The Utah Jazz have always gone as their point guards have. From Ricky Green, John Stockton to Deron Williams, these players helped the Jazz create a culture of winning.
It isn’t surprising that the Jazz have struggled when they didn’t have a stud playing point guard. Even when they had average playing, like with George Hill or Dante Exum’s rookie season, the team won a lot of games. Going into this offseason, Dennis Lindsey knew he had to get this position solidified. The Jazz decided not to re-sign Hill and his injury-plagued big toe to a huge contract but went and traded for Ricky Rubio.
Since entering the league in 2011, Rubio has been an enigma. In the modern NBA, players who can’t shoot, especially point guards, don’t help their teams win. Rubio, who has been stuck in the mediocrity of Minnesota, even with his shooting woes (37 percent from the field), was a plus/minus wizard. For his time with the Wolves, a total of six seasons (11,216 minutes played), he was a plus 345. Not bad for a player averaging just 31 percent from three and on a team that didn’t win much. Rubio’s strengths are his unbelievable vision, his pesky defense and the passion he plays with.
During his stay in Minneapolis, the organization wasn’t known for player development. Part of the problem came from having five coaches in five years. With the trade to Utah, Rubio is in one of the best environments in the NBA for development. Quin Snyder and his staff helped turn Gordon Hayward into an All-Star and Rudy Gobert, the 27th pick, into one of the best defensive players in the league. Even Joe Ingles, who was old for a rookie, has continued to get better with age, something that doesn’t happen often. Can the Jazz developmental staff continue to work wonders and help Rubio improve? This might be their greatest challenge yet.
When the season began, Rubio got off to a great start, averaging 17.5 points, 6.5 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 43.7 field goal percentage and 37.2 percent from three. In just a short time, it looked like Snyder and staff had performed a modern miracle. But eight games isn’t a large sample size. Over the next 35 games, Rubio regressed, averaging 9.7 points, 4.3 assists, 3.8 rebounds while shooting a 37.2 field goal percentage and a 26.4 percent from three. Some of these numbers were even below his career averages.
If Rubio can’t shoot, he needs shooters around him. The trio of Rubio, Derrick Favors and Gobert was terrible on the court, sporting a -1.8 net rating. Since the return of Gobert, this lineup as been on fire with a net rating of 19.5 (115 minutes played together). Rubio has been a key part of that. Before his injury, he averaged 15.9 points, 7.1 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 50 percent field goal percentage and 50 percent from three over the last eight games.
Some of these numbers aren’t sustainable because a career 32 percent three-point shooter will not average 50 percent from deep for very long. However his improved field goal percentage is likely to last. This season and especially during this hot streak, his percentage around the rim has improved. During his six seasons in Minnesota, he averaged just 47.7 within three feet of the rim. Under Snyder and Igor Kokoskov, he has improved to 54.6 percent. If Rubio can keep improving in this area, it opens up so many more parts of his game. On pick-and-rolls with Favors or Gobert, teams would sag off Rubio to stop lobs to the rim. Now he is making defenders pay if they leave him.
When Lindsey traded for Rubio, he compared him to Jason Kidd. “We think Ricky Rubio’s going to be a 2017 facsimile of Jason Kidd.” During Kidd’s first 12 seasons, he shot just 33 percent from three. Then over the next seven years of his career, he averaged 37 percent from long range.
What can be learned from Kidd? First, he hired a shooting coach (Bob Thate) in the offseason to work one-on-one with him. Rubio doesn’t have to go out and hire his own shot doctor because the Jazz have the staff to help him improve. David Locke noted on his daily podcast “Locked on Jazz” that Kokoskov and Rubio are constantly working on his shot, before games and after practice. What kind of improvement will Rubio be able to have with a whole summer spent working with the Jazz staff? If he shows any of the signs that we have seen from other players the Jazz have developed (Ingles and Hayward to name a few), expect Rubio to continue to get better.
Rubio is a career 32 percent shooter from three, so no one should expect him to become the next Kyle Korver, a career 43 percent shooter. But if he can get close to league average (36 percent from three), he will be able keep defenders honest, spread the floor and keep Snyder’s offense humming. If Rubio, who will play Friday after missing three games due to hip soreness, can continue to improve, Lindsey may have found his point guard of the future.
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