- Associated Press - Saturday, March 10, 2012

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, the team announced 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.

“I feel bad for Ricky having to miss the rest of this season,” Wolves president David Kahn said in a statement. “But Ricky is a competitor, and I am confident that he will work hard to get back on the court next year and continue his progression as one of the top point guards in our league.”

It also means that Rubio will miss the upcoming Olympics, where he was expected to be a vital part of Spain’s bid for the gold medal.

“All my support to my big friend and teammate (at)rickyrubio9,” tweeted Toronto Raptors guard and fellow Spainiard Jose Calderon. “Hard news about his knee. He’ll be back stronger.”

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.

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.

“Love my teammate and friend (at)rickyrubio9,” All-Star forward Kevin Love tweeted. “Here’s to a quick recovery. We will miss you.”

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 assists 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 Love’s emergence as an elite player.

He’s one of the most popular players in a tight-knit locker room and has helped forge chemistry with the team that has paid dividends through the first 41 games this season.

“Terrible news,” Wolves forward Derrick Williams tweeted. “Pray for my boy.”

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.

It wasn’t just the Timberwolves and local fans that were taking notice.

“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.”

Several of the game’s biggest stars, including Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade tweeted well wishes to Rubio on Saturday.

“Ricky Rubio’s injury isn’t 1 that any basketball fan wanted 2 C,” Wade tweeted. “He’s had an amazing rookie season & has brought life back 2 a franchise.”

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.

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.

“We have 25 games left this season,” Kahn said, “and I look for our team to continue to play hard and fight for a playoff spot.”

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