Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 1/25/12
Theres a viral YouTube video starring a talking shell that poses a surprisingly philosophical question. In an almost indignant tone because yes, miniature exoskeletons can be indignant the shell, Marcel, asks his audience: People say my head is too big for my body, and I say, Compared to what? Its a valid question. Now consider the Timberwolves. Ricky Rubio has become Minnesotas talking seashell, a novelty. If a person can go viral, he has. Theres nothing quite like him. Think also about the criticisms leveled at the 21-year-old before he even put on a Minnesota uniform. He cant shoot. He cant defend. He cant do this. He isnt that. Again, compared to what? The NBA today doesnt have another player quite like Rubio, with his unique passing motion and ability to execute a perfect pass with a flick of the wrist and a glance in the opposite direction. He doesnt fit within the mental image most people conjure when they think of basketball players. He doesnt look like Kobe Bryant or Rajon Rondo, still less like Michael Jordan or LeBron James. Hes not polished or powerful, with skinny legs and sagging socks, those curling eyelashes and facial hair that looks at times like a teenagers first attempts at a real beard. And so people try to translate. They try to compare, to create links that dont exist. They squint a little and see a frame that looks a bit like Pete Maravichs, and when Rubio doesnt score 24 points a game, they affirm that earlier critique: He cant shoot. When hes overpowered in a bad matchup or makes a rare mistake, he cant play defense its as simple as that. Rubio doesnt get much slack. "I think we get in trouble in this league all the time trying to manufacture players into someone that you want them to be and not let them be themselves," Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. In a way, thats the hallmark of Adelmans system, which emphasizes freedom, especially on offense. He lets players be themselves, and over his career hes been able to capitalize on those individual strengths. That will also be the key to success with Rubio. Adelman cant mold him into the point guard he wants him to be. Instead, hell have to tweak his offense around Rubio, and he already has. And though Rubio has obviously been an asset to the Timberwolves this season hes third in the NBA in steals, with 2.56 per game, and sixth in assists, averaging 8.7 the rookie has also brought a set of challenges with him, beyond just the obvious need to adjust his teams lineup. Most noticeably, Rubio has seemed to create, or at least encourage, a unique breed of fan. Theyre those same people drawing the comparisons, but they talk out of both sides of their mouths. In one breath, Rubio is disappointing, failing to live up to any of those far-fetched parallels. But in the next, theyre cheering, buying season tickets, wearing brand-new jerseys. Its as if Rubio is a seventh-grade girl, and his admirers are the pimply adolescent boys who cant bear to admit how they feel. And Adelman has had to listen to those fans, or at least to drown them out. He has reckoned with the days-long question of When will he start? When? When? When? Hes been asked over and over if the rookie is exceeding expectations, the kind of questions How about that Rubio kid? one might expect someones 90-year-old grandfather to be posing. Hundreds of players have come to the NBA from Europe, but none to the fanfare of Rubio. The two years he spent deliberating before signing with the Timberwolves added to that hype, but much of it was there in 2009, when the even scrawnier and shaggier Spaniard put on a Timberwolves cap for the first time. In Rubios draft night interview with Craig Sager, Sager talked about Rubios nasty defense in the 2008 Olympics. He touted that defense as one of Rubios biggest skills, a fact of his game. And back then, few questioned it. Back then, Ricky Rubio was exciting. When he was drafted, he gained a fan base and a set of expectations. When he shied away from leaving Spain, his personal actions betrayed those on-court expectations. People had two years to imagine Rubio in a Timberwolves uniform, to simulate games in their mind. They watched losses and wondered how he could have changed them, and that strange breed of fan, one whos both hopeful and hedging his bets, was born. A month into his NBA career, Rubio has chipped away at those expectations. People are giving in. His defense is solid, his shooting is decent and his ballhandling and assists make up for any other failures. Seeing Rubio in person makes him real and lessens that pressure for perfection. Its become acceptable for him to have good nights and bad ones, as well. Hes 21. Many more games will pass before anyone can say if Rubio is a star or a bust, and even more before theres an answer to that career-defining question: Compared to what? Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter
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