the Jazz acquired him, he says, “It felt like this is the right place, and the right time.”

When we spoke, eight games into the season, Rubio seemed to be clicking well with his new team. He was averaging 17.5 points per game on 44 percent shooting, and the Jazz were off to a 5-3 start. Since then, though, the wheels have come off. Star center Gobert went down with a knee injury and will be out four to six weeks. The absences of Gordon Hayward, who signed with Boston in the summer, and Joe Johnson, who went down with a wrist injury seven games into the season, have grown more acute. The offense has sputtered, falling to 24th in the league. Rubio is a point guard built to serve the skill sets of scorers placed around him. Increasingly, though, he’s had to look to players like explosive-but-erratic rookie Donovan Mitchell and currently slumping Rodney Hood. When those options fail, he’s tried to take on more of a scoring load himself, and as the season has worn on, his ability to shoulder that responsibility has seemed to wither. He’s shooting 28 percent over his last eight games.

Ricky Rubio shoots the ball against Jeff Teague Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

“I don’t want to overanalyze his shot,” Snyder told reporters before the Jazz played Minnesota last week. “I think Ricky’s value to our team first and foremost is his leadership and his mind and his ability to get people involved. I don’t want him to define himself by his shot. I want him to get people involved, and when he’s got a shot, make the right read. Those are the things he’s really good at doing.”

Right now, he’s in a slog. Rubio, though, has recently been working to embrace the reality of any given moment, good or bad. For so long, he seemed to progress through his life and career on a timeline all his own. Whether rocketing through the youth ranks in Spain to make his professional debut while still a child or sitting in Minnesota awaiting a trade he knew would someday come, Rubio has always had an eye on whatever’s next. Now, even as the Jazz struggle, Rubio is working to embrace his daily work for its own sake—not for whatever future it may portend. “I have to tell myself,” Rubio says, “it’s only today that matters.”

It’s a lesson he’s spent his entire lifetime trying to learn.

“Don’t cry.”

That was the only instruction Rubio received the first time he stepped onto a basketball court. He was about 4, he says, a quiet and gentle boy and the son of a basketball coach in El Masnou, Spain, a beach town just up the coast from Barcelona. The local club, El Masnou Basquetbol, did not allow kids to start playing organized basketball until age 6, so Rubio had to sit in the stands, quietly holding a basketball of his own, to watch his older brother, Marc. Desperate to join his brother’s team, Rubio begged his mother to find a way to get him on the court. The coach told her that Ricky was too young. Until their sixth birthday, he said, children were liable to drop down to the floor at any moment—despondent over a missed shot or a stolen dribble or a light nudge from a teammate—and derail an entire practice or game as they cried.

As long as Rubio kept his tears inside, though, the coach said he could play as long as he wanted. He managed to survive his first practice with no tears, and then another and another, and within a few weeks, a young Ricky Rubio was among the best players on his local club’s 6-year-old team.

This would establish something of a pattern. A decade later, at age 14, Rubio found himself sitting in the gym of his new club, DKV Joventut. Rubio had emerged as a star for the club’s youth teams, but now he sat in the gym watching its senior team practice. Several of the team’s players had been called away on national team duty, leaving the remaining team shorthanded. Coaches wanted to scrimmage five on five, but they had only nine players available. A coach called for Rubio, by then a star on the club’s U-16 team.

“Do you have shoes?” he remembers the coach asking.

Rubio looked at his feet. He was in flip-flops, just back from the beach.

The coach yelled again. “Go get shoes!”

Rubio ran to find a friend in another part of the practice facility and begged to borrow his sneakers. Minutes later he was laced up and on the court, a scrawny child running the point on a team full of grown men. Then, he did what he has done in the many years since: exploit angles other players never would have known existed. Gamble for steals at the exact moment an opponent’s dribble turned sloppy. Whip passes through cracks in the defense that seemed to appear as if by his own design. At the end of the practice, head coach Aíto García pulled Rubio aside. The team was leaving for training camp in the mountains the next morning. García wanted Rubio to join them.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, man,’” says Rubio. “Really?! But I wasn’t thinking, ‘This is crazy,’ or anything like that. I was thinking, ‘I have school tomorrow! I can’t!’” Once again, Rubio begged his mother to let him play. Again, she said yes. Rubio played his way into a spot on the opening-night roster, and then, there in the opening-night layup line on the road in the southern Spanish city of Granada, an assistant told Rubio to be ready. He wasn’t just here to be an end-of-bench seat-filler. At 14 years old, he was going to make his professional debut in the world’s best league outside of the NBA.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Rubio says. “When you’re 14 years old, everything is sunshine and flowers. I just thought, ‘OK, I guess I’m playing in the ACB League.’ But I didn’t realize it was something that was not normal, really. I felt just like I was anywhere else, playing with my friends. I was thinking, ‘It’s basketball. I love it. It’s what I do. So tonight I guess I will do it in the ACB League.’ That was all.” This established the pattern that defined Rubio’s adolescence: showing up on stages built for men much older than he, and proving, time and again, that he belonged.

