When the Utah Jazz face off against the Phoenix Suns tonight, they’ll see a familiar face on the court: Ricky Rubio. Conley, Rubio’s replacement, will have his first chance to show what type of upgrade he was for Utah with the former Jazzman Rubio on the floor. Conley started the season sluggishly shooting less than 20% from the field, but bounced back against the Sacramento Kings. Rubio, who almost was traded away at the Trade Deadline to the Memphis Grizzlies last season, will have a chance to exact a special kind of revenge on Utah tonight with his new team.
The Suns are currently 2-1 to start the season and have a big win over the Los Angeles Clippers to show for their effort. Eerily, Rubio’s leadership seems to be the catalyst for another overlooked Western Conference team’s rise from the ashes just like the Jazz two seasons ago. It’s almost like the sequel to the Jazz experiment. With a leadership vacuum in Phoenix, Rubio’s locker room presence with Monty William’s coaching may be finally turning the wrecked ship around in Arizona. What looked like a team that would be hovering around the bottom of the Western Conference has suddenly become an upstart at the beginning of the season.
To the surprise of no one, Ricky Rubio still is the same player that he was in Utah. That’s not a knock. He’s a heady point guard on the defensive end, a ball hawk who is great at initiating a fast break through a steal. He is great at getting his teammates involved in the flow of the offense and is averaging 10 assists a game to start the season.
While Utah was an odd fit for Utah with two plodding big man, Phoenix is able to run out lineups capable of having four shooters on the floor with Rubio which opens up spacing and weaponizes his playmaking ability. In Utah, Rubio was hamstrung with a slower paced offense in the halfcourt with Favors and Gobert. Teams could lay off Rubio and pack the paint. If teams try that strategy this season they can get punished by Aaron Baynes and Dario Saric who are shooting 37.5% and 30.8%, respectively.
While Deandre Ayton is out with a suspension doesn’t help the Suns long-term success, it does help their potential in the short term. A team with shooters at every position allows Rubio to be Rubio. Ricky running Utah’s offense was always a square peg in a round hole with Gobert and Favors. Gobert was cornerstone to Utah’s offense and defense; he wasn’t going anywhere. That forced Rubio to be more of a spot up shooter in corner and his “Nashing” ability was useless as teams packed the paint against Utah and ignored Rubio’s playmaking ability as Utah’s premier perimeter shot makers weren’t really great shotmakers. Now if Rubio is “Nash”-ing in Phoenix, they have to worry about the action offball with Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre, Saric, and Baynes. This is quite possibly the best landing spot Rubio could have found himself in.
If one looks at Rubio’s shooting numbers, they doesn’t appear to be a big jump from Utah, but his playmaking numbers are:
10 ppg, 10 apg, 7rpg, 3.0 spg, 4.5 tov 26.3% FG%, 0% 3PT%
Ricky Rubio basically gets to be Rubio. He isn’t a shooter. But he’s a premier playmaker. It’s almost like Ben Simmons—minus the height and finishing at the rim. He is in a system tailored for him. Shooters all around in which he can simply react and work in never-ending space.
Helping Rubio is Devin Booker who is balling out this season (oh hey Booker Stans). He also has turned into quite the playmaker. He is averaging 23 points a game with 8 assists a game on 45% shooting. The other fascinating development is Kelly Oubre—how the Wizards can’t figure out how to develop players is ridiculous—who is averaging 21.3 points a game on 51% shooting. The Suns are scary good right now. It could be a flash in the pan, but with Rubio’s leadership, they could actually become consistent.
These pieces with Ricky Rubio are a fantastic fit. They are young, athletic, and ready to run teams out of the building. It almost feels as though I’m speaking of Andrei Kirilenko who never got the pieces around him that could fully extract his potential. He needed to run free. Rubio is a wild horse, not one who can be tamed into a disciplined half-court offense.
This is where I must make a concession. Ricky Rubio is a really good point guard, but he requires an if, IF he is with the right personnel. He’s not a plug and play type player who can be fit with any team. In truth, very few players are. Most players have a unique set of skills and limitations that determine their floors and ceilings depending on playing style, pace, offensive system, position, and teammate composition. Rubio has the potential to have a great season with the Phoenix Suns because his team now has a starting lineup and bench built for his best skills.
Can Rubio still be schemed against? Oh yes. I’m sure we’ll see Snyder show his hand at what he—and other Jazz players—knows about Rubio’s deficiencies. But he know has a team that allows him to capitalize when teams lay off of him. The Phoenix Suns could be for real this season, and—crazy, enough—it could be because of Utah’s castaway Ricky Rubio.