MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Minnesota Timberwolves prepare for next week's NBA draft, their top pick from a year ago, the precocious teenager that many believe holds the key to turning around one of the most moribund franchises in the league, remains thousands of miles away overseas.
Ricky Rubio balked at an opportunity last summer to leave Spain and join the Wolves, electing to remain in his home country for at least the next two seasons.
Team president David Kahn and coach Kurt Rambis visited Rubio in Spain last month and have started the delicate process of forging a relationship with him while he plays for another team.
"Very important," Kahn said on Friday. "He is a Minnesota Timberwolf in certain ways. He's part of us, and yet he's not on the team yet. I want him to feel as if there's no reason for us to delay the opportunity for him to start following us, being integrated, learning us and feeling comfortable with us."
The Wolves selected Rubio with the fifth overall pick last June and, after a drawn-out negotiating period, he decided to remain in Europe for at least the next two seasons.
There have been plenty of critics of Minnesota's strategy, which included taking another point guard in Jonny Flynn right behind Rubio at No. 6. But Kahn has maintained all along a confidence in his position, and the two men who sit atop the franchise's revamped basketball operations are setting about to make sure that Rubio feels comfortable and welcome in the organization -- whenever he decides to come over.
It's a common situation in the NBA. San Antonio is still waiting for Tiago Splitter to come over from Brazil after drafting him in 2007 and Hedo Turkoglu, Peja Stojakovic and Arvydas Sabonis all waited at least a year before signing with their NBA teams.
While they wait for Rubio, Kahn and Rambis are trying to get a jump on the get-to-know-you process. They had dinner with Rubio and his family in May, giving the 19-year-old his first face-to-face meeting with the man who wants to coach him in the NBA.
"As opposed to the draft process a year ago, we didn't have an opportunity to meet him in that context," Kahn said. "Through either last summer, this year, and with Kurt coming over, I felt it was very important for us to stay connected, but not so connected that he or his team feel overwhelmed."
The Timberwolves want Rubio to feel a part of the team in order to make his eventual transition from exotic Spain to meat-and-potatoes Minnesota as smooth as possible. But they also don't want to infringe too heavily upon him, and his Spanish team Regal FC Barcelona, while he develops his game overseas.
"I think that balance was struck late last summer," Kahn said. "I felt when Ricky made the decision to spend two more years in Europe, I was perfectly comfortable with that. I felt we do have to wait five to seven years to find out if it was a good thing or a bad thing. So far, it looks like it was a good thing. So far."
Rubio averaged 6.6 points and 4.4 rebounds to help his team to the Euroleague championship this season.
More important for the Timberwolves, perhaps, was that Rubio spoke glowingly of the connection he has made with Kahn and Rambis.
Rubio, a Lakers fan, said he felt "lucky" to meet Rambis, who played on those great "Showtime" Lakers teams of the 1980s and was an assistant coach on their title-winning teams earlier this decade.
"It was the first time I met Kurt Rambis in person and it filled me with excitement," Rubio told The Associated Press.
Rambis watched Rubio play two games, and the two discussed his performance and basketball in general.
"We're basically starting a relationship," Rambis said. "We talked basketball. We talked the game that he played and sequences that happened in the game that I saw that I liked and things he needed to make an adjustment on.
"He could visualize what we were talking about. He remembered the plays, remembered the sequences. He would even ask me about other sequences. I either told him I really liked it or this is what I thought he could do better."
The earliest Rubio could arrive in Minnesota is 2011, and Kahn said he is confident that is exactly when the flashy point guard will decide to make the leap.
"I think if he had been with us last year, there would have been an inordinate amount of pressure on him because of the buildup and people would have expected him to help us win a lot more games than he probably was capable of doing," Kahn said.
"There were a lot of things, and I was also a little too young," he said. "To be older and more prepared always helps, and with the exit-out clause there was so much to do and I don't think it was the moment to hurry ahead like this."