Ricky Rubio at 19: The Prodigy Is Coming of Age

MADRID — Teenage girls here scream at the sight of Ricky Rubio, Spanish basketball’s answer to Justin Bieber. The Minnesota Timberwolves are eagerly anticipating his arrival. Spain is depending on him as it tries to defend its world championship without the injured guard José Calderón.

But the 19-year-old Rubio appears unaffected by all the attention. His demeanor off the court mirrors his calm and nonchalance on it. Rubio still lives two doors down from his grandmother, hangs out with his childhood friends and blends in seamlessly with the older players on the national team.

“His maturity is unbelievable for his age,” said Marc Gasol, Rubio’s teammate in the world championships, which started Saturday in Turkey. “I think his mentality is the best thing he has. He adjusts to everything so fast, he’s kind of a little genius with some stuff.”

At 14, Rubio became the youngest player in Spain’s prestigious ACB League. At 17, he started for Spain against the United States in the Olympic gold medal game. In 2009, he became the first player born in the 1990s selected in the N.B.A. draft.

Rubio’s stardom has transcended the trick shots and fancy dribbling that made him Europe’s first YouTube basketball sensation and earned him the Pete Maravich-inspired nickname La Pistola. He helped F.C. Barcelona win a EuroLeague championship last season, and he is famous and charismatic enough to be a pitchman for McDonald’s and Nike.

As people recognized him in a hotel lobby, Rubio obliged every autograph and picture request for a simple reason. “When you see their smile and their eyes shining, you feel good,” he said.

Even before Minnesota drafted him fifth over all in 2009, the biggest question looming over Rubio was when he would play in the N.B.A. The likely answer is 2011. He will return to Barcelona for a second season, which will allow him to live in the cozy beach suburb El Masnou, about two miles from his parents, while playing for one of Europe’s most prestigious teams.

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“It’s my dream; we’re going to see how it goes after next season,” Rubio said of the N.B.A. “My idea is to go there.”

While there has been much speculation about Rubio’s future in the United States, little is known about his past and present. His house is modest and the pool is small; the only hint of celebrity is the red Alfa Romeo that Rubio drives, a car given to him by a local dealer.

Rubio’s family does not crave the spotlight, limiting his exposure to the news media and trying to ensure him a normal life.

“Truth be told, sometimes it is a bit overwhelming,” said Rubio’s father, Esteban. “But I think he’s handling it quite well for a 19-year-old.”

He added, “Ricky continues to go out with the friends he has had since he was a child, and I think that this, and the advice the family gives to him, helps keep him with his feet on the ground.”

The Timberwolves’ general manager, David Kahn, who visited this spring along with Coach Kurt Rambis, described Rubio’s upper-middle-class family as unpretentious.

“It’s important for a lot of people to understand that at age 18, saying goodbye to your son when he’s leaving for the States is awfully early,” Kahn said. “He’s not just leaving for the N.B.A., it’s a whole other world and culture.”

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Esteban and Tona Rubio have not decided whether they will move to the United States with their son. They need to consider Ricky’s two siblings as well, Esteban said.

Esteban Rubio spent more than a decade coaching women’s basketball in Spain’s top two divisions, and Ricky’s older brother, Marc, is a small forward in the second division. His younger sister, Laia, may be the best of all, Rubio joked.

“They always tried to teach me that the most important thing in life is the family,” Rubio said. “You have to realize that the most important thing are the people who loved you before you’re a professional player.”

One of Rubio’s on-court mentors is old enough to be his father. Elmer Bennett, then 34, tutored a 14-year-old Rubio during the 2005-6 season at Joventut. Nothing summed up the age gap more, Bennett said, than the time he was about to take a pregame nap on a trip and saw Rubio, his roommate, break out his books to do homework.

Bennett laughed at the memory but stressed that from the moment Rubio walked on the court, he possessed special talent. He talked about Rubio’s ability to digest nuances of the game and blend with older teammates, as if he were describing a piano prodigy playing a symphony by ear.

Bennett, a former Notre Dame point guard who played in Spain for 12 seasons and now coaches at a high school in Louisville, Ky., credited Rubio’s family for his maturity.

“There’s not one bad thing that you can say about the kid,” Bennett said. “He’s not a kid who was coddled and has a bad attitude. As the attention started to come, his presence was always the same — never too high and never too low. He hasn’t changed since that day he burst out onto the scene.”

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Bennett was impressed by Rubio on the first day of practice. One of Rubio’s youth coaches at Joventut, Marc Calderón, described him as “just different than all the others.”

Everyone else found that out during a playoff game. Bennett picked up his third foul, and his backup was injured. Rubio, the third-stringer, entered the game and faced an immediate press.

Rubio juked his man, darted past another and sailed in for a coast-to-coast layup.

“It didn’t shock his teammates,” Bennett said. “But the next time down the court, the guy gave him a little more space.”

Such early exposure helped Rubio develop a court presence beyond his years. In this year’s EuroLeague semifinal against CSKA Moscow, the former Duke star Trajan Langdon said, one play summed up Rubio’s understanding of the game. Rubio called a set play that put him in a precarious position underneath the hoop. But he lobbed the ball over the backboard to a teammate for an easy lay-in.

“He knew exactly where to be and how to read the defense,” Langdon said. “He does his little tricks, but that’s not what impresses me with him. What impresses me is that he doesn’t get rattled. His ability to run a team and understand the game at his age is phenomenal.”

In an exhibition loss to the United States last week, Rubio held his own against N.B.A. players. He displayed a stronger frame and a more polished jump shot — the Americans sagged off him about eight feet at the 2008 Olympics — to complement his ethereal feel for passing.

Although Derrick Rose drove past him on the final two United States possessions for the game’s final 4 points, Rubio showed hand quickness by picking Rose’s pocket twice in the first half.

“He’s an amazing defender,” Kevin Durant said of Rubio. “I think that’s one thing that stood out to me was how he pressured the ball. He disrupted our offense a bit. He’s crafty.”

Whether Rubio’s game will translate to the N.B.A. remains to be seen. But those who know him well are not worried. Ricky Rubio has been doing his homework.