Ricky Rubio will demand the best out of young Cavs, himself

Ricky Rubio will demand the best out of young Cavs, himself

Ricky Rubio has been here before. 

Maybe not physically in the city of Cleveland, but in the same predicament.

For the fourth time in as many seasons, the 30-year-old will enter training camp playing for a different organization that’s trying to show significant growth with its youthful roster, this time around with the Cavaliers. The feeling isn’t so unfamiliar for the veteran point guard.

“It doesn't help when you don't have stability because your role or your teammates change a lot, so it's a little different,” Rubio told reporters in his Cavs introductory press conference. “But my experience says that it doesn't matter where you play — if you play your best, you're gonna have the role you're looking for. So I feel like I can have a good impact right away. I feel like I grew up a lot from the mistakes I did in the past, the things I've learned too as well. So I feel ready for the challenge.”

In the middle of playing for his home country of Spain in this past summer’s Tokyo Olympics, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Rubio to the Cavs for Taurean Prince and a 2022 second-round draft pick.

Between the second and third game of group play, he found out on the morning of Usman Garuba’s draft party. Ready to celebrate his teammate getting selected after a good night’s rest, Rubio turned his phone on and was immediately bombarded by a plethora of messages, heartfelt goodbyes from Minnesota and welcomes from Cleveland. At the time, a surprised Rubio had to block it out. Spain had to gameplan for Luka Doncic and Slovenia, and competing with the national team was his priority. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t on his mind, though.

“When you get traded, there’s a lot going on,” Rubio said. “Especially with a guy with a family, it’s like, ‘Where are we going to go, how are we going to do this’ and all this stuff. At the end of the day, is this going to be the end stop or not?”

Being dealt was another thing that added to Rubio’s plate. Following what he called a “bad year” with the Wolves, he was set on standing out on the international stage and carrying that momentum into this NBA season. He referred to his MVP run at the FIBA World Cup in 2019 when Spain won the championship in convincing fashion. Rubio went on to have his “best year in the league” with the Phoenix Suns after he built his confidence there. 

Having just averaged 25.5 points and 6.0 assists on 52.2% from the field (47.8% on threes) over four Olympic games, including a record 38-point outburst against many of his old NBA teammates on Team USA, Rubio is hoping to repeat history with the Cavs in the 2021-22 campaign.

“It felt good to play that way, especially after getting traded and all that stuff. You want to show that you're worth it,” Rubio said. “I think I'm on the best momentum I ever had in my career with the national team, and I feel great shape-wise. 

“I was feeling great in Phoenix, and then the pandemic happened, and then kind of hit my routine, kind of hit all the timing’s off... But I think I'm back on track, and I feel like I'm in my prime with my career. So I can bring a lot to the table.”

While he hasn’t spoken in-depth with head coach J.B. Bickerstaff quite yet about what the team will ask him to do, in scanning over the Cavs roster, it’s become clear to Rubio that he’ll be assuming the mentorship role in his next pro stint. (Although he doesn’t feel like the old guy yet, he joked: “'’Damn, I'm gonna play with people who were born in the 2000s.' That's gonna be crazy.”) 

Rubio enjoys being a wise, seasoned player with a wealth of knowledge to bestow upon the next generation. It’s not like he always knew the tricks of the trade; he too had to soak up advice and compete against veterans. Rubio credits longtime international guard and Badalona teammate Elmer Bennett for always challenging him when he first started his pro career. The same goes for Gianluca Basile when he and Rubio were together in Barcelona in 2009.

“He's Italian, and the first year I got to Barcelona, we won the Euroleague,” Rubio said. “He came to me like, ‘I'm chasing the Euroleague [title] for 20 years, and you come here at the age of 20 and you win in the first year. That's not easy.’ 

“Then the international team, of course, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, [Juan Carlos Navarro] — all these guys who won the World Cup in 2006. And I got there in 2008 when I was 17 years old, and in practice, it was amazing just being able to be there.”

Just as his vets did with him, Rubio will demand the best out of Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley and the like in Cleveland’s locker room. 

“I love it because I'm good at talking to [young players] and letting them know that they are good, but they can be even better. When I was growing up — I was 16 years old playing professionally here in Spain — I had some mentors like that, who would challenge me every day saying like, ‘You're good, but you're too young to know what I know.’ And you have to go through a lot of stuff before you know all the stuff. So I'm trying to give them my experience. 

