Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio was a full participant in practice Sunday for the first time since tearing his ACL in March of the 2012 season.
Rubio had a promising start to his young career, averaging 10.6 points, 8.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game. At the time he was fifth in scoring among rookies and first in both assists and steals. For the first time since Kevin Garnett was leading the team, Timberwolves fans were excited about the direction of their team.
And then, in the blink of an eye, Rubio was out, and the Timberwolves were the Timberwolves again.
With Rubio in the starting lineup, Minnesota registered an 18-13 record. With him coming off the bench, they were 3-7, and over the course of the last few weeks of the season without him, Minnesota recorded a dismal 5-20 record.
Throughout the summer, the Timberwolves retooled their team, adding spare parts and pieces from the NBA's past. Andrei Kirilenko has worked out well; Brandon Roy hasn't.
However, the addition to the team people were looking forward to most, even when Kevin Love had broken his hand, was always Rubio.
His prognosis throughout the summer was good, reported as being ahead of schedule many steps along the way, and news of a return by the end of December or early January was all the rage.
He's not going to be going on the T'Wolves road trip, according to Rick Adleman, but that's but a quick jaunt to the East Coast before returning to play the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday.
Asked if there's any chance Ricky plays on upcoming trip, Adelman quickly said no and added "he's a long way from doing that"— Jerry Zgoda(@JerryZgoda) December 3, 2012
Even while missing Love and Rubio coming into the season, Minnesota was a popular pick to make the playoffs out of the Western Conference. A lot of that hinged on an early return of Rubio, something that is definitely in the cards.
Sunday's practice saw a lot from Rubio, and even though he's been working with the team for a long time before this, what we know now is that it's a concrete step toward returning, and returning soon.
During what was probably the most tweeted-about practice of any team so far this season, we got a taste of everything we could want to see from Rubio.
A nice clip of him taking a few shots came out, and even though it didn't do much for the people that doubt him as a shooter, it was just nice to see him out there moving:
Plus, the Timberwolves' newest old addition, Josh Howard, got to see a bit of what Rubio can do.
Josh Howard got his first taste defending Ricky in scrimmage today: "He bounced a pass between my legs."— Jerry Zgoda(@JerryZgoda) December 2, 2012
It was a small step, dropping one through Howard's legs, but it seemed to give Rubio some good feelings nonetheless.
Moving forward Rubio is going to have to show the team that his knee is going to be strong enough to hold up, so that he can return to action.
Even though this team has played relatively well early on in the season given their circumstances, rushing him back in hopes of getting into playoff positioning makes little sense if it means risking another injury.
Of course, Rubio himself is insistent that he feels great, and his knee isn't bothering him nearly as much anymore.
#Twolves Rubio said he felt good after first practice. Didn't think too much about his knee. Said he could cut and move well.— Timberwolves PR (@Twolves_PR) December 2, 2012
His return in the next week or so means less reliance upon Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea, and a move into the future for the Timberwolves.
However, moving forward means so much more for Rubio, who is on the verge of turning the corner and becoming a full-fledged star in the NBA.
He's got his own shoe deal with a commercial that's gathered laughs all around the globe and a sense that he is one of the few artists left in the NBA.
There's a cult of personality about Rubio, well as much of one as there can be about a kid who as played all of 41 games in the NBA. It makes him immediately polarizing, but when he plays and drops a pass between someone's legs or over his own shoulder, everybody oohs.
Despite a measly 10 points a game, Rubio completely lived up to the hype in his rookie season, and as long as that knee holds up, then La Pistola should be dazzling the league for years to come.