The Utah Jazz are sprinting through their cupcake schedule. They have won 9 out of their last 10 games, they have improved their offensive and defensive ratings to 110.5 and 105.5 for the entire season, and they are firmly in the driver’s seat for the 5th seed in West. A lot of that success can be linked to a man that is sometimes the scapegoat at this site for the Jazz’s issues and lowered playoff ceiling: Ricky Rubio.
I almost hesitate putting ink to paper on this topic today because I fear a jinx, but it has to be said: Ricky Rubio is having himself an amazing couple of weeks. Over the past 8 games he is averaging 14.3 points, 7.3 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and—most impressively—only 2.4 turnovers a game. In that stretch, he’s getting to the line 4.5 times a game compared to his season average of 3.3.
What may surprise many who are quick to point out that during this stretch he has shot a terrible 25% from three that he’s driving more to the hoop than any other Jazz player. He has averaged 12.9 drives a game—Donovan Mitchell averages 1 drive less a game—and, impressively, Ricky Rubio is shooting an insane 78.6% at the rim when he does drive. What’s even more impressive is prior to this stretch he was shooting 49.4% when he drove to the hoop.
Field Goal % on Drives 2018-2019
Ricky Rubio has been improving month by month in this regard. He’s attacking the rim with better efficiency and—your eyes don’t deceive you—he’s converting more. That has resulted in more free throw attempts, a spot on the floor from which Ricky Rubio is considered a dead eye shooter (86.2%). It appears that the Ricky Rubio three point shooter project was abandoned and, in its place, the Ricky Rubio finisher at the rim was started. So far it’s looking very successful.
There are some caveats as the Jazz are playing weaker teams that overhelp on Donovan Mitchell thereby allowing other Jazz players to feast on the plentiful harvest of spacing and defensive miscues. But seeing Rubio take advantage of this and thrive can only help the Utah Jazz as they get closer to the playoffs.
Another development that has helped prevent teams from killing the Jazz spacing with Rubio shooting subpar from three is Rudy Gobert’s improved hands. The Jazz can toss a ball high at the rim for Rudy Gobert to finish knowing no one else can go up there and get it. It doesn’t matter if someone drops off of Rubio from the top of the key to guard Gobert. The play remains the same, throw it up to the big fella. While it would be great if Rubio was better at hitting that top of the key three, he has become just as deadly now with getting that alley oop to the right spot in heavy traffic, something that he struggled regularly with at the beginning of the season. Dropping Rubio’s smaller man does nothing to prevent a pass coming in at 12-13 ft off the ground where only one man can go up and get it.
In an article from Tim McMahon about Rudy Gobert earlier today:
“His ability to put pressure on the rim is a form of penetration,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “You’ve got to account for him, and that draws defenders just the same way dribble penetration does. He’s actually creating offense. We’ve talked about spacing assists when he rolls to the rim.”
Spacing assists aren’t a statistic officially tracked by the league or even by the Jazz, but it’s a term that often comes up during Utah’s film sessions. The domino effect from the attention defenses have to pay to Gobert’s rolls creates a lot of layups for his pick-and-roll partners or wide-open 3s for weakside spot-up shooters, two of the most efficient plays in basketball.
Ricky has become more decisive in the last month with his passes. Rubio’s turnovers are dropping and have been dropping since December.
This also shows how much the Jazz’s point guard depth has taken a hit. As Utah’s point guard depth has been hit, others have had to fill in during February and March. Both Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles have seen increases to their turnovers in the last month as they play back up point guard often while Rubio is on the bench.
Interestingly, Rubio has cut down on the turnovers during this backup point guard-less time. He’s playing under control. When he’s out there with the starters, the Jazz are an absolute machine. A buzzsaw. The difference between the Jazz at their best and the Jazz scraping by is merely a point guard who finishes at the rim, gets to the free throw line, and doesn’t turn the ball over. Crazy enough ... it doesn’t require a point guard shooting 40% from three. But if Rubio started hitting 40% from three for the rest of the season and the playoffs as well, I’m sure Quin Snyder and the Utah Jazz wouldn’t mind.