Marc Gasol remembers where he was the first time he heard Rubio’s name: with the Spanish national team in Hiroshima, playing in the group stages of the 2006 FIBA World Championships. In a couple of weeks, the Spaniards would win the tournament, ahead of an American team that included LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade. But on that day in Japan, Gasol, his brother Pau, current Cavs guard Jose Calderon, and the rest of the Spanish national team were all talking about a stat line from another tournament, thousands of miles away.

Back in Spain, Rubio had led the Under-16 Spanish national team into the gold medal game of the European Championships against Russia. Now 15, Rubio had hit a half-court shot to send the game to overtime, and then he’d sealed a 110-106 win. The victory, though, wasn’t the reason for Gasol’s disbelief. It was Rubio’s 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists, and seven steals. “We were all together reading about that game, and we were like, ‘Who is this kid? Is this real? Can that be right?’” Gasol remembers. “It just seemed so outrageous, like there was no way it could be real.”

That game made Rubio an instant sensation in European basketball and on the draft-obsessed corners of the NBA internet. DraftExpress referred to his “appointment with destiny” and his “amazing winning character.” Two years later, at age 17 and already a seasoned pro, Rubio earned a place on Spain’s Olympic roster in Beijing. After Calderon went down with a leg injury, Rubio found himself starting in the gold-medal game, a child going head-to-head with Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant. “At that age,” Rubio says, “there’s no doubts in your mind. Whether you’re 14, 15, 16, 17, you don’t really get how big it is. You think it’s just a game. I thought, ‘OK, that’s Chris Paul. I’m guarding him.’ Somehow it felt normal to me.”

Rubio held his own, finishing with six points, three assists, and three steals. He managed one highlight-worthy drive and layup past a helpless Jason Kidd, and his defense on Kidd and Paul helped disrupt an almost-flawless USA offense. With the Gasol brothers and Rudy Fernandez carrying the Spanish offense, they nearly pulled off the upset before falling, 118-107. “It was shocking how much he could affect the game defensively at that time,” Gasol says. “His activity, for a player that age, was unparalleled. He knew how to disrupt what they wanted to do.”

Rubio drives to the basket against LeBron James and Carlos Boozer at the Group B preliminary basketball game at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
Rubio drives to the basket against LeBron James and Carlos Boozer at the Group B preliminary basketball game at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

For NBA fans, Rubio’s existence was no longer a myth. On one of the sport’s grandest stages, he’d shown that he belonged. There was only one more step to be taken. “At that time at the Olympics,” Paul told the St. Paul Pioneer Press last year, “... everybody was talking about him. For us, playing on the USA team, we have to take our individual game down a little bit for the greater good of the team. So we were messing with him, like, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to come over here (to the NBA).’”

Rubio left that game desperate for more like it. “I always try so hard to live in the moment,” he says. “But after the Olympics, my only thought was, ‘I have to play against the best. I have to play in the NBA.’”

Still, he waited. Minnesota picked Rubio fifth overall the next summer (alongside Syracuse point guard and eventual bust Jonny Flynn, whom the Timberwolves took at no. 6, in one of the more baffling draft moves of the last decade). Still only 18, Rubio reportedly wanted more seasoning in Spain, and the buyout clause in his contract at Joventut complicated his potential transition to the NBA. FC Barcelona bought out his contract, and he joined them in 2009. There, he played for one of the top teams in Europe, alongside Spanish legend Juan Carlos Navarro, 2005 lottery pick Fran Vazquez, and former Rockets and Magic forward Terence Morris. His roommate at the time? A left-handed Australian import who would share the floor with Rubio again years later and many miles away: current Jazz wing Joe Ingles.

