Before the start of the Top 16 on Wednesday, pause to consider for a moment the unprecedented season that one Euroleague player has already enjoyed. That player is point guard Ricky Rubio of DKV Joventut, who turned 16 years old just days before his team hosted the regular season opening game. Since then, Rubio has been nothing short of astounding. He became the Euroleague’s regular season steals leader with 3.5 steals per game, just a single steal shy of posting the highest average by any player all decade. Even more remarkable, Rubio did that while playing just over 18 minutes per game. He missed three games and played under 11 minutes in two of the last three, after Joventut had already qualified for the Top 16, getting no steals in either of those games. On a per-minute basis, nobody came remotely close to Rubio in steals, and he ranked third in assists behind record-holder Pablo Prigioni of Tau Ceramica and all-everything world superstar Theo Papaloukas of CSKA Moscow. How to explain a kid not only playing, but thriving among some of the top players in the world? Since by agreement between his club and his family, Rubio will not be interviewed until he turns 18, Euroleague.net spoke to point guards who have played with him or against him to find out just how he has been stealing the show so far.
Perhaps the person least surprised by Rubio's quick rise is his on-court mentor and fellow Joventut point guard, Elmer Bennett. At 37, Bennett is old enough to be Rubio's father. "The first time he practiced with us he was only 14, and you could see right away that the attention doesn't affect him," Bennett says. "He's the same all the time, in every situation. I have never seen him frazzled on the court. He approaches the game as a game. He's doing what he likes to do. You don't see him pressured. He's not affected if a veteran tries to pressure him. He knows how to beat pressure and he just continues to play. And he has played in some big games even before this season, when he was 15."
As to why Rubio performs so well, Bennett points to a mix of physical and mental skills.
"First of all, he has a good presence as to where he needs to be on defense," Bennett said. "He has very quick feet and, for his size, very long arms. All those things allow him to get steals in situations where another person might not be able. And he's definitely different than other younger guys with talent, who usually focus on offense. He's the complete opposite. He's got the defensive side of the game down already. He's ahead of his time."
Bennett also knows that Rubio is a student of the game.
"Just because of our age difference, and me being a guy who has played for awhile, if there's an area he needs to ask about, he does and I help him," Bennett said. "But he's also very mature for his age. He can read situations well already, but he's always looking to get better. He studies different situations, learns and adapts very quickly. For us, it's not a big explosion this year, because he played some last year and practiced all last year with us. It might seem too early, but he's was already a pro ballplayer even before he started playing so well this year."
Bennett is lucky. He only has to play against Rubio in practice. The 16-year-old caught the attention of Cibona veteran Davor Kus by swiping 9 steals in two games against the Croat champs this season.
"He has really good abilities," Kus says. "His arms are long, and he's very, very explosive. Those are the main reasons he gets so many steals. But there is also the way his team plays, with all five players going aggressive all the time. That makes it easier for an individual to have so many steals. It's hard to play against him when he's defending. And he's not physically strong yet. With a couple more kilos, he will become even tougher."
Kus also puts a lot of weight on Rubio's mental skills.
"The biggest thing in his game now is he plays like he's extremely experienced for his age," Kus said. "At his age, his decision-making is on the same level of any point guard in Europe - or at least close. I have watched a lot of Joventut games this year, and in many of them at the crucial time near the end of the game, he's on the court. That's the proof."
Rubio's Euroleague debut came in this season's opening game perennial power Panathinaikos. He was barely on the court for a minute as a substitute when he was knocked to the floor by two-time Best Defender Trophy winner Dimitris Diamantidis. A minute later, while Diamantidis had his back turned to the ball, Rubio rose and put in an alley-oop inbounds pass thrown from the opposite sideline. It was a first sign of Rubio accomplishing perhaps the toughest task of all: the men he is playing against all over Europe have to be concerned about his game, not his age. Later in the regular season, when Joventut went to the home court of then-undefeated Panathinaikos, Rubio had 7 steals and 7 assists in 26 minutes, his longest playing time in a game so far. In the next game, a 51-point Joventut home win over Unicaja that was the Euroleague’s third-larges victory margin ever, he had 7 more steals. Altogether Rubio made 4 or more steals in six of the 11 games he played – four of those on the road.
Rubio certainly has caught the attention of another Panathinaikos point guard, Sani Becirovic. Once a Euroleague wonderboy himself, Becirovic ranked among the competition's best scorers as a 19-year-old with Union Olimpija in the 2000-01 season, when his team was eliminated by a total of 3 points over two games by eventual champion Kinder Bologna. Becirovic joined Kinder the next year, but dealt with a series of injury problems before re-emerging the last two seasons.
"We are definitely talking about very big potential," Becirovic says. "The one thing that amazes me is that the kid plays excellent defense. He's not like all the other young talents - like me when I was young - always looking for points. He's trying to do the best job he can for his team. What can you say? He's already a good player. One day for sure he's going to be one of the best point guards in Europe."
Even if Rubio is ahead of the curve for his age, precociousness by itself won't be enough, Becirovic says.
"It's very important that he keep perspective," Becirovic said. "Things like his family not letting him do interviews now can help. It depends on how strict are the other things in his life. You're a kid and you have to live a normal life as much as possible. The most important thing is that you don't lose goals. The goal has to be to go higher and higher each year. The kid has shown he can play basketball on the highest European level. Now, it's up to him to improve every year. Everyone knows him now and will get ready for him. So he has to be reach. What he does now won't be good enough. You have to go further and further each season."
One of the players who has faced Rubio most so far is Olympic gold medallist Pepe Sanchez of Unicaja. Between last season's Spanish League playoffs, a preseason cup tournament, plus the Euroleague and Spanish League regular seasons this year, Sanchez has faced Rubio five times and been the victim of more than a few steals. The former Euroleague champ knows what he's up against.
"I think he's a freak of nature - being so young and being so skilled and also so cool all the time," Sanchez says. "You can see that he knows what he's doing. He's not playing out there with pros based only on his talents. He knows the game and he can only improve. I think he'll be a great player. It all depends on him, but I personally think he's gong to be great."