Ricky Rubio's debut for the Minnesota Timberwolves against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night wasn't perfect. It was dazzling, entertaining and exhilarating, but it wasn't perfect. The Timberwolves' guard scored just six points and his team lost. And yet, none of that matters. For now the nitpicking is pointless.
Rubio still has room to improve, but that's besides the point. The Timberwolves as a whole have a lot to improve. But in order to even begin down the path of identifying weaknesses, the Timberwolves needed to know that Rubio could play. They needed to know that the two years they wasted hoping he was everything they thought he would be was worth it. They needed to know that the roster moves they made to try to find players who fit with the idea of Rubio were not complete wastes of time.
It's just one game, but you can see that there was a method to David Kahn's madness. Rubio's good enough to live up to the hype, and the Timberwolves' rebuilding project is finally pointed in the right direction.
Of course, the "hype" surrounding Rubio is very misguided. Being stationed in Spain caused many fans to forget about what Rubio actually does well. He earned a reputation as Jason Williams 2.0, a guy who makes the difficult passes, but struggles defensively, doesn't score enough and won't make the easy play. Only one of those stereotypes is true: the scoring part. Rubio pretty much shattered the other two in Monday night's game.
Rubio is flashy, but only because it's necessary. He'll make beautiful one-handed passes, but only because it's the best way to get the ball to his target. Take the fast break that happened midway through the second quarter. Rubio dribbled to the right side on the secondary break, and Thabo Sefolosha picked him up. Out of the corner of his eye, Rubio saw Russell Westbrook and Derrick Williams trailing the play. Knowing Westbrook would immediately run to him, Rubio kept his dribble alive on the sldeline. As soon as Westbrook drifted to him, Rubio ripped a perfect one-handed bounce pass to Williams for a dunk. It was flashy, but it was also the only way to make the play happen.
That's the thing about Rubio: his play is dynamic, but also cerebral. He's just as likely to pitch the ball ahead to a teammate in early post position than he is to dribble around looking for assists. He won't force the fast break when it isn't there. On defense, he slides his feet well, has active hands and feet on pick and rolls and talks defensively more than anyone on the roster. He's a leader, a grinder and a baller. He's an announcers' cliche come to life.
And now, with him in tow, the Timberwolves can figure out their actual plan. The current iteration of the roster still has a lot of mismatched parts. Kevin Love is obviously a keeper, mostly because his game corresponds so well with Rubio's. Like Rubio, Love's reputation is a misnomer. He puts up big numbers, but is truly impressive because of the way he passes, screens, cuts into open space, boxes out and pitches the ball ahead on the break. He even showed that he can slide his feet defensively, something that's supposedly a weakness. He's an obvious keeper.
For everyone else, the jury is still out. Michael Beasley can cut into open space, but only to create his own shot. For now, he's the placeholder scorer, but that will eventually have to change. Williams showed flashes in his debut, but he also forced a lot of drives and struggled to finish around the rim. J.J. Barea looked like a nice piece, but he's just a third guard. Wes Johnson can shoot and defend, but he also is invisible far too often. There's still a lot of work to be done here before the Timberwolves can become a real force.
But now that Rubio is here, the building can all begin. There's hope again, and before you get anywhere as a franchise, you have to have hope. Hope provides a vision. Hope provides a blueprint. Hope, paired with a great coach in Rick Adelman, allows for an informed opinion on a team's strengths and weaknesses. Rubio isn't perfect, but he provides actual hope, something the Timberwolves haven't had since 2004.
That hope manifested itself on two late possessions that Timberwolves fans should clip and save for the future. With three minutes left, Rubio slid into the middle off a pick and roll, and instead of passing, he turned and shot a jumper. Swish, one-point Timberwolves lead. On the Thunder's next possession, Rubio, stationed on the weak side, called out the coverage on their pick and roll play, stepped into the driving lane to force the pass to the corner, then stripped the ball away and got the steal.
The sequence didn't result in a win this time, but fans can easily construct a scenario where it will. All it takes is a properly-constructed rebuilding project that, after two long years, can finally begin.