Ricky Rubio sat at a table with Kevin Martin to his left, ready to start the first day of the rest of his life without Kevin Love as a teammate in Minnesota.
“It’s this guy’s team right here,” Martin said, nodding at the fourth-year point guard. “He makes everything go.”
During his first three seasons with the Timberwolves, Rubio usually deferred to Love when leadership was needed. Love was the All-Star. Love was the headliner. Love was here first.
Now Love is gone, traded to Cleveland this summer in a blockbuster that brought Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young to Minnesota. Seemingly overnight, the Wolves have morphed from a deliberate, plodding group to a dynamic young team brimming with athleticism.
No one will suggest the Wolves are better off for trading Love, one of the most versatile offensive forces in the league. But it can be argued that the current roster better fits Rubio’s up-tempo, alley-oop tossing game.
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“I like to run and I like to throw the ball up in the air,” Rubio said Monday. “There’s players who can catch the ball. I would say they’ll make me look good. I haven’t seen them in real life, but I’ve seen them in video, and they can jump high. So I’m gonna throw the ball over the backboard and let’s see if they can catch it.”
Rubio is at his best when he’s running free, charging up the court on a fast break, putting the defenders on their heels as he prepares to let a no-look pass fly toward the rim. Last year, the Wolves offense was centered around Love and Nikola Pekovic, two bruising players who do their best work under the rim.
“For me, it’s just strange,” Rubio said of Love being gone. “Of course we’re going to miss him. He’s one of the best, if not the best, power forwards in the league, but we just have to move on. We had a good trade. I think if the young guys do what they’re supposed to do and what we expect them to do, it’s gonna be great.”
But with youth comes uncertainty, and there is plenty of it surrounding Rubio at the moment as well. His agents, Dan Fegan and Jarinn Akana, have been negotiating for weeks with Wolves owner Glen Taylor, president and coach Flip Saunders and general manager Milt Newton about an extension to his rookie contract. Rubio’s representatives are seeking a maximum five-year deal while the Wolves have been holding firm with a four-year offer.
If a deal is not reached by Oct. 31, Rubio will become a restricted free agent next summer.
“I don’t want to talk to the media about my contract situation,” Rubio said. “I think it bothers me on the basketball court, so I don’t want to talk to the media about it. My agent’s dealing with Flip and Glen and that’s it.”
Saunders said he is not worried about the situation distracting Rubio once training camp begins on Tuesday, and he believes Rubio remains committed to the Wolves. Saunders is looking forward to taking over for retired coach Rick Adelman and promises to push Rubio harder than he ever has been pushed before.
“I’m hard on point guards,” Saunders said. “As I tell them, if there’s a mistake on the floor, I’m usually going to blame it on the point guard. So what happens by doing that the players on the team know he’s running the show and if they make a mistake, he’s the one who’s going to take the brunt of it a lot of times, either to get them in the right situation or all those types of things to put everything into perspective.”
The Wolves also hired shooting coach Mike Penberthy to work with Rubio, who has shot 37 percent in his first three seasons.
Rubio had some of his best offensive games last season when Love was out of the lineup, showing a more assertive scoring mentality than the pass-first approach he usually takes. He scored 25 points on 19 shots against Portland in February and averaged 18 points on 16.3 attempts per game over a four-game stretch near the end of the season while Love was hobbled.
If the Wolves are going to avoid a total rebuild after trading the face of their franchise, they need Rubio to take charge. On the court. In the locker room. Setting a demanding tone with the young pups and making life easier on the veterans who are still here.
Wiggins may one day be The Man. But not yet.
Like Martin said, this is Rubio’s team, extension or no extension.
“I’m just trying to win,” Rubio said. “So I’m gonna do whatever it takes to win. If it’s taking more shots, I will. If not, we’ll do whatever this team needs.”