MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Wait 'till Ricky comes back.
It seems like that's been the hopeful mantra for the Minnesota Timberwolves all season long.
Guards getting torched by opposing backcourts? Wait 'till Ricky comes back.
Nikola Pekovic not getting the same clean looks in the paint he did last year? Wait 'till Ricky comes back.
Attendance a little on the sluggish side early on? Wait 'till Ricky comes back.
Ricky Rubio knows that there are a lot of expectations being put on his return to the Timberwolves. He knows he is being cast as the magic sand that will fill in every crack and mask any blemish in the team's promising, if flawed, foundation as soon as he hits the court. It's nothing new for basketball prodigy who has been carrying the weight of expectations since he was a teenager in Spain.
"I don't know why, but the pressure has been following me since I turned pro," Rubio told The Associated Press on Friday. "I was 14 and I was they said I was unimpressive. 'He's too young to play. He's not going to do well.' And I did well back in Spain.
"The pressure followed me when I came here and they said, 'Oh Ricky's coming after two years, he's going to bring everything to this team.' It's just hard, but it's something that I'm used to. I like the pressure, I like the challenge. The more difficult the challenge, the better it is for me."
What makes this hurdle different than any other he's had to leap before it is that Rubio is recovering from his first significant injury. It's been almost nine months since he tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee late in a game against the Lakers, ending a terrific rookie season and sucking the life right out of a young Timberwolves team that he helped return to relevance in the Western Conference.
Rubio was scratched from the Wolves' game against Cleveland on Friday night, but his season debut appears to be imminent. Minnesota has four days off after the game against the Cavs before a home game against Denver on Wednesday. Neither the team, nor Rubio has set a date for his return, but it's clear he's starting to get a little antsy.
"I want to play like a month ago, but they don't let me," Rubio said with a smile, probably only half-joking. "Now it's kind of a thing when my knee feels ready, it's going to be the time. But I don't know. I need a couple more practices to see how I am. Actually, I don't know if I'm going to be ready next week or three weeks. It depends how I feel and how my knee responds."
To put it simply, Rubio is too important to the franchise's future for the Wolves coaches and medical staff to go out on too shaky a limb by bringing him back a game or two early. Along with All-Star Kevin Love, he is the glue that holds everything together, the headliner on the marquee, the apple of a swooning fan base's eye.
"I don't think I'm the key or I'm going to change the team," he said. "But I'm going to help it."
Still, Rubio and the team are trying to temper the out-sized eagerness surrounding his return. He hasn't played in a game in nine months. It's going to take time for him to get his timing and conditioning back up to speed. So that beautiful game that he plays might not be so pretty at first.
"I've been out like eight, nine months," he said. "I'm not giving excuses. It's how it is. If you're out for eight months or nine, the first game you're not going to play like you used to. It's going to take time, one, two, three months, who knows? I have to get used to the rhythm again and get used to playing again."
After all, not everyone is Adrian Peterson. Just across town, the Minnesota Vikings running back has defied all the odds in his own comeback from a torn ACL. He leads the NFL in rushing and appears to be playing better than he ever has, less than a year removed from his injury.
"That's crazy. Nobody can do that," Rubio said. "He did it and he came back even better than he was. I'm watching some games and I'm not a big fan of football but because he had the same injury and he's playing for the Vikings, I follow him. It's real impressive performance, what he's doing. I wish I could be as good as he does after that injury."
Love knows how his friend is feeling. The power forward missed most of the first month of the season with a broken right hand, and he heard everyone saying how things would be so much better as soon as he was in the lineup. But the Wolves lost four of Love's first five games and clearly struggled initially to incorporate him back into the mix.
"For me, obviously I want to be cautiously optimistic from that standpoint because I know a lot of pressure was put on me, not knowing how my hand was going to respond," Love said. "I know I haven't been the 25 (points) and 10 (rebounds) guy that I usually am. ... I haven't been quite putting up the numbers and helping the team as much as I can, but we do have an 8-9 record.
"For Ricky, I've said all along that I know he's going to return probably sometime in December. But as far as putting that type of pressure on him, I think our organization and our coaching staff and the guys, the players, have done a good job of doing that."
Rubio knows one of his trademark no-look bounce passes may miss the target in the early going. The alley oops may be a little harder to come by, and his timing on the pick-and-roll may not be as sharp. But as long as he's healthy, he's OK with that. And that's why even with his first game apparently so close, he has to be sure he's completely ready.
"If I come back earlier than I'm supposed to, it's bad for my knee and bad for the team too because I'm not going to give my 100 percent," he said. "And if I get hurt again, it's not going to help the team. And if I play and I'm not playing good, it's not going to help the team. I want to play so bad, but I want to be focused and I want to be ready to play when I'm ready."
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