Ricky Rubio's ankle injury is worse than previously thought

Ricky Rubio might not be in uniform any time soon. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ricky Rubio might not be in uniform any time soon. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Minnesota Timberwolves were never in line for a particularly great season in 2014-15, but things got a lot tougher for them when point guard Ricky Rubio went down with a high ankle sprain way back on November 7. While initial prognoses had Rubio out for no more than six weeks, he has already missed roughly 2 1/2 months and has shown no signs of an imminent return. Clearly, his health has not improved at the expected rate, and the Wolves' desire for a high draft pick does not seem to be what's keeping Rubio on the sidelines.

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The team confirmed as much on Wednesday night. It appears that Rubio suffered a much more serious injury than the already concerning high ankle sprain. Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press has more:

But on a night when the Wolves finally got center Nikola Pekovic back from a 31-game absence, coach Flip Saunders shed some light on the nature of Rubio's injury. Saunders said Rubio not only suffered a high ankle sprain against Orlando on Nov. 7, but also damaged some muscles and ligaments that lead from his ankle to his toes, prolonging the recovery process.

''It's not him not wanting to play or not working,'' Saunders said before Wednesday night's game against Dallas. ''He's doing everything he can. We as an organization and the doctors who are involved have been the ones who have tried to hold him back.'' [...]

Saunders said Rubio, who signed a four-year, $55 million contract extension in October that will kick in next season, visited two specialists recently and both cautioned that a return too soon could cause a stress fracture in his leg that would only compound his problems.

''It's a very unique ankle sprain,'' Saunders said. ''They said at the time it's going to be worse than a high ankle sprain, and everyone knows those go eight to 12 weeks. So it has nothing to do with him not wanting to play.''

While Saunders doesn't say it, the implication of these statements is that Rubio could miss several more months, which would put his entire season in doubt. At 7-34 (two games ahead of the NBA-worst New York Knicks in the loss column), Minnesota does not have much to play for this season, so being without a key player for a long stretch of time isn't the worst thing in the world. If they keep losing, it only increases their chances of nabbing top odds at the first pick in June's draft.

Yet there are some significant long-term concerns here. The most obvious is that the franchise has committed a lot of money to Rubio and wants to be sure that he is in ideal health as he enters the first year of his four-year extension. However, there's another less measurable issue, which is that young players like Andrew Wiggins (now a top Rookie of the Year candidate), explosive guard Zach LaVine, and big man Gorgui Dieng continue to progress without the presence of Rubio.

It's hard to imagine that the addition of a pass-first point guard with excellent court vision and underrated defensive skills would hurt any of these players, but a rebuilding team can benefit from core players learning to play together before they are ready to challenge for a playoff spot. To put it a bit more simply, the Wolves won't really be sure what they have — and how Rubio and LaVine could potentially play together — until they have a healthy roster. How can a team project the future when its ostensible leader is on the shelf?

It would be silly for the Wolves to concern themselves too much with the effects of Rubio's absence when they're really just trying to find good players who can contribute in the future. Still, a franchise that just experienced a Kevin Love-focused team that continually saw its hopes of contention pushed further into the future by injuries and other delays figures to be particularly attuned to these issues. An intricate rebuilding plan can be held by all manner of unforeseen events.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!