The Phoenix Suns were widely criticized for signing Ricky Rubio over the summer, but he’s already paying dividends for one the NBA’s biggest pleasant surprises.
When the Phoenix Suns gave Ricky Rubio a three-year, $51 million contract in free agency this summer, pundits put the “critical” in “hypocritical” with their evaluations. Although the Suns had failed to give Devin Booker a starting-caliber point guard who could make his life easier at any point during the first four years of his career, signing a well-respected vet — to join a team no one wanted to play for — was labeled as an overpay.
Never mind that the Suns started Isaiah Canaan, two second-round rookies and combo guards at the 1 last year out of desperation. Never mind that a severe toll was being exerted on Booker as Phoenix’s primary scorer and playmaker. And never mind that Rubio was only the 17th-highest paid point guard in the association. For some reason, it was denounced as a bad team making more bad decisions.
Luckily, 17 games into their surprising yet injury-plagued start, the Suns are immediately seeing better results than they could’ve hoped for. Based on their plus-2.3 point differential, seventh-ranked offense and 15th-ranked defense, the numbers indicate they could be a winning team despite a brutal opening schedule and 8-9 record. The reasons behind that are far-reaching, but Rubio is clearly somewhere near the top.
Head coach Monty Williams put it simply: “Ricky’s been a catalyst for us since the day we signed him.”
Scoring has never been Rubio’s forte, and his 12.9 points per game on 39.8 percent shooting from the floor reflect that. However, his ability to drive and kick is especially welcome in Phoenix, not only because it puts Booker off the ball, but also because nifty cuts from slashers like Kelly Oubre Jr. are being rewarded with buckets.
“He’s a pass-first point guard,” Oubre said. “He always has his head up, looking around, so it’s our job to get open for him because he’ll find us.”
Averaging 7.8 assists per game, Rubio has become more of the primary playmaker than he was alongside Donovan Mitchell with the Utah Jazz, where he averaged 5.7 assists per game over two seasons. His connection with Booker in the backcourt has taken shape as quickly as Phoenix could’ve hoped.
“He and Devin have synergy,” Williams said. “Even from camp, those guys have been really good about not just making plays for themselves but for other people. So Ricky’s been the same guy for a long time, he’s helped a lot of organizations improve and we’re glad to have him.”
Booker’s absurd .517/.422/.953 shooting splits have a lot to do with his own individual progression, but Rubio has played a major role there too. According to NBA.com, 64 percent of Booker’s shots were unassisted last year. This year, that number has dropped all the way to 50.7 percent. He has teammates capable of setting him up for open looks now, which helps account for his 42.1 percent shooting on catch-and-shoot 3s this year, compared to 37.6 percent on those same attempts last season.
Of course, there’s always an elephant in the room with any free agency addition, and Ricky Rubio is no different. His 3-point shot has long been the biggest flaw in his game, the thing that’s hindered him from becoming an elite point guard in this league. As a career 32.2 percent shooter from long range, defenses have been trained to leave the Spaniard open.
But as Rubio continues to put the work in, the Suns are more than okay with him taking the open ones in an attempt to keep opponents honest.
“He’s in the gym every day with [assistant coach] Steve Blake, just working on catch-and-shoot, getting his feet set,” Williams said. “I’m happy about guys who take those shots. Whether or not you make it, but the willingness to take that shot, to me, is a big deal. We have guys who will take those shots.”
On the nights when Rubio is making those shots, the Suns’ offense becomes damn near unstoppable.
“That’s really big,” Booker said of the nights. “It’s helped our team tremendously. Seeing the jump defenses that double and making the play out of that and then making teams pay for it is something that we’ve been talking about since training camp. As a team, we’ve done very well with it.”
Rubio is currently only shooting 33.3 percent from beyond the arc on 3.3 attempts per game, but that’s not too far off the career-high 35.2 percent he shot two seasons ago in his first year with the Utah Jazz. Even if he hovers around slightly below-average territory, Phoenix will take it.
“When you are making shots, all of the teammates are encouraged to shoot the ball too,” Rubio explained. “It is real fun to play that way, not being afraid. Of course, coach is letting us play. He trusts everybody on the team to make a shot. When you are open, you take it.”
The free-flowing mentality on offense starts with a renewed emphasis on getting stops, which hasn’t been a staple for Phoenix in quite awhile. Aron Baynes has been the main catalyst on that end, and having long-armed wings like Oubre and Mikal Bridges (plus improved effort from Booker) obviously helps, but Rubio spearheads the defense at the primary point of attack.
Last year, the Suns ranked 29th in defensive rating, giving up 114.2 points per 100 possessions. The only reason they weren’t bashed as one of the worst defenses in NBA history is the Cleveland Cavaliers (116.8) were somehow worse. It’s still early, but so far in 2019-20, Phoenix ranks 15th in the league with a defensive rating of 108.3 (and it was even lower before Wednesday’s loss).
“Defensively, he’s a guy that understands matchups and how to switch on the back side, communicates the right things,” Williams said. “He’s just the motor for us.”
Aside from making Booker’s life easier and leading the point of attack on a much-improved defense, the Spaniard’s leadership and personality remain highly underrated components of his overall value.
Rubio only just turned 29 years old last month, but he’s widely respected as the kind of veteran teams want in their locker room. That description applies to many starter-caliber players who stick around in the league into their 30s, but people who have gone to battle with Rubio rave about him.
“Ricky’s an unreal person,” Williams said. “Don’t have to say a lot to him about anything. He’s somebody I communicate with a lot about what he sees on the floor.”
When the Jazz came to town a few weeks ago, head coach Quin Snyder wasted little time praising his former floor general:
"“It’s hard to overstate the impact that Ricky had on our group. I think, in a lot of ways, we took on his personality — his unselfishness, how hard he played — he just had great pride. And then on a personal level, he’s someone that I enjoyed every day. You miss that. You feel fortunate, grateful, to have a chance to cross paths with players like him. He came to Utah at a unique time and he gave everything he had every night. What he gives comes from deep inside and you appreciate that on a level that is unique. I think that’s happening here in Phoenix, watching them play. Obviously the job that Monty [Williams] and their staff have done with the team — you can see how well they’re playing, how hard they’re playing, how connected they are. I know that’s what Ricky’s about and I’m sure they’re grateful to have him.”"
Rubio missed four and a half of the Suns’ last five games with back spasms, and the impact was pretty clear as they went 1-4 over that stretch. Not having Deandre Ayton and Aron Baynes obviously hurt too, but even as the ball continued to move for Phoenix, the offensive potency was lacking. In 12 games with Rubio this season, the Suns have gone 6-6 with a point differential of plus-4.8. In five games without him, they went 2-3 and were a minus-3.8.
Rubio made his return Wednesday night against the Washington Wizards, finishing with 18 points and four dimes on 6-of-11 shooting. The Suns lost, thanks to 19 3-pointers from the Wizards on a night where the defense continued to miss Baynes and Ayton, but one bad loss shouldn’t detract from the impact Rubio has had on this team.
He’s chipping in 5.4 rebounds a game, is shooting an excellent 85.7 percent from the foul line and continues to do all the little things that have made Phoenix such an early-season surprise despite Ayton’s suspension and all the injuries.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said of Rubio. “He wins. He just has a winning spirit. Sometimes the circumstances don’t allow you to be considered like a winner because it’s a win-loss league, but he plays a winning way and sometimes you need the guys around you. I think he has the guys around him with Booker and Kelly, who are gonna be a part of their winning culture.”