Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2008 [Print without images]

Friday, December 5, 2008
2009 NEXT RUNNER-UP: RICKY RUBIO

By Chad Nielsen (additional reporting by Chris Broussard and Brian Kamenetzky)

Through a crowd of fans and players at a 3-on-3 tourney in Barcelona, Chris Paul spots a familiar face: thick eyebrows, prominent nose and that unmistakable mop of black hair. The last time Paul saw Ricky Rubio, the two were squaring off at the Olympics, and the teenager was keeping Spain in the gold-medal game with his defense and playmaking. Now it's October, and the two point guards, who are coaching the tourney's top three-man teams, greet each other like old friends. "I'm a big Ricky Rubio fan," Paul says afterward.

Join the club. Two years ago, Spain won the U16 European Championship thanks to Rubio's 51 points, 24 boards and 12 assists in the title game. Now 18, the 6'3" prodigy plays like a veteran trouper: He studies the game, sees the court with strategic instinct and—as a starter for Spain's DKV Joventut—gets after bearded centers twice his age. As soon as the Pistol Pete look-alike matched his slashes and sleight of hand with Team USA's finest, he put himself in the mix with the few other young ballers who could go first in the 2009 NBA draft.

Paul, for one, can't wait for Rubio to arrive. After their Barcelona run, the Hornets star told reporters that his rivalry with the kid has only just begun. "It's crazy what he's already done," Paul says. "He will come to the NBA and steal my job."

Or at least the ball from his hands.