“He was like the Spanish Justin Bieber,” says Ingles. “All I heard was all Ricky Rubio all the time. There was just this fascination with him. ... Everywhere we went, there would be hundreds of people at a hotel waiting and welcoming us. If it was a big city or a small city or in another country—it didn’t matter. People were always screaming for Ricky. It was like everyone just needed to see him or wanted to touch him or say hello to him. It was like he was bigger than the world at that time.”

In Barcelona, Rubio struggled at times, never fully supplanting Navarro as the team’s star guard. “It’s different over there,” says Ingles. “When you run a play for Juan Carlos Navarro, the shot is going to Juan Carlos Navarro—no one else. Everything is more structured. And the coaching is different, too. I remember Ricky sometimes would take an open shot, and if he missed, he would get pulled. Just for shooting! That’s no way to build confidence as a young player.”

Though Rubio struggled to score, Ingles saw flashes of what he could become. “I always liked to think of myself as a high-IQ guy,” Ingles says, “but with him, at 17 years old, it was like, ‘Holy shit.’” Alongside NBA players past and future, sharing a backcourt with a Spanish legend, Rubio had moments when he took full command of the team. “I remember stepping onto the floor with him, and he’s ordering guys around,” says Ingles. “He’s on the floor with 34- and 35-year-olds, and they’re listening to him. Within our offense, he’s telling guys, ‘If you do this instead of this, you’ll get a shot right here.’ And they’re listening to him, and it works. You could just tell right away that he saw the court differently than other people.”

The NBA seemed better suited for Rubio’s skill set. “Pace and space” was slowly becoming the preferred style of play around the league, and Rubio could envision himself fitting in far better than he did in Barcelona’s plodding half-court sets. “Playing five-on-five in half court is sometimes hard for me,” Rubio says. “I’m getting better at it, but I know I’m at my best when I’m in the open court and I can be creative. I can see more. I can use my advantages easier.”

He finally arrived in Minnesota in 2011, racing up and down the court under then-coach Rick Adelman, showing every bit of the skill Wolves fans had long been promised. He was a disruptor on defense and a facilitator on offense. His jumper remained busted, but somehow it barely seemed to matter. He delighted fans and they rewarded him with chants of “Olé!” as if cheering a matador. “Everything,” he says, “was perfect.”

But perfection couldn’t last. Soon came the torn ACL in March of his rookie season. Also the coaching instability, the team cycling through four coaches in four years. And the roster turnover, with the Wolves shipping out All-Star forward Kevin Love and rebuilding around the youth of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Rubio never developed a consistent jumper or finishing ability to round out his offensive game. He was, by some metrics, perhaps the worst shooter in modern NBA history. Minnesota hired Tom Thibodeau to mold its young talent, and from the moment he arrived in 2016, he brought rumors of a Rubio trade with him. “When someone new is in charge, you always know they might want to bring in their own people,” Rubio says. “So I kind of felt like the adopted child. I’m thinking, ‘They like me, but they don’t like me as much as if I was one of their own.’”

Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, and Karl-Anthony Towns looking disappointed Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Rubio had moments under Thibodeau when he seemed on track to hit his ceiling. After the All-Star break last season, he averaged 16 points and nearly 11 assists per game. Still, he knew his time in Minneapolis was almost over. “At some point, you stop feeling comfortable when you keep hearing so many rumors,” he says. “I mean, of course we gotta be professionals and understand that this is a business, but at the end of the day, we have feelings. I loved that city. I had so many attachments to it. But at the same time, it’s tough to live with rumors for two years. It’s hard not to think, ‘Where is my future?’”

Meanwhile, Snyder had turned the Jazz into a stealth Western Conference contender, a team built on defense and toughness and the overall excellence of star wing Gordon Hayward. As a free agent last summer, Hayward reportedly told the Jazz he wanted them to trade for Rubio. “When we made the trade, we didn’t know what our roster was going to look like,” says Snyder. “But we thought that regardless of how the rest of the roster took shape, Ricky was an exciting player to get to coach. He’s someone who we knew, defensively, he could bring our level up even higher. Offensively, when you have someone who’s sure of himself and can direct and settle a team, that’s going to bring your level up, too, no matter who’s playing around him.”

