6 min read

Ricky Rubio, hype and the great unknown

Really all you see streaking up the court is the hair. At least, it’s the first thing you notice. And to many, they see the hair, the flash and the crafty plays and they see someone else. Something bigger. They see something that makes them nickname this guy LaPistola. That’s right, the Spanish Pistol Pete, Ricky Rubio.

Rubio dashes across halfcourt and busts out his signature play, the fake-behind-the-back-wrap-around.  It’s truly a fantastic play that not only brings you to your feet and makes you start clapping out of pure reaction, but also a slick play that helped score two points. But best of all, it’s sexy. It’s flashy. It just looks awesome. And because of plays like that, we’re lured into this young prospect and we don’t even really know why. We watch the mixtapes with the no-look lobs, the between-the-legs dishes and the behind-the-back-wrap-arounds. For the same reason people like And 1 Mixtapes, they like Ricky Rubio. He epitomizes the beauty of basketball. Nothing showcases how breathtaking the game can be like a perfectly executed pass. And because of this, we’ve fallen for this guy, yet we don’t really even know anything about him.

Henry Abbott had a tremendous breakdown of Ricky Rubio this week and it really hit my brain hard. Why are we all so high on this guy? Myself definitely included.

Driving home from the draft lottery late Tuesday I was a little overwhelmed by one thought:
I don’t know enough about Ricky Rubio. I must have heard 100 smart people sing his praises that night. He’s the one player with real buzz. A guard who is almost unassailed as the second best prospect in the 2009 NBA draft.
But what does he do? What are his NBA skills? On what basis do we believe he’s a truly special basketball player? Is he really good enough that he can be picked high without even working out against his contemporaries? What could I see Ricky Rubio do that would make clear how it is he’s a better bet than Brandon Jennings, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Jonny Flynn, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, Patrick Mills, Nick Calathes, Eric Maynor, Sergio Llull, A.J. Price, Nando de Colo and the like?
At the lottery, everybody said the same admiring things about his feel for the game, handle, vision, leadership … but sometimes these ideas leap from mind to mind without ever touching ground. I found myself looking around the room and wondering: How much have you even seen Rubio play? What kind of vetting has he had?

Read Henry’s breakdown. He’s basically saying everything I’m saying here, but much better. So if you want to just open a new tab and read Henry’s article and never read another word of this, I won’t be offended. Seriously, go right ahead. But today, Chad Ford dropped this little nugget that’s sure to get people chattering:

“Speaking of Rubio, I encountered a number of NBA GMs and scouts this week who were pretty skeptical about Rubio’s NBA future. They see him as an average athlete who can’t shoot well and who is turnover prone, and wonder aloud why he’s ranked so high.
A few GMs said Rubio isn’t in their top five. While I’ve heard doubts expressed before, the skepticism was expressed much more strongly this week by more execs. I’m going to keep digging. Maybe Henry Abbott struck a chord with his TrueHoop post on Rubio.
In any case, if Memphis and Oklahoma City decide against Rubio and don’t trade either of their picks to a team that wants to move up to get him, it’s hard to see the Sacramento Kings passing on Rubio at No. 4.”

Well then. You have to wonder how much of this is posturing. Maybe Donnie Walsh is saying this because he’s praying Rubio will drop all the way down to him. Maybe Geoff Petrie is running around saying, “Nah, he’s not that good. Seriously guys, he can’t even shoot!” but is lighting Spanish vigils each night before he goes to bed. You can never tell with these guys. They’re all playing the game and they all want their guy. So it may mean nothing and in fact, it probably does mean nothing.

But regardless, it made me think, when it comes down to it, how much of where Rubio is at is based on hype? I know that I’ve only seen him play a total of six full games. For most of my opinion, I’ve deferred to people smarter than me and people that have seen more of him than me. But as we draw closer to June 25th, you have to ask yourself, “Is he really all that awesome? Can he step in and play in this league right now?” I don’t think any of us know. While every player – Blake Griffin included – is really a question mark when it comes down to it, we at least have some sampling size to work with. We know Jonny Flynn can play against college basketball’s best players. Same with Ty Lawson. Same with James Harden. Heck, same with Hasheem Thabeet. But what do we know of Rubio? That he was okay in the Olympics? That he averaged 10 points, six assists in Europe this season? That he’s got some truly bad ace highlight tapes?

Lots of people do compare him to Pete Maravich. I see the look alike-ness with the hair and the flashy passes, but keep this in mind – Pistol averaged 44.2 points a game at LSU. For his career. Rubio averaged just over 10 this year in Spain. So don’t get too carried away there. Just because Liam Neeson sort of looks like Scott Brooks, doesn’t mean he can coach a basketball team.

This is what happens a lot. The hype ball gets rolling to where it finally reaches the tipping point – everybody has bought in so now if you go against the grain, you just don’t know anything. Or it tips the other way and people look for the negatives. I think we’ve sort of reached that point with Rubio.

But with the hype, because everybody is on board, we just assume. We don’t really know, but since somebody else said so, it’s got to be true. Sometimes the hype is for real, sometimes not. But right now with Rubio, a lot of people are making blanket statements (myself absolutely included) about a player I honestly know fairly little about. Why? Because everyone else said he was great. And most of the time, that’s good enough for me.

Now I know a lot of folks like Rubio and don’t get me wrong, I do too. I still have him as my second best player. But I’m not locked into him. He does have serious point guard skills. He has wonderful court vision. He has a feel for the game that’s impossible to teach. That much is obvious, even just with some 10-minute highlight tape. But the inevitable question always pops up: He played in Europe against second or maybe even third-tier players – what happens against the elite of the NBA? We have to ask that with every prospect, but you have to ask it even more with a guy like Rubio. He played against, I don’t know, maybe 5-10 future pros in Europe. Blake Griffin, Ty Lawson, James Harden, Hasheem Thabeet, Jordan Hill and Co. played almost every game against at least one guy that was going to have a chance at the next level. There is a difference. And it matters.

Like I said, I don’t know what to think about all of it. It may be GM silliness, it may be serious talk or it may be something else. But when I ask myself point blank, Why do I like Ricky Rubio?, it’s hard to have an answer. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll have to admit that you haven’t seen him play all that much and you really don’t know a ton about him. And I don’t like having to base my opinion of a player on the opinions of others. I like to have watched a player enough to know on my own. That’s not the case with Rubio. So in the end, I’m left asking, “Is it all hype? Or can the guy play?” And if I’m being honest, I think it’s a combination of both. I’d be freaking stoked if he fell into the Thunder’s lap at three. But I think that may be more because I’m fascinated by his lure and not by his play. That may not make sense, but it does to me and that’s all that matters.

Rubio could make a great pro. I tend to think he’s going to need at least two years to adapt to the pro game. He’s not a change-your-team-as-soon-as-he-steps-on-the-floor kind of guy. He’s a slow cooker – somebody that marinates a bit and then it clicks all of a sudden. But when guys come in with the kind of hype he does, they need to produce fairly quickly, or they’re labeled a bust right away. Henry articulated that perfectly in his piece on him.

For some reason, I’ve been hooked by the floppy-haired Spaniard. No matter what, I just think he’s going to be awesome. But I don’t really know why I think this. Maybe it’s the Lure of Rubio or maybe it’s for real. He is just 18, mind you. He’s got a lot of time to develop. And who cares whether or not you think he fits with the Thunder. That’s not really the point here. The question is, is he worth our time? Is he actually the player we all think he is or is the just hype? What do we actually know about him? Lucky for us, we don’t have to decide. But we do reserve the right to complain.