Hard to compare this 17-year-old
BEIJING -- Tonight I felt like a basketball A&R guy.
Ricky Rubio, the 17-year-old Spanish point guard playing in his first senior international tournament, has a great crossover name to go with a great crossover game. He's a perfect YouTube storm of looks, style, generation and internationalism -- Maravich meets Menudo. (That YouTube mention is no idle drop: Check out a Rick Mix and you'll be hooked like a schoolgirl.)
The ESP gracing Spain's uniforms represents the nation's three-letter IOC abbreviation, but on Rubio's teenage chest it screams Extra-Sensory Perception.
The story thus far: At 14, Rubio actually played in Spain's ACB, the top European pro league, for DKV Joventut Badalona near his Catalan hometown of El Masnou.
At 15, he led Spain to FIBA's Under 16 European title, along the way registering a quadruple-double and, in a double-overtime win over Russia in the final, 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists, seven steals and one half-court buzzer-beater to force the first OT.
At 16, he led the Euroleague (a man's league) in steals (a man's stat).
Under NBA rules, he won't be draft eligible for two more years, so if I were indeed a basketball A&R guy, I couldn't whip out a contract quite yet.
But you can already see the benefits of exposure to older players -- the even emotional keel, fearlessness, and willingness to give and take contact. At the offensive end, there's the Mediterranean expressiveness, once exemplified by the late Drazen Petrovic of Sibenik, Croatia, another port-city Pistol Pete-esque prodigy with basketball in his blood. During Saturday night's 119-82 U.S. defeat of Spain, Rubio showcased off-the-dribble lob passes for alley-oop dunks and intuitive wrap-around passes to bigs in the lane. Oh, how he'd fit in on Team USA, which outscored Spain 32-0 on fastbreak points.
But it's his defense that had me ready to offer Rubio a contract. You don't usually find defensive precociousness in young guards with show in their games.
He saved Spain's bacon in pool play against China, helping lead his team from 15 points down and somehow prising the ball on a crucial possession from China guard Liu Wei at the end of regulation. It's a sequence I'm still trying to sort out on the QuickTime Player of my brain.
Then, in the middle of the second quarter Saturday night, he flat-out stole the ball from LeBron James in the halfcourt.
And early in the fourth, he picked off a Redeem Team pass at midcourt and went sailing in for a layup, only to wind up on the floor thanks to a challenge from Chris Bosh -- whereupon Rubio laid himself out again, nearly stealing the ball back from Bosh.
The hoops cognoscenti are still trying to settle on the best "plays like" analogies. Pete Maravich is probably too easy -- too reflective of who he looks like. On defense, think Walt Frazier. On offense, Steve Nash. Or -- if he continues to grow from his current 6-foot-4 -- Magic Johnson, only with Stacey Augmon-ite tendencies.
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski apologizes in advance if he sounds old-fashioned, then volunteers words like "verve" and "moxie" to describe him. But Rubio also has a trait that citizens of Catalonia tend to share and universally esteem, and for which they have a word: seni, a kind of shrewd common sense.
I'm just glad that 10:15 p.m. -- when Saturday's game tipped off in Beijing -- wasn't past Ricky's bedtime.