According to almost every scouting report, Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio — an electrifying point guard — is the second-most talented player available, behind only former Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin. Presuming the Los Angeles Clippers select Griffin with the first pick, conventional wisdom would have the Grizzlies taking Rubio. But how much will the Griz gain with Rubio on the roster? And will the hurdles to signing Rubio — including a massive buyout required by his Spanish club — make such a selection a gamble Memphis owner Michael Heisley cannot win?
Rubio is destined for NBA stardom. Only 18 years old, he’s drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer Pete Maravich, and has already played a significant role for a silver-medal-winning Spanish Olympic team. He’s the kind of player who, importantly in these times, can sell tickets by himself. With flash and dash, you might say, comes cash. Whether or not a teen-ager is ready to run a team in the world’s most prestigious league, the mere discussion of such ensures the player will be running an NBA team within three years, when Rubio will still barely be able to drink legally.
There have been hints, though, that Rubio — or perhaps better put, Rubio’s “people” — aren’t so enamored with the thought of him playing in Memphis. The kid certainly followed Pau Gasol’s six-plus years as a Grizzly ... and has seen how much Gasol’s stock rose once he left Memphis. The last thing a young Grizzlies team needs (and much less its ownership) is a contract impasse that leaves Rubio in Europe next season, a number-two pick worth no more to the 2009-10 Grizzlies than the that that pick was handed by NBA commissioner David Stern on draft night.
Considering Rubio strictly in basketball terms, it should be remembered Memphis has its own young point guard in Mike Conley, himself the fourth pick in the 2007 draft. Only 21, Conley would be entering his senior season at Ohio State had he elected to stay in college. Conley played in all 82 games last season (starting 61), averaged 10.9 points, 4.3 assists, and had a healthy 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. Those are hardly the kind of numbers that suggest Conley should be back-burnered for a replacement, or shopped to make room for the next rising star at the point.
If not Rubio, where do the Grizzlies turn? However unlikely it may be that the Clippers would pass on Griffin — the one potential franchise-changer in this draft — I’d call them if I were Memphis general manager Chris Wallace. Would the second pick and, say, Rudy Gay, be enough for the Clippers to send the top selection (Griffin) to Memphis? If such a longshot doesn’t hit, the Grizzlies need to turn to size and strength, the core elements to NBA success the current roster is lacking. Former UConn star Hasheem Thabeet will never be the next Hakeem Olajuwon, but perhaps he can be the next Dikembe Motombo, a post presence who can impact games from the defensive end on a nightly basis.
If the Griz brass isn’t sold on Thabeet, what might the second selection bring in a trade? There’s bound to be a franchise out there with marketing campaigns ready and awaiting the precocious Rubio, and perhaps in a market Rubio will be more eager to make his next home. A “franchise point guard” is an enticing target for a team struggling both in the standings and at the gate. But not since Magic Johnson — who joined a club, you’ll remember, already armed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — has such a point guard fulfilled his promise with the ultimate payoff.