MINNEAPOLIS — Ricky Rubio's sensational rookie season has come to a devastatingly abrupt end.
The Minnesota Timberwolves point guard will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL in his left knee, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press on Saturday. Now the upstart Wolves will have to keep chasing a playoff berth without one of the players who was most responsible for the franchise's resurgence.
The person requested anonymity because an official announcement has not been made.
Rubio went down in the closing seconds of a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night, when his knee buckled as he tried to help out on defense against Kobe Bryant. He immediately clutched his knee and had to be carried off the court by teammates Martell Webster and Derrick Williams.
The news was first reported by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.
There were plenty of long faces in the Wolves locker room after the game, and not just because they lost their 18th straight to the Lakers.
Rubio had an MRI on Saturday that revealed the torn ligament, sucking the wind out of a team that had been brimming with confidence thanks in part to his flashy passing that energized a club that lost 132 games over the previous two seasons.
In his first season after coming from Spain, the 21-year-old was averaging 10.6 points and 8.2 assists, but his impact has been so much greater than his numbers.
The floppy-haired, irrepressible young point guard changed the dynamic of a rebuilding team almost from the moment he set foot in Minnesota. His unselfish play galvanized his teammates, and his fun-loving nature has been an immediate draw at the box office, where the Timberwolves have already sold out seven games this season, their most since 2006-07.
His lob passes have dropped jaws and his behind-the-back dimes in transition get the home crowd on its feet on a nightly basis, making Target Center the place to be in the Twin Cities for the first time since Kevin Garnett roamed the paint here.
Chants of "Ole! Ole, ole, ole!" have filled the building, which just last year was half empty almost every night as the Wolves sunk to the bottom of the league.
Rubio was the fifth overall pick in 2009, but stayed in Spain for contractual reasons. His decision to come over this year is one of the biggest reasons for the franchise's quick turnaround this year — along with the addition of coach Rick Adelman and the improvement of All-Star forward Kevin Love.
He's one of the most popular players in a tight-knit locker room and has helped forge a chemistry with the team that has paid dividends through the first 41 games this season.
He has been playing professionally since he was 14 years old in Spain, and all that experience has served him well in his first NBA season. Rubio quickly picked up Adelman's offense when the lockout ended and has already asserted himself as a leader, with a steady hand on the ball and an underrated effect on the team's defense.
Rubio is averaging 2.2 steals per game and is one of the better help defenders on the perimeter in the league.
"He just has great anticipation defensively," Bryant said. "He reads the floor extremely well, he's extremely patient. He's developing more and more confidence with his jump shot. I don't know what ... they're doing in Spain to develop their individual talent, but they're doing something right."
Most importantly, Rubio's play has translated to victories. The Timberwolves were eighth in the West, putting them in position to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2004, before losing to the Lakers on Friday night to fall a half-game behind Houston.
Adelman, the veteran coach who hasn't always embraced playing rookies throughout his 20-year coaching career, put his faith in Rubio right from the beginning. Even when Rubio wasn't starting early in the season, he was playing almost the entire fourth quarter of games, and the Wolves offense ran noticeably smoother with the ball in his hands.
Guard J.J. Barea is also injured, with a sprained left ankle keeping him out of the game against the Lakers and making him questionable for the game against New Orleans on Saturday night. That means Luke Ridnour, who has been starting at shooting guard with Rubio at the point, is the only player with experience playing the point guard on the roster.
The Wolves called up second-round draft pick Malcolm Lee from the D-League on Friday, but he has yet to play in a game in his rookie season because of a knee injury.
Minnesota has one more game at home before embarking on a demanding two-week road trip that could define its season.
Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/APkrawczynski.