Armed with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and two more picks in the top 33, the Timberwolves were in a unique position going into Wednesday’s big night.
They had months to prepare, had a room full of really smart analytical minds and a fan base ready to watch them deploy a series of three-dimensional chess moves to maximize the value of their assets.
And in the end … the moves deployed by President Gersson Rosas and his staff seemed more like a nice, wholesome game of checkers.
They kept the top pick, selecting the combination of best athlete and best positional fit in Anthony Edwards.
Then they traded the No. 17 pick for Ricky Rubio and two more late first-round picks — one of which was upgraded from No. 25 to No. 23 in another trade. Those late selections yielded a couple of projects in Argentine guard Leandro Bolmaro and Washington forward Jaden McDaniels.
Some trading, to be sure, but pretty basic stuff.
The two biggest prizes from the night were a 19-year-old and a 30-year-old, which seems a curious fact when considering one of the most consistent messages from Rosas has been the need to find players who fit the same “timeline” as franchise cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns (who just turned 25, in case you hadn’t seen his Instagram) and D’Angelo Russell (who will be 25 in a few months).
Maybe if you average the ages of Edwards and Rubio, you achieve the desired effect?
Without the ability to yet find a third star-quality player who fits that timeline or to recoup tremendous value for the top pick, the Wolves seemingly pivoted to a different prong of their long-term strategy:
Building a team that has tremendous values.
Because if there has been a co-starring message from Rosas in recent months existing next to his pledge to find players fitting the right timeline, it is that he wants the organization to build a family-like culture that shows itself on the court and off.
In that sense, one can imagine an important role for Rubio — one he should fill beautifully.
Countless fan testimonials speak to the love that still exists in Minnesota for Rubio, but it’s important to remember: He was Towns’ teammate for two seasons. He played under head coach Ryan Saunders, when Saunders was an assistant coach, for three seasons.
“Ricky was definitely the first one to make me feel comfortable in Minnesota,” Towns said in October 2017 before his first game against Rubio after Ricky was traded to the Jazz. “Being able to play with him was a huge honor. I became a smarter player. I just learned a lot from him.”
Rubio knows the devastating pain of a parent dying, having experienced his mother’s death from cancer in 2016. That’s an important (though of course tragic) bond he shares with Towns, Saunders and Edwards, all of whom have also lost parents at a relatively young age.
And he will return to a Wolves team that is different in many ways from the one he left. Tom Thibodeau was in charge in the summer of 2017 when Rubio was traded to Utah. That subsequent Wolves team embarked on a joyless march to 47 victories and a playoff berth, only to see it all implode months later when Jimmy Butler forced his way out — ushering in the Rosas era.
In his first go-round with the Wolves, Rubio was imagined as a franchise player. (For a full recounting of those years, let me point you toward this oral history I published in 2017, just days before he was inevitably traded).
His time away has reset those expectations and Rubio has settled into a more realistic role: A complementary piece on a good team.
He comes back with those same realistic expectations — and with some subtle improvements. Rubio, whose shooting inaccuracy once inspired me to write a dissertation-length blog post with statistical evidence showing how he was perhaps the worst shooter in modern NBA history, made 36.1% of his three-pointers last season in Phoenix.
That’s not Steph Curry-esque, but that’s good enough that an opponent daring him to shoot by going under screens will pay for it at a decent clip.
Defensively, Rubio has always been good in team concepts and made up for a lack of lateral quickness with good ball-hawking instincts. He only seems to be getting better with age; last year in Phoenix he ranked No. 9 in the NBA among point guards in defensive real plus-minus. On a Wolves team with plenty of suspect defenders, his acumen and ability to get a team organized should not be overlooked.
But if we toss those things aside, as important as they are, we are left with this: Even as his skill set was hotly debated in the later years of his first go-round with the Wolves, Rubio’s personal qualities were never in question.
He is by all accounts a wonderful teammate, a genuinely good person and the kind of player who inspires joy.
He will make you change your face and be happy. Even for a franchise working the edges to find hidden efficiencies, there is plenty of value in that.