Ricky Rubio is already a rock star. On a recent night in suburban Barcelona he walks out of his team's locker room, his thick black hair wet and mussed to Jonas Brothers effect, and is greeted—as usual—by a polite group of teenaged girls. "What is your name?" he asks each one in Spanish, and they swoon as he signs personal greetings and poses with them for snapshots. Next he moves toward the crowd of a half-dozen reporters, also waiting politely with their microphones and questions.
His parents and two siblings wait farther down the hall for their turn with him. Taken altogether, the scene is an innocent and endearing tableau that reminds onlookers he's still an 18-year-old high schooler. Maybe that is why Rubio lingers in these hallways, smiling and signing and saying goodbye, for this is likely to be his final game at home before he enters the NBA next season. There his charisma and teen-idol looks will become profitable commodities, the news media won't be so patient to wait its turn after games, and some female fans might not be content with an autograph.
"I would have liked [him to] be here two years longer before he goes to the NBA," says his mother, Antonia Vives, through an interpreter, "[so] that he could go there being 20 and more mature. But when the train comes, you have to get on. Because if the train passes and you don't take it, the rest of your life you wonder."
As many questions as Tona (her preferred first name) and Esteve Rubio have about the future of their youngest son, just as many are being raised by NBA teams in anticipation of Rubio's entry in the June 25 draft. Though the consensus view is that he's the second-best player available—the Clippers having already declared their intention to take Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin at No. 1—a leap of faith will be required of the team that chooses Rubio, because of his age and his impulsive, up-tempo playmaking style as well as the unprecedented $8 million buyout being demanded by his professional club, DKV Joventut Badalona. It's enough to give even Rubio doubts. "The media and everybody is talking like I'm the greatest player, that I can play in the NBA easy," he says in his improving English. "For me, it's not what they say. If I could be half of what they say I am, I would be very happy."
Yet Rubio is already the biggest basketball star outside of the NBA, with videos of his spectacular playmaking available on YouTube. In a highly unpredictable draft that is thin on star power and replete with NBA franchises seeking younger and cheaper talent, the weeks ahead are sure to be filled with disinformation campaigns and rumors of potential trades. In the middle of all this speculation sits Rubio, who lives with his parents in their seaside condo in El Masnou, where, before he kisses Mom and Dad on the cheek on his way out the door, they argue over how late he should be allowed to stay out. He is the all-American boy—or would be, if he were American.
Overlooking the unmade bed is a large poster of Michael Jordan, making the bedroom look like that of any other teenage athlete. But look closer: The small plaster of Paris statuette on the bedstand is of Ricky himself, complete with the white cast that he wore to protect his surgically repaired right wrist, injured during the Olympics last summer in Beijing. And that silver medal, dangling as humbly as an award won at summer camp? It's from the Olympics, its striped ribbon frayed from all of the family and friends who keep trying it on for fun.
Last August, Rubio became, at 17, the youngest player to win an Olympic basketball medal, and it was his performance in the final against the U.S. that persuaded him to enter the NBA. Before that game he'd only faced the likes of Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Jason Kidd in video games. "One year ago I was playing in the PlayStation," he says, "and I [was trying] to make a three with CP3. And now I am going to guard him."
Guard Paul (and others) he did, as Rubio started for Spain in place of Raptors point guard José Calderon, who was injured in the quarterfinals. Rubio's assignment was further complicated when he tore a ligament in his shooting wrist during a second-quarter collision with Carmelo Anthony. Rubio played the remainder of his 28 minutes in pain, unable to attempt a jump shot while handling the ball as a lefty, and yet he kept Spain in contention and contributed six points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals. Team USA had routed Spain by 37 points in the preliminary round eight days earlier, but in the final Rubio steered his country to within four points with 2:25 remaining before the American stars pulled out their 118--107 victory. "At 17 he played against LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul—and he held his own," says an Eastern Conference executive. "If I had the pick, I'd take him Number 1."
Others aren't so sure about a player who averaged 9.8 points, 5.8 assists and 2.2 steals in 22.6 minutes this year for Joventut in the ACB, the top national league in Europe. "I like him and I think he's going to be good, but I don't know if he's going to be a franchise guy," says another Eastern Conference general manager. The problem is that Rubio defies comparison. He doesn't dominate the ball like Paul, and he can't shoot as well as Steve Nash; he isn't as fast as Tony Parker or Rajon Rondo, nor is he as physical as Kidd or Williams. In a league that defines draft picks by what they cannot do, Rubio's main weaknesses are his slim 6'3", 180-pound body and his unreliable shooting. For someone who creates so fluidly while knifing between defenders at full speed, he is quite a deliberate shooter: Everything comes to a stop when he steadies himself at the three-point line as if attempting a last-second free throw.
But those doubts are easily rebutted. Despite the October wrist surgery, which left him in pain throughout the first half of the season, Rubio's three-point shooting (the distance of the three-point line in Europe, 20'6", is roughly equivalent to the NCAA's) improved from 26.5% last year in the ACB to 41.7% this season, which for him concluded last Saturday when Joventut (23--12) lost its best-of-three, first-round playoff series to Real Madrid. "He has good form, good extension, and during the warmups his shots go in," says a Western Conference G.M. who has seen Rubio play many times. "I don't think shooting is going to be an issue for him."