The tales of the unicorn and his legend continue to grow. This past season he rose to meet his biggest challenge yet and in his second season continued his development. His undeniable status as a leader with equally undeniable flaws in his game made his determination and the Wolves failed season that much more poignant to anyone who can see the skills that are there, that could lead to bigger things.
Ben Polk writes…
There was that magical first game of his comeback, against Dallas, when he seemed to just be floating on a pink cloud, dishing assists as if he’d never missed a game. There was the triple-double against San Antonio. There was that incredible string of seven games in February and March in which he averaged nearly 4.5 steals per and defended with a total mania that was both stunning to behold and also plainly unsustainable. There was the home game against Miami during that same stretch, in which Rubio attempted to stem the tide of that inevitable, game-clinching Heat run wave by personally preventing LeBron from dribbling the ball up the floor. It was an impossible, doomed, beautiful effort–but for an amazing moment it seemed like he just might single-handedly derail both the Heat’s offense and the greatest player in the world.
Of course he couldn’t sustain that energy. Especially as the season wound down, as fatigue and disappointment set in, that all-encompassing effort began to look more like simple gambling. And many of those failed gambles resulted in impossible situations for the Wolves’ bigs, outmanned, forced to defend an un-contained ballhandler in the paint. Rubio’s gifts allowed him to do the glorious thing–disrupting the entire offense by hawking the point guard–but he often failed at doing the simple, fundamental thing, like staying in front of the ballhandler, or conscientiously pursuing him around a screen. Many of those six-steal nights were also six-turnover nights. He suffered through horrendous shooting slumps, forcing jumpers and looking terrible doing it. The quality of his effort began to be contingent on the inconsistencies of his emotions. When he was not fanatic, he seemed despondent and drained.
Right now, Rubio’s game and his temperament produce ecstatic moments, moments that seem touched from the beyond. Sometimes these moments last for just an instant; sometimes they last for a quarter or even an entire game. But think, now, of the great ballhandlers and perimeter scorers we’ve watched in the late rounds of the last few playoffs: Tony Parker; LeBron and Wade; Westbrook and Durant. These players have learned–or are learning–to produce, not just transcendent moments, but longform narratives. Their brilliance is written across multiple possessions, multiple games, entire seasons.
When we are young, we cling to our youth. We may believe that those visceral, ecstatic surges are the only truly authentic things we know; and so we dread their passing away, dread sinking into a flat, dull, uninflected existence. And those surges are beautiful, no doubt. But life–and the NBA season–is too long and exhausting for us to subsist on them alone. Great players know that in order to be what their teams need them to be, their greatness must stem not simply from massive upwellings of emotion, but from habit and process. Its a subtler, broader kind of ecstasy, harder to spot and to appreciate maybe, but also more nuanced and more sustainable. Ricky Rubio is not there yet, but he’ll get there; and when he does, it will be a real sight to behold.