The floppy hair is back. The behind-the-back pass is back. Ricky Rubio is back.
Rubio was cleared to play in his first game in more than nine months and was expected to be in the lineup against the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves announced.
Rubio has not played in a game since tearing the ACL and LCL in his left knee last March. He averaged 10.6 points and 8.2 assists as a rookie last season, energizing a previously downtrodden franchise and helping them to return to the thick of the playoff race before he went down.
"I'm excited to get back on the floor with my teammates and play in front of the best fans in the NBA at Target Center," Rubio said in a statement issued by the team. "After a long recovery, this is the first step in me getting back on the court and helping my teammates. Thank you to the fans for their support over the last nine months."
'I'm excited to get back on the floor with my teammates and play in front of the best fans in the NBA at Target Center.' —Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio
Rubio had surgery on March 21 and then started the first major rehabilitation process of his career. He has said the most difficult part has been remaining patient throughout the program, never more so than the last two weeks after he was cleared for full-contact practice. Rubio returned to work out with his teammates on Dec. 2 and watched the Wolves play five more games without him while he worked his way back into shape.
Coach Rick Adelman said he would try to keep Rubio's minutes around 16 to 18, which is why he was bringing him off the bench rather than starting him. Adelman said it is more difficult to keep Rubio's minutes in check if he's starting. The team also likely will not play him in back-to-backs right away.
"He's a really mature young man and he understands everything he's got to go through here," Adelman said before the game. "We've talked about that. But he's only going to play one way, and that benefits us."
The Wolves went 11-9 without Rubio this season, impressive considering they've also dealt with injuries to All-Star Kevin Love, Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger, JJ Barea and Nikola Pekovic, among others.
Love was considered a game-time decision after bruising his right thumb late in the victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Friday night, but was a late scratch because of an illness. Josh Howard also injured a knee in the game and shooting guard Malcolm Lee is out indefinitely with an ailing knee as well.
But Minnesota has been waiting for its floor leader to come back and make things easier on everyone. Rubio's passing, perimeter defence and infectious personality helped make the Wolves one of the surprise teams in the West last year before his injury. After some time to get his rhythm back, they are expecting their point guard to give them just as big of a boost this season.
Rubio did not make the trip to New Orleans in hopes of getting himself ready to play the Mavericks, then was cleared by the team's medical and training staff on Saturday morning.
After the Mavericks game, the Wolves head to Florida for a back-to-back with the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat on Monday and Tuesday and also have games at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder and at the New York Knicks in a challenging week ahead.