After the trade, Rubio traveled with Gobert and others to San Diego to meet with Hayward, trying to convince him to re-sign. They failed. Hayward went to Boston, and the Jazz were left trying to stitch together a playoff contender without the man who’d led them in scoring each of the last four seasons. Still, Rubio drew energy from his new surroundings. “I feel wanted here,” he says. “They don’t have doubts with me. They see a future with me. They’re not just talking about this year but years down the road. That makes a huge difference.”

Quin Snyder talks with Ricky Rubio Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

So far, results are mixed. The Jazz have the seventh-best defensive rating in the NBA. With Gobert behind him (when healthy) and Thabo Sefolosha often manning one of the wings, Rubio has the freedom to roam at times on defense, gambling judiciously and choking off passing lanes. On offense, though, Rubio is averaging career highs in points and field goal attempts and a career low in assists. Some nights, like during his 30-point explosion against Portland, this can feel like the next evolution of his skill set, the pass-first point guard finding a scoring touch midway through his career. “Sometimes,” he says, “taking the shot is the best option. I like to share the ball and make my teammates better, but sometimes the most unselfish thing or the best thing for the team is to shoot it.” Most opponents, though, will still gladly allow Rubio any shot he desires. He’s shooting 37 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3, still among the worst marks of any starting player in the league.

“We understood his perceived deficiencies when we traded for him,” says Snyder. “We feel like he’s eager to improve and he can improve.” Snyder sees room for growth beyond his shooting, though. “The biggest thing we’re working on is his tempo,” Snyder says. “He’s so fast with the ball, but speed is not the answer for everything. If he learns how to change speeds, slow down at times, that makes his faster moments even faster. It will help his reads. It will get him in a better position for shots for himself or for others. I think when you see that, just the subtleties of working on tempo and angles, you’ll see that those things will make him a better shooter too.”

Opposing guards have a long history of going underneath the screen against Rubio on the pick and roll, daring him to shoot, and he has a long history of rewarding that decision. Last season, he ranked in the 41st percentile in situations where the defender went under the screen, according to Synergy Sports, as opposed to the 82nd percentile when they went over the top. Against Portland earlier this month, he made the Blazers pay time and again for laying off of him. “Keep going under those screens,” Jazz forward Jonas Jerebko said afterward. “He’s going to keep hitting shots.” As the season has progressed, though, that game has felt anomalous. Yet if Rubio can shoot just well enough to keep defenders honest, he can open up a range of other possibilities for the Jazz offense. “It’s important for him to understand that if a guy goes under, he has the confidence and freedom to shoot the ball,” says Snyder. “But also, he doesn’t have to shoot it every time. If guys go over, it can free up a decision-making opportunity for him. Maybe it’s a pull-up jump shot, maybe it’s a lob to Rudy, maybe it’s a skip pass. But he can also keep his dribble alive and not feel like he has to make a rushed decision. That’s the thing Ricky’s not used to—waiting.”

It’s true. He couldn’t wait to take the court as a 4-year-old or to turn pro at 14. As a 17-year-old in the Olympics, he played on a stage built for people a decade older. During the end of his time in Minnesota, he often seemed to be playing for the eyes of other GMs. Rubio has always seemed to exist in the future. He’s working on that. “It’s always been so hard for me to think in the moment,” he says. “I’m trying to master it now, but it’s not easy.”

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Near the end in Minnesota, Rubio says, “I was kind of lost. I was in no-man’s-land. I didn’t know who I was.” He’d spent his entire life playing and living toward some destiny that seemed preordained. Life as a slightly above-average NBA point guard had never been part of that plan. Lately, though, he’s been thinking less about a future that was promised and more about a present that just is. “If you told me what the next 10 years of my career were going to be,” he says, “I would come to practice with no excitement. Instead, I come to practice to get better, because I never know what’s coming up ahead.” He’s been getting into meditation. “That has given me a peace,” he says, “that I never really had before.”

Now he is neither phenom nor ghost. He is a deeply flawed but sometimes-brilliant basketball player, defined neither by potential nor by disappointment. “I’m in that point in my career and my life,” he says, “where I love what I’m doing. I don’t know what’s next, and I don’t have to know what’s next. Not knowing—that’s what makes life fun.”

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