His wide-shouldered body is certain to grow stronger as he matures. But will he ever be able to defend the quicker point guards? "No," acknowledges the exec who views Rubio as the top pick, "but no one can. Come on, I watched [Derrick] Rose and Rondo go by one another in the first round [of the playoffs], and they couldn't guard each other either. I don't care if my point guard is great athletically, but I do want him to be my smartest player."
On May 18 Rubio demonstrated the leadership he will bring to the NBA. As representatives from four teams—Kings G.M. Geoff Petrie and Clippers G.M. and coach Mike Dunleavy, as well as scouts for the Bobcats and the Grizzlies—watched, Rubio, who had been sidelined by a hip pointer in the second quarter of Joventut's 79--62 Game 1 loss to Real Madrid two days earlier, entered Game 2 to an extended roar in the sixth minute. Over 29 furious minutes he would drive Joventut to an 82--77 win with 16 points, six assists, seven rebounds and four steals. He wasn't the fastest player on the court, but he looked like he was, taking a converted free throw and driving it end to end through traffic to finish lefthanded. He repeatedly beat Madrid's point guards—Raul Lopez, formerly of the Utah Jazz, and Sergio Llull, a potential second-round pick this year—off the dribble and into the paint, where time and again he'd find a big man cutting in for the layup. One time he reached down and scooped a loose ball blindly behind him to a teammate in stride for a breakaway dunk.
"He has the ability to keep his dribble alive, even on double teams and traps," says Rubio's teammate Coby Karl, son of Nuggets coach George Karl. "He keeps moving [and] never lets the defender take things away from him; he has extremely long arms, so he's able to pass over double teams; and he knows where guys are on the floor at all times."
Esteve Rubio saw the makings of these gifts when Ricky was six years old. "He was two seconds [ahead of] the other players, he could see things before they could," says Ricky's dad. "But I wasn't sure if I was believing he was special just because he was my son."
Esteve, a mechanic, played point guard for a small amateur club and was a youth coach. Ricky's brother, Marc, 21, is a 6'1" guard in the Spanish second division whom Ricky grew up idolizing as they played on the fenced-in court across the street. By age 15 Ricky had lucrative offers from the big Spanish clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid, but his parents signed him to a five-year contract with the small local club Joventut so he could stay at home, avoid big-time pressures and train under the renowned Spanish coach Aíto García Reneses, who also served as Spain's Olympic coach in Beijing. As recently as last season that contract paid a miniscule 70,000 euros—almost $100,000 at current exchange rates—to Rubio, the club's most marketable player and the one whose leadership earned Joventut a place in the prestigious Euroleague this season.
"He will make money in the future, God willing," says Esteve. "Money is not the priority." Rather it's the terms of the buyout that upset the family, who signed the contract never imagining that Ricky would rise so quickly. Joventut will set Rubio free if, by June 30—just five days after the draft—he pays the club 4.75 million euros ($6.6 million); after that date the penalty for early withdrawal rises to $8 million. It would be by far the largest buyout for a player entering the NBA, and based on Rubio's previous earnings he can't come close to paying it. (As the No. 2 pick, Rubio would earn $3.7 million next season before taxes, and NBA rules permit his new franchise to contribute no more than $500,000 to the buyout.) This season Joventut raised Rubio's salary to 210,000 euros—almost $300,000—as a "goodwill" gesture, yet the club has refused to negotiate a reduced buyout; a rival Euroleague team president predicts the Rubios may be forced to seek a court injunction that would enable Ricky to enter the NBA while the legal system decides how much he has to pay for his freedom.
Though Rubio is committed to remaining in this draft, he is not promising to play in the NBA next season. A less preferable course would have him spending another year in Europe with Joventut or a larger club, which he will consider if he is drafted by an NBA team with unpromising prospects. The No. 2 pick belongs to the Grizzlies, a payroll-slashing franchise that has lost 178 games over three successive last-place seasons. Based on the experiences of fellow Spaniards Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro—who both played for Memphis—the Rubios have doubts about whether Ricky should entrust his career to the franchise. Which is not to say they have ruled it out: They were scheduled to meet with Grizzlies G.M. Chris Wallace on Monday.
A decade ago it was widely thought that European basketball was incapable of developing traditional point guards with the innate feel necessary to lead an NBA team. Lately, however, the NBA has placed greater value on point guards who score at least as often as they assist others. Into this new world arrives the old-school game of Rubio, with the thick hair and flair (if not the jump shot) of Pete Maravich, to humbly remind the league that the dunk can be less entertaining than the no-look pass from which it came. "For me, the NBA is still a dream because I am not playing there," says Rubio as he sits with his parents at an outdoor café.
Just then a pair of teenage girls appear behind Rubio's left shoulder, shyly asking for his autograph. "Of course," he replies with an inviting smile. "What is your name?"