The rumors finally became reality for Ricky Rubio. Now the Spanish point guard has gone from wondering where he fits in with the Minnesota Timberwolves to being a central figure in the Utah Jazz’s efforts to retain Gordon Hayward.
“It makes me feel special. It makes me feel like they want me here,” Rubio told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “I’m a loyal guy, so I’m going to try to do my best to help them reach our goal, which is a championship one day.”
The Jazz acquired Rubio in a trade last week just before the start of free agency, bringing to an end a six-season run in Minnesota.
“I’m always going to be attached to that city because I made friends and family there,” Rubio said. “With the team, we went through some rough times. I remember my rookie year and all of the excitement. I was really, really happy to make my dream come true. They gave me a chance.”
Rubio was a wide-eyed teenager when he was drafted by the Timberwolves in 2009, and still had no idea what he was getting into when he left Spain for Minnesota in 2011.
A long-suffering fan base immediately connected with a floppy-haired kid flinging passes through defenders’ legs. They chanted, “Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!” when he was buzzing up the court and delighted in the endearingly broken English he used to relay his excitement about finally playing in the NBA.
“The people over there are the nicest people on Earth, I think,” he said. “I’m truly going to miss that.”
It took his game far less time to acclimate to the United States than his language. Rubio energized the Timberwolves in his rookie season, teaming with Kevin Love and coach Rick Adelman to push the team into the Western Conference playoff picture. But he tore the ACL in his left knee late in a game against the Lakers in March of that season to short-circuit the optimism.
He also missed 60 games with a severely sprained ankle in 2014-15. The Wolves never made the playoffs or finished with a winning record in his six years.
“It’s always been something in the team that it seems like it never let us make that run and feel comfortable a whole season,” he said. “Great six years. I enjoyed every single one. It was a lot of tough times, but I learned a lot.”
He struggled with his shooting for most of his career, hitting 37.5 percent from the field and 31.5 percent from 3-point range. His ability to get to the free-throw line helped mitigate those deficiencies some and there were stretches where he seemed to be turning the corner, including the final 34 games of last season when he hit 37.6 percent of his 3-point shots.
The Wolves never knew if those streaks were sustainable, and coach Tom Thibodeau wanted a more consistent perimeter shooter after acquiring Jimmy Butler from Chicago. Jeff Teague is being brought in to replace him.
The shooting issue caused his name to surface in trade rumors for years, intensifying after the death of former president and coach Flip Saunders. Rubio had bonded with owner Glen Taylor and the Saunders family. Ryan, Flip’s son and an assistant on the team, worked closely with Rubio to improve his shooting and the two grew close while Flip was struggling with Hodgkin lymphoma and Rubio’s mother, who died last year, was being treated for lung cancer.
The connection was not the same with interim coach Sam Mitchell two seasons ago or Thibodeau last season.
Thibodeau has long preferred his point guards to be scoring threats, and he considered making a trade in February that would have sent Rubio to New York for Derrick Rose. Thibodeau ultimately decided not to pull the trigger, but the lack of communication during that process led to a breakdown that had Rubio believing a change of scenery might be for the best.
“When your name is in the rumors, it’s tough to feel one of the main guys and feel a really good part of the project because there’s a lot of doubts around you,” Rubio said. “But we’re professionals and we have to know that they’re not doing it because they don’t like you. It’s just because they want the best for the team. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be over there. We will see.”
Taylor initially resisted the idea of trading Rubio but ultimately signed off on Friday.
The Jazz have bent over backward to make him feel welcome early in the process. General manager Dennis Lindsey and coach Quin Snyder have been in constant contact, and he had dinner with his new teammates in Salt Lake City on Monday night after they met with Hayward.
“They’ve made me feel really special,” he said. “They want me here. That helps a lot. I hope I can answer on the court all the support they’re giving me.”
The Timberwolves, and the Twin Cities, may be in Rubio’s rearview mirror now. But he said he will always be watching from afar.
“They will be my second team now,” he said. “I really have a lot of good friends over there and I wish them the best. I hope they can reach the playoffs finally and I will be a fan from now on.”