MINNEAPOLIS — As the losses have mounted for the Minnesota Timberwolves, injured point guard Ricky Rubio has never been missed more.
It has been almost 11 weeks since he went down with a severely sprained left ankle, and the length of his recovery has drawn impatience from a fan base desperate to see Rubio throw lob passes to Andrew Wiggins.
But on a night when the Wolves finally got center Nikola Pekovic back from a 31-game absence, coach Flip Saunders shed some light on the nature of Rubio's injury. Saunders said Rubio not only suffered a high ankle sprain against Orlando on Nov. 7, but also damaged some muscles and ligaments that lead from his ankle to his toes, prolonging the recovery process.
"It's not him not wanting to play or not working," Saunders said before Wednesday night's game against Dallas. "He's doing everything he can. We as an organization and the doctors who are involved have been the ones who have tried to hold him back."
The Wolves began the day with a 7-33 record, buried in last place in the Western Conference. Rubio, Pekovic (right ankle) and starting shooting guard Kevin Martin (fractured right wrist) all have missed more than 30 games, gutting the Wolves of three veterans who were being counted upon to lead a young and rebuilding team. In their absence, Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick who headlined the trade that sent Kevin Love to Cleveland, fellow rookie Zach LaVine and second-year players Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, Robbie Hummel and Anthony Bennett have been left to fend for themselves.
Rubio has been forced to watch from the bench, and his pained expressions, frustrated gyrations and willingness to give advice to the youngsters after they exit the game have provided some of the few instances of entertainment in a season that will end without a playoff appearance for the 11th straight year.
Saunders said Rubio, who signed a four-year, $55 million contract extension in October that will kick in next season, visited two specialists recently and both cautioned that a return too soon could cause a stress fracture in his leg that would only compound his problems.
"It's a very unique ankle sprain," Saunders said. "They said at the time it's going to be worse than a high ankle sprain, and everyone knows those go eight to 12 weeks. So it has nothing to do with him not wanting to play."
On the bright side, the Wolves did get their bruising center back and Martin is moving closer to a return. Pekovic has played in just nine games this season while battling chronic issues in his foot. Saunders said he would come off the bench early on while he worked his way back into game shape.
Pekovic has visited doctors at the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester to try to come up with treatments for his ankle. He has three years left on the five-year, $60 million contract he signed before last season.
"We feel pretty confident that the Mayo Clinic and the medical people have done a great job identifying what his problem was and it more has to do with his joints than it has to do with an injury-type situation," Saunders said. "So right now, I think we'll be able to monitor it as we have been the last month or so after we found out exactly what we were dealing with."
The 6-foot-11 Pekovic said he feels confident the new treatments and workouts will help him going forward.
"We've finally had to find the real therapy and hopefully everything's going to go well," Pekovic said. "It's like half of the season left, and hopefully I'll go through the rest of the season with no major issues."