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The Enigmatic Ricky Rubio

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Trying to evaluate Ricky Rubio in a difficult year.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

“You’ll take that shot all day,” said Marc Zumoff, the play by play announcer for the Philadelphia 76ers after another of Ricky Rubio’s nine misses as the Jazzman went 1 for 10 for the night. “That’s the shot that you want to give up if you’re the 76ers.”

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

You can almost hear every opposing announcer say that about Ricky Rubio. While last season it appeared that Ricky Rubio had turned the corner on his shooting, he’s right back to being stuck in the mire. Defenses are still continuing to dare Ricky Rubio to shoot the ball by sagging off to gain an extra defensive player to pack the paint against Gobert or keep a spy on Donovan Mitchell.

“If he’s left wide open, he has to make them pay,” says Matt Harpring.

It’s as automatic as the sponsor spot for the Subway Sub of the Game. Another game, another team that is completely fine with dealing with the consequences of leaving Ricky Rubio open.

But somehow Utah isn’t controlled by if Rubio plays well or if he plays terrible. For example, in games in which Rubio shot 30% or less from the field the Utah Jazz are 7-9. In games that Rubio shot 50% or better from the field? 5-5.

What about if he shoots the ball too much with 15 or more attempts? Utah is 3-5.

What if he avoids shooting the ball and goes for assists? Utah is 5-6 when he has 8 assists or more.

While the eye test shows a player who is playing with heart and hustling his tail off on defense, there’s that another thing the eye test yields: defenses don’t give Ricky any attention. In what has become the second annual edition of “Is Ricky Rubio in a slump or is this who he is?” We’re still left with a big “I have no clue.”

Many have cited how Ricky Rubio had a much better December by pointing out his averages during the month:

13.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 6.2 apg, 3.5 TOV, 42% FG%, 38% 3P%

The three point percentage is huge. Then you realize that he shot 40% or better in only 6 games in December (one game 4 of 4) and then shot 25% or less for 7 games in December with 5 of those games not making a three at all while taking 13 attempts. In games that Ricky shot 40% or better, Utah finished was 3-3. In games Ricky shot 25% or worse, Utah finished 3-4.

Trying to figure out Ricky Rubio’s fit with the Utah Jazz this year is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube while colorblind. When he excels on offense, you’re doubting whether that was by design of the opposing defense or his own brilliance. When he struggles, you’re frustrated that he can’t capitalize on the open looks that are going to be there for him night after night.

If you’re wondering if that is purely anecdotal that Ricky Rubio is left alone, it’s not. He is second in wide open looks from three and first in wide open looks from two for the team. He’s repeatedly left open. That doesn’t include the many times he foregoes the shot.

Utah Jazz Rankings: Wide Open Field Goals

Wide Open 3 WO3 FG% Open 3 O3 FG % Wide Open 2 WO2 FG% Open 2s O2 FG%
Wide Open 3 WO3 FG% Open 3 O3 FG % Wide Open 2 WO2 FG% Open 2s O2 FG%
Ricky Rubio 3.2 36.00% 0.9 27.30% 1.1 46.20% 2.6 41.90%
Donovan Mitchell 2.5 32.00% 3.4 30.40% 0.8 50.00% 2.1 58.80%
Derrick Favors 0.8 32.10% 0.3 20.00% 0.4 50.00% 1.2 83.30%
Jae Crowder 3 40.20% 2.7 34.00% 0.3 63.60% 1.1 58.50%
Rudy Gobert 0 0.00% 0 0.00% 0.2 77.80% 1.2 86.40%
Kyle Korver 1.5 40.40% 1.3 42.50% 0.2 40.00% 0.4 46.20%
Thabo Sefolosha 0.9 52.40% 0.2 40.00% 0.2 75.00% 0.1 33.30%
Dante Exum 1.1 37.50% 0.5 11.80% 0.1 66.70% 0.6 65.00%
Raul Neto 1.1 31.30% 0.1 50.00% 0.1 50.00% 0.5 75.00%
Joe Ingles 3.3 40.50% 1.9 36.60% 0 0.00% 0.4 35.70%
Royce O'Neale 1.2 41.30% 0 0.00% 0 0.00% 0.1 50.00%
Wide Open = Closest Defender is 6+ feet away; Open = Closest Defender is 4-6 feet away Stats courtesy of NBA.com Tracking Data

One of Rubio’s main strengths, and the reason he’s ahead of Exum on the depth chart, is his floor vision. He’s able to read the the secondary break in transition, but once the Utah Jazz go into their halfcourt offense, teams can lay off of him and use the extra defender to spy on Donovan and Rudy.

Toronto did it to free up Kawhi Leonard and give him rest. Watch as Toronto has him lay off to spy on the paint. Kawhi is like a Gobert but for the perimeter. He’s able to cover two men at once without sacrificing too much space. His length and IQ allows him to provide help defense and recover quickly.

[Sidenote: To be fair, defenses do this to Dante Exum as well. But Dante has a certain skill that few can replicate ... speed. He can set up and draw the defense onto him and, when they close out, get around them with his lightning quick step. Rubio, while crafty, just doesn’t have that speed. That ability has always been at Dante’s disposal, but he has only recently started to consistently realize how to use it.]

When people do point to Ricky Rubio and why he should continue to start or be a part of Utah’s future, they’re quick to highlight his big heart and how last year he was the soul of the Utah Jazz’s comeback, which in many ways is completely true. When he’s not at Vivint, he usually can be found giving back to the community. He’s one of the best community service players Utah has ever had on their roster. He’s a great mentor for this Utah Jazz club as well. He brought a level of professionalism that Utah needed in the void that Gordon Hayward left.

But ... while those efforts off the court have remained the same and his heart and passion is still there, something is different. Dante Exum—who was out with injury most of last year—looks to be putting it all together on the floor. Dante who was benched not even 4 weeks ago has been playing the best ball of his career and it’s not even close.

Over the last 8 games, Dante Exum is averaging (PER36) 20.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 1.9 turnovers on 50.7% and 41.7% 3P%. That’s not just good, that’s amazing. With Ricky Rubio on an expiring deal, it would be naive to believe that Utah isn’t looking at Exum’s current production and thinking of the value his contract could be next season if his play continues.

Ricky Rubio’s tenure in Utah has always been an odd one from the start. One that has flourished despite its forced beginning which included a flight to court Gordon Hayward hours after being traded to Utah only to find out the star for whom he was traded to appease had bailed to Boston. From that moment on until January, the Rubio-Jazz partnership was an awkward one. Did it really fit? Then Rubio turned on the jets last January, Donovan took his game to yet another level, Gobert returned from injury and the rest was history.

This season has had an element of deja vu. Rubio’s struggles are more pronounced this year. He ranks as one of the worst starters (shooting percentages-wise) in the league. He has 2 more 25% or worse shooting games (15) than the next closest player who doesn’t happen to be known for his shooting prowess (Lonzo Ball).

It’s now January. The Jazz’s schedule gets easier, but we’re left with a bunch of stats from Rubio that don’t really correlate to wins or losses. They’re just ... there. Which makes him so difficult to peg down. Will he improve his play on the court? Does it even matter for Utah’s future success? Is Utah’s ceiling more correlated with another X-Factor player like Jae Crowder, Dante Exum, or Joe Ingles? Will Rubio even be with Utah after this season or even February?

Ricky Rubio is a Jazz fan’s rorschach test. What you see on the court and how you believe it helps or hurts Utah probably says more about what you want with this Utah team than what it actually means for this Utah team.