There are many people who have opinions on the T'Wolves this year—what they're doing wrong, who they should trade, why they haven't taken over the NBA yet—but few with a more informed opinion than Ricky Rubio. That's one reason I wanted to talk to him. Another reason: he's in his sixth year in Minnesota, and while the young Wolves have taken on a higher profile among basketball diehards this year, Rubio has been here before. He's like a bridge to a different era of Internet hype, complete with the backlash, and then perseverance. That gives him a perspective that many of his teammates don't have.
He's still very good, too. On Wednesday, the Wolves beat the Rockets, and in addition to 23 and 18 from Karl Towns, Rubio had 10 points and a franchise-record 17 assists.
We caught up for a few minutes in Washington D.C. last week, after a Wolves practice, and before a much-needed off night. He was in a good mood. "I like culture," he said with a smile, "So D.C. is a great city for me." And we talked about everything: the early struggles for the Wolves, his thoughts on Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the future in Minnesota, the Wolves at the White House, and more.
Andrew Sharp: Coming into the year, the Wolves were expected to be one of the most enjoyable teams in the league, and obviously it hasn't quite worked out that way. How do you guys try to stay positive through tough losses.
Ricky Rubio: Well, we know it's a process. We're rebuilding. We know when a new coach comes into a team, he wants to do his philosophy, and we've gotta learn it. It takes time. We don't have to get too discouraged with what we're doing.
We've been playing better lately, but it's true, the beginning of the season was not as good as we expected. We gotta be professionals. This is a long process, but we gotta trust it. The story wasn't what we wanted, but the past month, we've seen improvement. That gives us the drive to work hard every day.
AS: Some nights, it seems like guys are checked out emotionally, and others it almost looks like the younger players are too locked in. Do you think it would help if guys were having more fun with this process?
RR: Yeah, I mean, when you're having fun, that means things are working. But when things aren't working, you can't just go out there and say,"Try to have fun." You have to really try to do things the right way. So, yeah, we are trying to find our identity. It takes time.
AS: Back in December you said the team wasn't playing with heart, and didn't have the desire. Has that changed? How do you fix that?
Rubio: We got better. People started realizing, first of all, we gotta win games before caring about ourselves. So we had a better stretch. But we've still got to finish games. At some points we're up by 10, 15 in a lot of games, and we just give up the lead really quick. It seems like it's easy to build these leads, but it's not, and as a young team, we've gotta realize that if we're up 10, we can't relax.
AS: How's your relationship with Wolves head coach Tom Thibodeau?
RR: He's a really defensive-minded guy, really knows a lot about basketball, spends a lot of time in the gym every day. He wants to get better. We just have to get on the same page.
AS: What about you and the younger guards? They've drafted Tyus (Jones) and Kris (Dunn) the past two years. How's your relationship been with them?
RR: I get along really well with them. I mean, I wouldn't call myself a vet (laughs), but I've been here six years. I can give my experience and share my experience with them, and it's always good to have another guy coming for your spot. It forces you to be ready, you know?
AS: What's been most surprising watching Karl-Anthony Towns up close? Were you prepared for how good he'd be?
RR: A lot of people had high expectations, and you could tell he has a lot of weapons. What was amazing was that a rookie could be that consistent. Last year, in the beginning of the year, we were thinking that he couldn't keep up at that level. But he did, and he even improved through the season, which is hard to do as a rookie. And he'll keep doing it now so it's great. The sky is the limit.
AS: One player who's pretty polarizing is Andrew Wiggins. You guys have some similarities as far as teenage fame, crazy expectations. Do you give him any advice at all?
RR: Well, take LeBron and Steph Curry. Their games don't have a lot of criticisms, and if those players still have haters, everybody's gonna have them. You know what I mean? So just stick with what you think you can do good, and realize what you have to improve. Wiggs, he really works hard every summer. We saw in the beginning of the season, he improved his three pointer, and that was a big weakness early in his career.
He works hard to improve. Forget about the media, what the media says. There are always going to be people who don't like you. But the person you gotta care about is yourself. If you like you, you're gonna be good.
AS: You said earlier you're not a vet, and it's true, you're only 26 years old. But it feels like you've been around longer. You've been in the public eye since you were 14.
RR: (laughs) It's true.
AS: So what are you working on now? How do you improve in the middle of your career?
Rubio: I think I'm getting better at controlling the tempo of the game, controlling the ball. I don't get as many turnovers as I used to early in my career. So that's one part that I try to improve. Another part, not just the shooting, but scoring. I gotta be more aggressive. But at the same time, run the team. It's just something, "Should I run the team or should I score?" I gotta learn how to balance that, and be more aggressive sometimes.
