We’re kicking off our offseason coverage here at A Wolf Among Wolves with a comprehensive roster review of the team from this past season, looking at how each player’s 2012-13 went and what we see for them going forward. One player a day for the next couple weeks, starting with the bench and rolling up to the starters.
We do ridiculous things when we are 22 years old. We climb trees and then fall out of them. We smash things we find on the street. We punch the pavement. We (“we”) make awful choices and then write long, agonized, hand-written letters explaining/apologizing for/recanting those choices. We are newly birthed into the adult world but still soaked in a purply, emo brain-haze, a volatile emotional soup that spikes the adrenaline and clouds the judgement.
Remember, now, that despite his many years of playing professional basketball as a teen, despite his experience leading his countrymen against the best basketball players in the world, Ricky Rubio is this very age. And its not just Rubio’s bio that misdirects us. He possesses a set of seemingly native-born skills that generally belong to much more seasoned players. His total court-vision, his almost physiological feel for movement and spacing–these are things that are usually acquired only after a decade or so of apprenticeship. Even when he was just a very skinny boy with floppy hair he was able to perform feats that, while not adult exactly (more like sylph-like or even transcendent) certainly belied his age.
Nevertheless, Rubio’s youth is a useful lens through which to view his game right now. First, there is his teenager-ish frame and the fact that his skills as a shooter are hugely un-developed. Look at the way he shies away from contact at the rim, or is bumped off course by thicker, stronger players. Look at him when he shoots: his unbalanced, inconsistent footwork; the way he holds the ball in front of his face and tentatively guides it to the hoop. These are the hallmarks of a kid still growing into his body, still learning the mechanics of the game.
Rubio has also given us plenty of evidence that his brain is still drenched in the same neurochemical bathwater that might lead one to the acts of emotive stoopidity described above. Its plain to see when Rubio’s passions consume him on the floor. He rides the wave, demanding the ball, rising for big shots that no one else seems to wants to take, attempting impossible passes, heeding the internal call to just take over the damn game. He plays with insane, wide-eyed effort and ferocity. He berates himself when things begin to spin out of control.
Without a doubt, these impulses have been behind most of Rubio’s greatest moments of the past season. There was that magical first game of his comeback, against Dallas, when he seemed to just be floating on a pink cloud, dishing assists as if he’d never missed a game. There was the triple-double against San Antonio. There was that incredible string of seven games in February and March in which he averaged nearly 4.5 steals per and defended with a total mania that was both stunning to behold and also plainly unsustainable. There was the home game against Miami during that same stretch, in which Rubio attempted to stem the tide of that inevitable, game-clinching Heat run wave by personally preventing LeBron from dribbling the ball up the floor. It was an impossible, doomed, beautiful effort–but for an amazing moment it seemed like he just might single-handedly derail both the Heat’s offense and the greatest player in the world.
Of course he couldn’t sustain that energy. Especially as the season wound down, as fatigue and disappointment set in, that all-encompassing effort began to look more like simple gambling. And many of those failed gambles resulted in impossible situations for the Wolves’ bigs, outmanned, forced to defend an un-contained ballhandler in the paint. Rubio’s gifts allowed him to do the glorious thing–disrupting the entire offense by hawking the point guard–but he often failed at doing the simple, fundamental thing, like staying in front of the ballhandler, or conscientiously pursuing him around a screen. Many of those six-steal nights were also six-turnover nights. He suffered through horrendous shooting slumps, forcing jumpers and looking terrible doing it. The quality of his effort began to be contingent on the inconsistencies of his emotions. When he was not fanatic, he seemed despondent and drained.
Right now, Rubio’s game and his temperament produce ecstatic moments, moments that seem touched from the beyond. Sometimes these moments last for just an instant; sometimes they last for a quarter or even an entire game. But think, now, of the great ballhandlers and perimeter scorers we’ve watched in the late rounds of the last few playoffs: Tony Parker; LeBron and Wade; Westbrook and Durant. These players have learned–or are learning–to produce, not just transcendent moments, but longform narratives. Their brilliance is written across multiple possessions, multiple games, entire seasons.
When we are young, we cling to our youth. We may believe that those visceral, ecstatic surges are the only truly authentic things we know; and so we dread their passing away, dread sinking into a flat, dull, uninflected existence. And those surges are beautiful, no doubt. But life–and the NBA season–is too long and exhausting for us to subsist on them alone. Great players know that in order to be what their teams need them to be, their greatness must stem not simply from massive upwellings of emotion, but from habit and process. Its a subtler, broader kind of ecstasy, harder to spot and to appreciate maybe, but also more nuanced and more sustainable. Ricky Rubio is not there yet, but he’ll get there; and when he does, it will be a real sight to behold.