“But until they go through that experience, they're not gonna, like, really listen to me. So what I can do is give it to them. And if they take it, it's there for them... A good example this year [is] with Anthony Edwards; I was pulling examples of the league, like Damian Lilliard or other guys who had really good rookie seasons, but they took everything that it takes to be better the year after that. So I'm looking forward to being in the role, and let's see how the young guys really accept the challenge.” 

"He's the best leader I've been around all my life," Edwards said in March.

Rubio contends that putting together a better year after having a great season prior is one of the hardest things to accomplish. There’s a certain amount of attention and pressure for players in those scenarios due to the expectations stemming from their own doing. Asked how he’ll approach this with Garland, a savvy Rubio replied that it will be a test of mentality.

“‘Do I have what it takes to be even better?’ It takes a lot of energy to have the year that Garland] had last year. He had great numbers, great year. But that can translate to a winning team? [Can that] be translated to help the team to win?” Rubio sternly stated. “That's what I'm going to have to challenge him [with] in that area. I'm going to bring my experience the same way I did with [Devin] Booker, the same way I did with Donovan Mitchell, the same way I did with the young stars that I had on my team...”

These cold-hard truths don’t just exist on the individual level either. Entering his 11th season in the NBA, his first as a part of the Eastern Conference, Rubio’s seen his fair share of players. It’s those that buy into the concept of something bigger than themselves that tend to stick.

“I think there’s a lot of talent, but that doesn't make a good team. What makes a good team is putting the pieces together and [making] it work. So we will see how everything works out,” Rubio said. “And as a veteran, it's part of my job to really make that work. Seeing where and how the young talent has to sacrifice something for the team. Because a lot of people, a lot of players come to the league knowing I can do that, I can do this, I can do a lot of stuff. But at the end of the day, what the team needs from you is what makes sense for the team. 

“If you are a rebounder and you want to score, but your job is to rebound the ball and pass it to another guy, I know you can score — but at the end of the day, you have to do what's best for the team. And at the same time, the team has to help the other players grow and make the best opportunity for everybody. But at the same time, not everybody can score, not everybody can shine at that level. And I think there's a lot of winning teams that show that the 15th guy has to be the best guy, the best 15th guy in the league to win. That being said, everybody has to have a role and accept the role and be the best they can be in that role. So I'm pretty excited [about] helping this team make that happen.”

It always helps to have a familiar face around to ease the transition. Granted Kevin Love stays with Cleveland and isn’t moved or bought out, Rubio will reunite with his former Wolves friend for the first time in eight years. (Rubio has a great deal of respect for him championing mental health and admits that Love’s courage to speak up has helped him when he’s struggled.) 

He crossed paths with Bickerstaff as a rookie in that same Minnesota environment with Love; however, due to Rick Adelman’s hiring and the departure of his predecessor Kurt Rambis, it was short-lived. Rubio did receive a vote of confidence from Marc Gasol regarding Bickerstaff, who coached the former All-Star big man during their time together with the Memphis Grizzlies three seasons ago.

Aware that his career clock is ticking, and that his timeline doesn’t exactly match Cleveland’s, Rubio is honest about his desire to compete for an NBA championship. He understands that there are phases to a professional basketball career. It usually starts with personal stats and evolves into a hunger to win. A player in his position usually doesn’t backtrack, particularly reverting to another rebuild. And who's to say he'll even end the season where he starts it?

Rubio knows how much energy and focus it’ll take to combat that realization. That’s why, as he issues challenges to the others, he’s treating this opportunity as one of his own.

"I think one of my main things is I lead by example,” Rubio said. So I'm not going to be just talking, talking, talking and sitting on the side saying you have to do that or this. I'm going to be the first one over there in practice, diving on the floor, whatever it takes to really get it going. So I think they expect all that from me, from the conversations I had, and having like a good impact on the team right away...

“...[Can] this young team take the next step? I've been on teams that did that, and I've been on teams that haven't done that. So I know things that work and [don't] work, but at the end of the day, every team is different. We have to know each other. We have to go to training camp with that mentality that we want to win every game. But we want to win every day, get better every day.”

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