MINNEAPOLIS — When the Minnesota Timberwolves signed Ricky Rubio to a four-year, $56 million contract extension before last season, it was a giant show of faith that the young point guard was going to be an integral part of pulling the long-suffering franchise out of the NBA basement.
Last year was miserable on all fronts. For the Timberwolves, who won an NBA-worst 16 games, and for Rubio, who played only 22 games because of a severe ankle injury.
Rubio spent all summer recovering from surgery and gearing up to return with a vengeance. But in the weeks leading up to one of the most anticipated Wolves seasons in years, rumors started to circulate that the team is looking to trade the flashy playmaker. With the first training camp practice just five days away, general manager Milt Newton put a stop to any speculation.
"We're not talking to anybody about trading Ricky," Newton told The Associated Press. "We expect Ricky to be an integral part of our team this season. We expect him to be here come training camp and leading our team."
With an exciting young core highlighted by Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns — the last two No. 1 overall picks — and accomplished veterans like Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller and Kevin Martin on the roster, the Timberwolves believe they can make huge strides from the injury-plagued failures of last season. Rubio's ability to bounce back from his ankle injury and get back to the passing wizard and defensive disruption that prompted the Wolves to give him that big contract is one of the biggest keys for those hopes to be realized.
"He's one of the best facilitators in the NBA," Newton said. "We've got a young team of guys that are athletic, that are going to get up and down. And we're going to utilize those talents that they have. Who better than Ricky to be the one leading the charge, pushing the pace, pushing the ball and getting our guys easy opportunities and getting the ball where they can be their best? We're looking to him to be that person."
The Spaniard has had two of his first four seasons short-circuited by serious injuries and has struggled mightily to consistently knock down open jump shots. But when he has been healthy, Rubio has proven himself to be a difference maker.
He energized the franchise as a rookie in 2011, helping push them into playoff position before the team faded when he tore an ACL in March.
Rubio played all 82 games in 2013-14, and the Timberwolves scored 5.3 more points per 100 possessions than their opponents when he was on the floor — the second-best net rating on the team, according to statistics compiled by NBA.com.
When Rubio was off the floor that season, the Wolves were outscored by 6.7 points per 100 possessions, the biggest drop of any player on the team.
Last year the woeful Wolves were outscored by 9.8 points per 100 possessions. But in the 22 games Rubio played, they were only outscored by 1.6, a huge disparity and by far the best rating of any Wolves player to play more than 10 games. When Rubio was off the court, the Wolves' net rating was minus-11.5.
Team president and coach Flip Saunders is on leave from the team while being treated for Hodgkins lymphoma. Newton has been elevated to the primary decision-maker in the front office and Sam Mitchell has replaced Saunders as coach on an interim basis. That means Rubio — one of the longest-tenured Timberwolves — will need to bring a steadying presence as the quarterback of the offense.
The Wolves also brought in renowned physical therapist Arnie Kander in part to help Rubio stay on the court and signed the 39-year-old Miller — one of the smartest point guards of his generation and one that, like Rubio, has never relied on overwhelming athleticism — to be his backup and serve as a mentor.
Now he begins his new contract as one of the team's most important players. His pass-first mentality should fit well with a roster brimming with young talent looking for shots. Wiggins, Towns, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad are all under 23 years old.
As one of the league's top stealers and a solid defender on the perimeter, Rubio will also be counted on to team with Garnett and Wiggins to bolster what was the league's worst defense last season.
There's no doubt his shooting and ability to finish at the rim must improve for the Wolves to make big strides this season. But it all starts with his health, and Kander is encouraged by what he's seen.
"Ricky's got great ankles," he said last week, later adding: "He's looking good. Everything is where it needs to be."