Ricky Rubio, Yo Creo
I hadn't really had a good opportunity to watch 17-year-old Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio play until these Olympics. After spending the last two nights watching Spain's games vs. China and Germany, all I can say about the kid is: Yo creo. I believe.
My reaction after watching Rubio struggle against Greece's pressure D in Spain's opener was that Ricky was pretty much what I expected - very impressive to make the powerful Spanish national team at 17, but still ultimately a boy playing against men.
So after hearing reports that Rubio helped spur Spain's comeback win vs. China, I was initially skeptical, and tended to agree with the sentiment that Henry Abbott voiced on TrueHoop:
- Game of the day was China and Spain, which went to overtime. 17-year-old phenom Ricky Rubio -- a candidate to be the first overall pick in next year's draft -- was something of a surprise to make this team. But he played almost all of the key minutes, and ended up getting a huge steal, his fifth, down the stretch. If you watch the highlights, you'll think he's an MVP candidate. But let's be clear, he hardly owned this game. The guy had five steals to go with a dubious 4 x 4 stat line: four assists, four rebounds, four fouls, and four turnovers. He also missed four field goals, and one free throw, to finish with one point in 21 minutes. He's a fantastic prospect, but despite the big play in a big win (Spain came back from 14 down in the fourth quarter) please let's not call this his coming out party.
I went back and watched the Spain-China game, which I heartily recommend, even now, to any hoophead. Tremendous atmosphere in the building, with lots of great individual performances - Pau and Rudy for Spain, and Liu Wei, Zhu Fangyu and my main man Wang Zhizhi, the Dodger, for China. It was just a good ballgame in general, with Pau and Yao going at it, and lots of guys stepping up to make plays, both for China as they built the lead and for Spain as they fought back. Best basketball game of the Olympics so far.
And in the China game, I think I started to understand how Ricky Rubio's impact can exceed an uneven, unremarkable stat line. The dude was all over the place defensively, probably gambling too much, but just wreaking havoc and causing TOs everywhere - on the ball, doubling down, in the passing lanes - to help spark the comeback.
Clearly, Rubio's game is much more developed defensively than offensively at this point, but the poise and sheer cojones that the kid displayed down the stretch in such a high-pressure environment... it was just somewhat mind-blowing as I repeatedly reminded myself: HE'S 17!
Watch the highlights. At the 2:45 mark, Ricky calmly drops a behind-the-back dime to Pau during the 4th Q comeback. At the 4:15 mark, with the score tied at the end of regulation, and Spain holding for the last shot... yes, that's Ricky with the ball in his hands at the top of the key, driving right at Yao and getting off a pretty good attempt over him, even though it didn't fall.
I know, it's just the highlights, like Henry said, but I just couldn't believe a 17-year-old was not only on the court and making plays in that situation, and not only looked like he belonged out there, but Rubio just looked like he completely *believed* he belonged out there at crunch time, like it was no big deal.
I don't want to oversell the kid - he's got a long way to go before he's an NBA All-Star - but it was just an impressive thing to watch, and it's hard to translate into stats or words.
Try it like this: Rubio and Brandon Jennings are considered to be the two top point guard prospects who could enter the 2009 draft. Jennings is even a year older than Rubio. Try to imagine Jennings not only on Team USA, but on the court in crunch time of an Olympic game, with the ball in his hands being asked to make plays. It's fairly incomprehensible.
There are questions - rightly, I believe - about whether Jennings will be able to be productive on a team of seasoned professionals at Lottomatica Roma. That's what's amazing about Rubio: he not only looks like a seasoned pro at 17, he actually *is* one, with three years of experience in the Spanish ACB league (the best domestic league outside the NBA) already under his belt.
Then Rubio did it again vs. Germany last night, delivering pivotal plays in the third quarter. Germany led for most of the first half as Spain looked sluggish before showing life late in the 2nd and finally taking a 39-36 lead at the half. Spain got a three to start the second half, and then Rubio broke the game open.
First, he got a three-point play as he made a beautiful cut to the basket, caught a nice pass from Rudy, and executed a tough finish as he absorbed the contact. Ricky followed that up immediately with a steal of Stefan Hammann in the backcourt, leading to an easy layup. 5 points in 7 seconds and Germany was never within nine points again.
Rubio's overall stat line - 7 pts, 5 reb, 3 ast, 2 stl, 0 TO - was fairly unremarkable... until you consider that he played just 12 1/2 minutes!
Everyone always wants a comparison to another player, and while Rubio is unique, I'm going to throw a couple out there.
First, I'm going to call him a defensive version of Steve Nash. It's interesting to me that scouting reports of Rubio almost always question his lateral quickness and his athletic ability as a whole, yet he manages to be everywhere defensively. The thing that springs to mind in comparison is how Nash might not be the quickest PG (though I think his athleticism is underrated), yet he's just so damn quick and efficient with the ball. It's probably one part superior basketball IQ, one part being underestimated, one part knowing the angles. Who knows? Though Rubio is certainly gifted with excellent height (6-4) and length (6-9 wingspan) for the PG position, as well.
As I mentioned, Rubio's defense is way ahead of his offense right now, and he has a long way to go in terms of becoming a scoring threat, but his poise, basketball IQ, court vision and flair are already evident.
Let me throw this one out there in terms of a comparative player to Rubio in terms of style: Gary Payton. Now stop for a second and relax: I am not saying that Rubio is going be as good as Gary Payton! I just think Rubio might be similar as a guy who has the potential to completely disrupt the game defensively from the point guard position, and who might need time to fully grow into his game offensively.
Listen, I'm not trying to oversell the kid, really. I found an interesting message board discussion on RealGM debating Rubio's merits vs. Derrick Rose, and trying to figure out where Ricky might ultimately fit in comparison to Nash, Kidd, Paul, D-Will. Honestly, I have no idea.
The Raleigh News & Observer is reporting that Rubio had this to say about comparative players after the China game:
- Reporter: Who did you pattern your game after?
Rubio: I'm Ricky Rubio. I can't be anyone else.
Ultimately, I don't know exactly what to make of Ricky Rubio - it's hard for me to sit here and definitively say that he'll be a NBA star, but the kid's clearly got something unique.
Of course, I'm interested to see Rubio vs Team USA on Saturday. I expect Rubio will have some good games and some bad games before this tournament is over. The fact is that he excelled against China and Germany, who have subpar guards, and struggled vs. Greece, who has excellent guards -- Ricky may well fall flat on his face vs. the USA pressure D.
Regardless, keep the perspective that the dude is just 17 freaking years old. He's not an NBA All-Star now, but I now understand and comprehend why he might just be one a decade from now.