Pregame One-On-One: Kharper vs. Harper, Nets-Timberwolves (7:30 P.M.)

Minnesota Timberwolves PG Ricky Rubio

UPDATE: Anthony Morrow is back in the starting lineup tonight, via Nets P.R.

Tonight marks the first game of the season that the Nets face off against the 10-12 Minnesota Timberwolves, home of Kevin Love, Darko Milicic, Ricky Rubio, and.. (wait for it…) KAAAAAHHHHNNN!!!

In honor of tonight’s special matchup, I’ll face off against Zach Harper of ESPN’s Daily Dime Live, The TrueHoop Network’s A Wolf Among Wolves, and TrueHoop NBA Blog HoopSpeak, along with about a billion other websites. For this one-on-one game preview, I’ll first ask Zach three questions about the Minnesota Timberwolves, and then he’ll ask me three questions on the Nets.

Zach is also important because he and I have a running bet on the higher PER between Rubio and MarShon Brooks. (The injured Brooks is ahead by a hair, 18.6 to 17.0.)

On: The Minnesota Timberwolves

Devin: So tell me about this Rubio guy.

Zach: Remember when Jordan Farmar had to start some games for the Nets last year? Devin Harris was out for various reasons here and there, and Farmar was the guy to fill in for you. It seemed like there was very little hope of competency with how the Nets would be run on those nights. Imagine two years of that, only substitute Jordan Farmar with Jonny Flynn. For two years, the Wolves fans had no idea if Ricky Rubio would ever be a reality. We knew Jonny Flynn was present and Rubio seemed like an unattainable dream.

Then Ricky decided to come play here. We finally had an idea of whether or not we would see hope and change with the franchise. Then the buzz from scrimmages and practices starting trickling out. Kevin Love exclaimed into the microphone on Media Day that Ricky could “pass the s— out of the ball.” It was the first thing he said during his press conference. The Wolves played the Bucks in the preseason and we were teased with alley-oops and spectacular bounce passes. The season started and he was sliding his feet against the quickest of point guards, making jumpers and layups we were told he couldn’t make, and he was leading this team in every moment he was on the floor.

It’s not that Rubio is one of the best point guards in the league because he’s not. But it’s not insane to think he can become one based on the small sample of production and leadership he’s given fans so far. Rubio brings anticipation and energy into a building that had the feel of a mausoleum the last few seasons. Our hope was that Kevin Love would grab rebounds. Now our hope is that the Wolves will sneak into the playoffs. The brokenness of the Wolves isn’t repaired, but it looks like we have the necessary tools to finally start the job. Ricky has so much to improve on and already impacts the game in a way that few could have imagined. It’s not that I love Ricky Rubio more than almost any other player I’ve rooted for; it’s that I love the future Ricky Rubio brings to me as a Wolves fan.

I feel like I should have lit some candles and put on some Al Green before I wrote this.

Is #2 overall pick Derrick Williams someone to plan for?

Sadly, no. Derrick Williams can be a weapon when he’s attacking the basket and punctuating pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. But he just floats around the perimeter like a puppy wanting to play with the other dogs but not knowing how to include himself. The Wolves can’t count on him to be productive every night, so you might only see him for 8 or 10 minutes in this game. They can’t play him at the 3 because he doesn’t know what to do and can’t defend it. It would be nice if you’d bring back Stephen Graham for him to match up against tonight.

How do you envision the Humphries vs. Love matchup going down?

This is going to be a body slam fest or a slug fest or some kind of physical activity that results in bruises for both guys. I think on offense, it would be wise of the Wolves to try to get some switches on the big men defenders and get Hump on Pekovic. That way Love has an easier time using his body and strength and Pek can wear down Hump with all of his might and effort. I don’t think Hump can really stop Love if Love is playing more of a perimeter game, but he did outrebound Kevin during their one head-to-head last season. Should be a lot of weight being thrown around inside.

On: The New Jersey Nets

Zach: Deron Williams finally remembered how good he is. What’s changed over the last 9 games?

Devin: It all starts with his jumper. After starting the season just 25% from 16-23 feet, Deron’s finally connecting on those shots at a stunning 63% clip (29/46) in the past nine. He’s getting the same looks off curls and ball screens that he’s gotten all year, but that didn’t translate to made shots for whatever ethereal (or undercover) reason. He hasn’t made a vast transformation as a player — he’s still the same point guard he’s always been, running the floor and finding open looks for everyone even if his teammates can’t keep up with him. But for at least the past nine games, Deron’s done a rapid-fire progression to the mean, centered around hitting from midrange.

Are there any guards left on this team? Is Marshon just ducking Ricky?

Are you counting out the great Jordan Farmar?

Okay, that’s a joke, but Farmar and Williams have seen success on the floor together. Either one can handle PG duties and create off the ball, and D-Will is big and quick enough to guard most of the NBA’s 2’s. Since the Wolves play a lot of two-point guard rotations with Rubio, Luke Ridnour, and J.J. Barea, the Nets shouldn’t have too many issues tonight.

The loss definitely hurts, though. While he may not throw the behind-the-back bounce passes with purpose that Ricky does, there are few rookies in the league (Kyrie may be the only comparable one) with MarShon’s combination of outside and inside scoring ability. Before MarShon Brooks, we generally had to hope that Anthony Morrow’s floater and fadeaway post-up jumper were enough to throw off defenses; now we’ve got Brooks deking, faking, and spinning galore. He’s used the backboard about as well as anyone I’ve seen on jumpers and floaters and has scored a bunch of buckets just on his ability to loft the shot higher and off the glass alone. He’s attacked Dwight Howard in the lane and scored. He’s hit his open and contested jumpers with stunning regularity. He dropped 15 points in a half on the 3rd-best defense in the league, then didn’t try to force his offense when they threw doubles at him in the second half. He’s more mature and confident than I think anyone expected, without crossing the line into arrogance, and his conservative passing approach (more often than not swinging the ball up top rather than forcing passes into the lane) beget his low assist totals rather than a penchant for ballhogging.

I know Timberwolves fans are counting their lucky cinnamon sticks that they’ve landed such a talented point guard in Ricky Rubio, but MarShon’s ability thus far to create from anywhere without overplaying his usefulness has been an equally bright light in a mostly dark New Jersey cloud. We wish him well and hope he’s back to 100% soon.

And if anything, MarShon’s staying out extra time so that Ricky doesn’t get shown up and lose his bid at the Rookie of the Year award. See? He’s selfless! He can create for others in unique ways!

Seems like the Nets are really bad at defending the pick-and-roll. How do they stop the Wolves’ guards from exploiting that?

By hoping that the Wolves bigs can’t exploit it. The Nets switch on nearly everything, which usually means that the ballhandler’s defender gets switched onto a smaller player, then scrambles to recover for his own man. Of course, this means that Shelden Williams, Kris Humphries, and Johan Petro have to recognize that double-teams 30 feet from the basket aren’t prudent, and the remainder of the team has to recognize that there’s one man heading to the basket and that one defender needs to rotate. For the generic team, it’s not wholly difficult, but with the Nets, it’s a lot of hoping and praying. Luckily, the Timberwolves boast one of the few centers whose hands I trust less than Johan Petro’s. But if Ricky Rubio’s getting penetration in the lane and Love’s using his wide frame to clear out space inside, it’s going to be yet another long night defensively.