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September 1, 2009, 12:50 AM ET
No Rubio, No Problem for Timberwolves

by Kevin Pelton

Once again, Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations David Kahn is the punchline after today’s news that Timberwolves draft pick Ricky Rubio will remain in Spain, agreeing to a six-year deal with FC Barcelona that means he will not play in the NBA until the 2011-12 season.

Since taking Rubio with the No. 5 overall pick, Kahn has made no fewer than three trips to the Iberian Peninsula to negotiate. Unless he was bringing money to give Rubio under the table, however, Kahn could do nothing to change the reality of the situation: Minnesota could offer just $500,000 toward the buyout of Rubio’s contract with Joventut, leaving the player essentially playing for free the first two years of his NBA career.

From a marketing perspective, Rubio’s value to the Timberwolves is obvious, and that Kahn expended so much energy on the negotiating process indicates its importance to him. From a basketball standpoint, however, it’s hard to see this as a negative for Minnesota. Rubio, lest we forget, will not turn 19 until October. He is, in fact, a full month younger than highly-touted incoming Kentucky recruit John Wall, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in next June’s Draft.

Given all the hand-wringing we usually hear about young players entering the NBA unprepared, how can it be considered a bad thing that Rubio will spend the next two years developing and maturing physically in Spain on Barca’s dime? When he does come over, Rubio will be better prepared to contribute immediately. He’ll also be (essentially) the same price. By waiting two years to bring Rubio over, the Timberwolves will get his age-21 through age-24 seasons on his rookie contract, as opposed to having to begin paying him market value at the age of 23. In the long term, this is a financial boon for Minnesota.

There are two caveats here. The first is, most obviously, that Rubio does come over in the summer of 2011. By that point, there will be little value to the Timberwolves in waiting. Rubio will be ready to contribute and Minnesota will be ready for him. This isn’t a major concern to me. Rubio has made it clear that he wants to play in the NBA, and a player of his caliber would be hard-pressed to ultimately command an equivalent salary in Europe. (That’s the downside of moving to Barcelona for Rubio, the flipside of the argument above for the Timberwolves. He now must wait an additional two years to start his NBA service clock and move closer to his first big contract.)

The other issue is if Kahn rejects this analysis and trades Rubio’s rights now. While such a move would clear up Minnesota’s situation at the point, where No. 6 overall pick Jonny Flynn will start the next two seasons, it would be hard for the Timberwolves to get full value for Rubio at this point in time.

If I haven’t made it clear in the past, I consider Rubio a unique prospect with the chance to become a special player in the NBA. If that’s the case, he will be more than worth the wait for Minnesota.

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