SALT LAKE CITY — Point guard news from the Jazz has been coming fast as the Jazz continue their playoff push. Raul Neto is expected out for a couple of weeks with a fractured hand. On Tuesday, word came that Dante Exum is nearing a return.
If Exum were around for the playoff run, it may or may not add to the Jazz’s chances, depending on his conditioning. But it can’t hurt. The other thing that can’t hurt is the fact Ricky Rubio is playing the best of his career. No Jazz development this season has been more unlikely than the way he has performed in recent weeks.
Just call him Ricky Redonkulous, stat-stuffer supreme.
Sunday in a win at New Orleans, he had 30 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. In Tuesday’s 110-79 win over Detroit, he was lower profile, frostier from the field, but still effective with nine assists.
Good enough to be relevant, smart enough not to force it.
“Will Ricky Rubio make a difference down the stretch?” ESPN.com asked in a March 6 headline.
The Jazz are pretty high on a guy from Spain, via Minnesota, who was originally saddled with the onerous title of “the next Pete Maravich.” That’s a heavy load for anyone, especially one who has been hearing it since he was a teenager.
“For Pete’s sake, Rubio has the look,” said a San Francisco Chronicle headline in 2008. That was when Rubio was 17 and playing for Spain’s Olympic team.
Two years later, The New York Times featured this headline: “Ricky Rubio at 19: The Prodigy Is Coming of Age.”
That is actually happening now, in a less showy form, but the Jazz are loving the production.
Rubio has always been respected in the U.S., but poor shooting relegated him to novelty status in Minnesota. Fifteen months ago, the Twin Cities Star Tribune ran this headline: “Ricky Rubio is the worst shooter in modern NBA history*.” The asterisk was because there were some qualifiers, such as available statistics from past seasons, minutes played, etc. But one writer’s formula had him at the bottom of the heap.
Good news for Dennis Rodman.
But weren’t the Maravich comparisons a bit crazy anyway?
“I don’t know, because I didn’t have those expectations,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “I knew who he was. I think for any young player, that can be hard to handle.”
He went on to say Rubio has committed to working on things “we feel he can do to make himself successful.” For example, trashing New Orleans. Two nights later he was making sure somebody else got the numbers. Rubio’s plus-minus on Tuesday was an eye-pleasing plus-30, second only to Donovan Mitchell.
Regardless, Rubio is enjoying his best year. His scoring average and field goal percentages are at career highs, as are his field goal and 3-point attempts. Snyder has convinced him he doesn’t have to be one-dimensional.
Every night, points or not, he’s setting up Rudy Gobert and others.
It’s no coincidence the Jazz have won 19 of their last 21 games, which coincides with Rubio catching onto a new system after coming to Utah. When he had his 34-point, nine-assist night against San Antonio in February, the Jazz had won a modest four consecutive games. That grew to 11. Now they have won seven straight. He also had a 29-point, eight-rebound, three-assist night last month.
Scoring aside, Rubio’s passing usually inspires double takes. He’ll never be Maravich, who could nail shots from Fiji, but his passing bears a shadow of familiarity. Strictly by analytics, the 27-year-old guard isn’t particularly special. He’s 25th among the top 100 point guards in ESPN’s real plus-minus, 37th in player efficiency.
Don’t bother quoting these things to Snyder.
He’s happy to have a healthy, contributing point guard who can win games.
“We try not limit the things he does well, but to help him continue to get better,” Snyder said. “That balance is a tough one sometimes ... I think he’s got to the point where it’s started to click.”
Tuesday Rubio put the Jazz ahead 4-0 with a perfect touch pass to Gobert for a dunk. Minutes later he backhanded a pass to Gobert for a, well, redonkulously easy bucket. Next came another dunk assist. He whipped a positively scandalous pass to Derrick Favors, who missed, but shortly found Gobert for (yawn) another jam.
Rubio wasn’t trying to repeat Sunday, which was a good thing. He finished just 2 for 9 from the field, for four points. In spite of improved scoring, most nights he won’t kill teams with shooting. Will he be an important difference down the stretch? It seemed unlikely early in the season. As Vizzini from “The Princess Bride” would put it, “Inconceivable!”
To which another famous Spaniard, swordsman Inigo Montoya, replied, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”