AS: One of the obstacles you've faced is health, especially early on. How have the injuries affected you mentally?
RR: It was tough, it was tough. Coming over here at the age of 20, I'd never had any serious injuries. And then I was playing great my rookie season, and I get hurt. Then you work so hard, really hard, to get back and have a full season, and you get hurt again. Mentally, it's tough to go down, stand up again, and try to stay healthy. It took time. But I really feel like I'm adapting to the league. You gotta know your body, and how it works. Some nights you don't feel it, but you still find a way to play hard, too.
AS: Does the obsession over three-point shooting ever wear you down?
RR: Well, it was, in the beginning. But like I said, experience gives me that thing where I only care about me, and what I have to say about me. You're going to have haters, forever. As much success as you have, you're going to have even more (haters). So just focus on what you do. I know what I'm doing, trying to get better every day, that's where it counts.
AS: Do you let yourself wonder about your future with this team? How do you balance that bigger picture with challenges night to night?
RR: I'm focused on the present. I've really learned, first, focusing on the future and thinking about the future doesn't let you enjoy where you are now. And second of all, it's things that you can't control. You can't know. I've been here for five, this is my sixth year, and I've had a lot of different teammates. We don't know who's going to be here in two years, three years. But all you have to do is focus on this season, keep it in this season. Right now is what we're working on. Focused on making this project work.
AS: So you've been with the Wolves for six years now. When you first got drafted, how much did you know about Minnesota?
RR: I didn't know anything. I just knew about the Minnesota Timberwolves because of [Kevin Garnett], but I didn't know anything at all about the city. Before coming to the states, I'd only come to L.A. and New York, that's the only the two cities.
AS: What was that first year like?
RR: It was really fun. It was impressive, actually. Minnesota impressed me a lot. [Minneapolis] is a city that I can call home now, a second-home. At the time, I was a little afraid of the cold. Everybody was telling me it was super cold. But actually, the people were super nice, great restaurants. It's one of the most underrated cities in the league.
AS: You came in around the same time as Kevin Love, too. Obviously, a lot has changed since then. How's that relationship now?
RR: We're friends. He was a good teammate and a great player, and off the court, he was funny. That kind of dude who's funny, lowkey. And we still talk here and there. It's not a relationship that sticks forever, really close. But you know, we're cool.
AS: That's good to hear. It seems like things were tense for a minute there.
RR: Of course, we missed him over here. He was the face of the team. But this is business, and we gotta understand.
AS: Yeah, it was also a rare case where it seems like things worked out for everyone.
RR: Yeah. You know, we got Wiggs, and he got the ring with LeBron. I even congratulated him. I was happy to see his success. That's my ex-teammate, and it's great.
AS: So when you're not playing basketball during the season, what's your go-to activity to relax?
RR: Well, I have a lot. When you're in the NBA, you've got a lot of time where you've gotta relax. But at the same time, um...
AS: Can't relax too much.
RR: (laughs) Exactly. So I like to keep my mind busy. I like all sorts of games that make you think. Chess is one of the games I play a lot, read a lot of books. I'll stay in touch with my family back home, it's hard with time zones. But Facetime helps me a lot with family.
AS: Do you play chess with teammates?
RR: No, not with any teammates. (plays invisible controller) They're more into video games.
AS: What's the last great book that you read?
Rubio: Right now, I've got two. One is Letting It Go, which is a really good book. I like books which make you think and learn new things, it's not just history book or a novel. I like to read psychologist's books. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, that's one of my favorites. Those kinds of books.
AS: What about the off-season? If you get a chance to vacation, what's your dream itinerary?
RR: I want to go to Australia, rent an RV, go two weeks, three weeks with my friends. Just go all over the coast. And then South America, too. Go backpacking. And then maybe India.
AS: Well, this week, I saw some of the White House photos. Looks like you guys were having a good time over there. What was your favorite part of the tour?
RR: We got to meet the President, that was really cool. And then... We got to see the Oval [Office]. That was cool. You only see that in movies, you know what I mean? We couldn't take a picture, so I couldn't show my family that we were there, but they believe me.
AS: Was it nice to visit while Obama's still in office? He's a pretty serious basketball fan.
RR: Yeah, it was actually great. He talked about his experience going to the games in Chicago, and talking back and forth about the NBA. It's great to have such an important person, maybe the most important person in the world, talking to us about a game that we love.
AS: Who on the Wolves would make the best President?
RR: Ahhhh. The best president. I would say... Cole Aldrich.
RR: Smart guy, knows what he's doing, and because all the other guys are 20... (laughs) I can't pick any of the 20-year-olds.