NBA types will have their eyes on Spanish phenom Rubio at Olympics
For NBA fans, this year's Olympic basketball tournament will be about more than just watching the likes of Kobe Bryant (United States), Yao Ming (China), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) and Pau Gasol (Spain) lead their respective national teams on a quest to win the gold medal.
It might also be a chance to see perhaps the next great international NBA import.
In other words, a chance to watch Ricky Rubio.
Hailed as a child prodigy, Rubio is a 17-year-old Spanish point guard whom some NBA types consider a possible No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft. The lanky, 6-foot-3 floor general is the youngest player to appear in the Spanish League, which is considered the top league in Europe, having made his debut there shortly before turning 15. Last year, he averaged 10.5 points and 4.0 assists in 23 minutes per game as the starting point guard for DKV Joventut.
"He's the real deal," said one Eastern Conference general manager who wished to remain anonymous because the NBA does not allow executives to talk about underage players. "He could be the No. 1 player picked next year [if he were to declare for the draft]. He's going to be a top five pick for sure."
Flashy but disciplined, the dark-haired Rubio has been compared to Pete Maravich for his looks and Magic Johnson for his passing ability. He needs to add bulk and improve his jumper a bit, but scouts say he's got a feel for the game that can't be taught. They also say he's an aggressive, Manu Ginobili-like defender and highly competitive, but cool under pressure.
"He's a real point guard, he defends, he plays hard and he's got some pizzazz to his game," the GM said. "The kid just knows how to play. He's been playing with men the past three or four years, for one of the better teams in Spain."
Despite his rising status overseas, Rubio has remained virtually unknown among casual NBA fans here in America. In an effort to shield him from the media and keep his childhood as normal as possible, his parents have all but barred him from doing interviews until he turns 18. Still, word about Rubio's game has made the rounds, and his highlight clips (like this one) have become YouTube staples for American hoops cognoscenti.
It should be noted that coaches of many top national teams are loath to give a lot of playing time to young players in high-profile events like the Olympics. There is a pecking order involved that might not apply as much to, say, an NBA team. As one longtime NBA player personnel director said, "Spain didn't even put Pau Gasol on its  Olympic team, and he was good enough to be drafted in the NBA (the following) season." And this year's Spanish team is loaded with seasoned veterans Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez and Raul Lopez in the backcourt.
However, Rubio might prove to be the exception to this rule. He is considered to be that good and should get a decent amount of time in Beijing, at least enough for NBA fans to get a glimpse at his vast potential. (Team USA will face Spain in group play on Aug. 16 at 10:15 a.m. ET.)
Either way, the buzz about Rubio will increase in the next year or two. He is eligible to enter the 2009 draft, but he might decide to wait another year. Rubio's contract with Joventut runs two more seasons, and there is said to be a hefty buyout.
Rubio's U.S. agent, Dan Fegan, would not comment on his client's future plans. He did say, however, that the soon-to-be-18-year-old has shown the maturity to handle his burgeoning fame despite his youth.
"On the basketball court, he's a virtuoso," Fegan said. "But otherwise, he's a typical kid. I mean, he goes home after games and does homework."