Spanish teen clicks his way to stardom

The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

BEIJING – The most hyped young basketball star to ever come out of Europe has been born of a curious cross between that grainy old projector footage of a young “Pistol” Pete Maravich and the click of a computer. Across his teenybopper years, Ricky Rubio has been a myth in the United States, rising in reverence with the footage uploaded into YouTube, with breathless reports of NBA executives crammed into Spanish gymnasiums to watch a boy make magic among men.

Rubio is the first basketball star born of the Internet, a worldwide hype spliced together in a blizzard of blind passes, breathless drives and surreal steals. His name is just something that rolls off the tongue, something school girls and grown men scream out of every corner of European basketball.

His clips have created a cult following in the United States since Rubio was a 14-year-old playing pro ball in Spain. They’ve waited for a window to witness his point guard genius in living color. Finally, the chance comes against Team USA on Saturday. He is 17 years old with such intoxicating and mesmerizing stuff to his game.

Spain and the U.S. are the two best teams in the Olympic basketball tournament, bursting with NBA All-Stars and an MVP, and, still, much of the game’s seduction comes with Rubio reaching for the biggest night of his brief basketball career.

“It will be good to test myself,” Rubio told Yahoo! Sports in a brief interview this week. “These are the greatest players in the world.”

There is so much mystery surrounding Rubio, so much magic. The chronicling of a young teen prodigy’s career in the States has been common for decades, but the Internet changed everything for Rubio. Until his arrival, the most hyped players out of Europe had never been tracked as teen sensations like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. The kid looks like a Jonas Brother and plays like a virtuoso.

The digital age has smoked out his urban legend. He has made his reputation playing well above his age in the rugged Spanish League, where he averaged 10.5 points and four assists in 23 minutes a game last season for Joventut.

“He’s a different kind of a European talent,” Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo said. “I can see the sizzle.”

The footage of Rubio’s performance in the 2006 Under-16 European Championships – 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists, seven steals and a mid-court shot to send an eventual victory over Russia into overtime – was everyone’s evidence that he was wasting time playing with kids his age. Rest assured, Rubio will come to the NBA as a 19 year old with a preparation that America’s high school and college system could have never delivered him.

“I will be shocked if he isn’t a top-two pick in the draft,” one Western Conference GM said. “If he gets a jumper at all, he is a lock as a team leader and ticket draw. His tenacity, toughness and poise at such a young age are remarkable.

“He is the guy every GM wants to see this season.”

Few GMs and scouts dare to think that he’d ever drop out of the top five on draft day. He turns 18 in October and could enter the NBA Draft in 2009, but two sources familiar with the plans of his agent, Dan Fegan, and Rubio’s family, say they will hold him back until 2010. With Portland Trail Blazers’ draft pick Rudy Fernandez leaving for the NBA this season, Joventut gets turned over to Rubio.

“This is a big year for me,” Rubio said.

He is 6-foot-4, 175 pounds, a scarecrow with an innate ability to absorb hard hits and pressure moments. His jumper is still something of a flat-footed work in progress, but the rest of his game has come so rapidly that stardom seems within his reach. Yes, the passes come out of every direction, out of every possible contortion of Rubio’s body. As much as anything, it is the floppy hair and long, scrawny body that rushes everyone back to Pistol Pete. His game is bigger and better, shorter on scoring ability and longer on leadership and defense. That’s the thing that stays with everyone: the innateness of his defense. Some dare dismiss him as style over substance, but those aren’t the people who’ve watched him closest.

“He’s an exceptional talent who’s doing and playing at a level over and above his age,” Moscow Dynamo coach David Blatt said. “I would say that Ricky looks more like Pistol than he plays like him. Maybe the biggest thing about him is his ability to change a game on defense, just wreak havoc on an opponent’s offense. But he doesn’t do it in a conventional way. He’ll let you go by him and run behind you and steal the ball. He roams all over the place, creating chaos and making things happen out of nowhere.”

Jason Kidd visited Spain a year ago, and everywhere he went, they asked him: Do you know Rubio? It wasn’t until these Olympic Games that the Team USA guard watched Rubio on tape. Kidd marveled over the way his five steals late on the Chinese guards championed Spain’s comeback victory.

“He won that game for them,” Kidd said. “He has a real flair. The sky’s the limit for him.”

Rubio plays behind Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and Raul Lopez on the national team, but his role has been blossoming in these Olympics. Faith in him grows with every game.

What comforts NBA executives is the maturity and poise of Rubio, his unaffectedness to the rock-star hysteria that surrounds him. They’ve watched these young teen anointments of greatness destroy value systems and work ethics on young American players and understand it’s just a matter of time until these things befall the young Euros, too. There’s no rush to get Rubio to the NBA.

Everyone still wants to see growth in his game, see the natural progression that comes when a boy goes against a man in the game. He could play in the NBA, but that won’t be enough for him. There’s too much hype, too much danger of shipping an incomplete work over to the States. Those who’ve scouted him extensively will always tell you: Don’t worry about what he can’t do – shooting, for instance – and admire what makes his game so unique.

“Rubio is an amazing talent for his age – very gifted, instinctive player who could be a fantastic player someday,” one Eastern Conference assistant GM said. “My concerns are that he may not mature physically much more and his speed is not of the blazing category. Folks can say what they want about Steve Nash, but Nash can run with anyone. I’ll be curious to see how Rubio handles NBA speed in his near future.

“At the worst, he will be a rock star in Europe. I hope he makes it simply because the league needs guys who play like that, and kids need guys that play like that to emulate.”

For all those fleeting clips on the web, Ricky Rubio rises out of Americans’ laptops, out of the grainy footage, and makes his move into the biggest basketball game in the world. Amazing, isn’t it? He’s 17 and yet it still feels like this was a long time coming.

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