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Ricky Rubio Will Try to Shed the Hype in Utah

On his second NBA team, maybe the guard will finally be able to reshape the way the world thinks about his abilities

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Ricky Rubio was once the shiny, new toy. The promising point guard lit our eyes up with his magnetic play in Europe. The mystery of his talent preceded him, much like it does for most players not brought up through the American college system.

Due to the warp of the NBA’s suffocating news cycle, Rubio now feels like old news. Countless other promising point guard prospects have come and gone, many European players have entered the league, and Rubio has been merely a solid player on a sometimes middling, mostly struggling team in Minnesota. Average doesn’t typically register on the league’s barometer for excitement.

But it’s easy to forget that Rubio is just 26 years old. (Buddy Hield, entering his second year in the league, will turn 24 in December.) The Spaniard has been in the league for six full seasons, but has missed 123 games throughout his career. It’s not just injury issues that has dulled Rubio’s shine. The league’s point guard explosion has forced Rubio into the shadows, behind the likes of Steph Curry, John Wall, and even Jrue Holiday.

Rubio now has a new home after being traded from Minnesota to Utah for a first-round draft pick. He now has a fresh canvas on which to repaint his evolving career. Closer to the West Coast, the sun seems to shine longer and brighter, and Rubio might just be in the perfect spot to do the same.

Just a year into Ricky Rubio’s career, the word "disappointment" was already snapping at his Adidas sneakers. He played 41 games in his first season thanks to a freakish knee injury that ended his campaign early. The following year, he could play in only 57 games. During his first full season in 2013–14, he was already being called a "mistake." The following year, he played only 22 games after an ankle injury sidelined him. By 2015, he was statistically dubbed "the worst shooter in modern NBA history."

In Europe, Rubio could get to the rim with ease, so he rarely needed to shoot from deep. In Spain and for Spain, his dazzling play was not just visually appealing, it was also productive. In the NBA, things were slightly different. It took little time for teams to figure out that Rubio could be left open and to allow him to take long-range jump shots. When he had the ball, defenders would go under screens — the universal gesture communicating a simple fact: This guy can’t shoot.

Rubio’s shooting has never been consistent, or above average — only last year did his field goal percentage cross the 40 percent mark, and his 3-point shooting has barely risen over 30 percent in the past three years. Unless Utah can coax something out of him that Minnesota never did, shooting will never be Rubio’s strong suit. For most guards, lacking a shooting touch would spell the end of a career, but for Rubio, it’s only a setback. The rest of his game, from his mesmerizing passing, to his command of an offense, to his underrated defending, makes him a classic, even if simply serviceable, point guard.

"We felt like the year before last, Ricky had the best defensive year of any point guard in the league," Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey told the Salt Lake Tribune. "This year it was around fifth, sixth, seventh. As you guys know, Quin [Snyder] trains and builds great habits. Ricky’s a big kid. And so again, it’s not just the pure point aspect that he’s going to add to the group."

At such a loaded position, value is important. Owed just over $14 million per year over the next two years of his contract, Rubio becomes a bargain compared to the salaries of the point guard who will replace him in Minnesota (Jeff Teague: three years, $57 million), the guard who left Utah (George Hill: also three years, $57 million) and higher-tier guards like Jrue Holiday (five years, $126 million) who cashed out more due to their circumstance than their play. Regardless of his past or his checkered shooting acumen, Rubio, younger than all of the aforementioned point guards, will be a steal.

In Utah, there will be an immediate need for restitution. The Jazz will be determined to prove they were more than just a vehicle for Gordon Hayward’s abilities. His departure hurts in every way, and replacing his value to the team in every facet will be difficult, if not impossible.

But change doesn’t have to mean decline. The Jazz never even stared at the void Hayward left behind. At least they didn’t for too long. They simply recovered. Even while they were trying to bring Hayward back, they hedged to prepare for a future without him. Trading for Rubio was one the team’s hedges. It was reported that Hayward really liked Rubio’s game and wanted to play with him, and so, as George Hill was likely to depart, the trade made sense on multiple fronts.

Rubio could have become the perfect passing partner for Hayward and Rudy Gobert. (During a period of a month earlier this past season, Rubio was the source of 91 combined assists to both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.) Without Hayward, Rubio can man the Jazz’s calculated offense for Quin Snyder, while quenching Gobert’s thirst for more touches, and setting members of the supporting cast up for success (see: Joe Ingles, Thabo Sefolosha, Rodney Hood). Utah’s team and offense will be centered around Gobert, the linchpin of their next project. Acquiring Rubio, still one of the best passers in the league, to feed him appears to be a formula for satiation. With one star gone, the Jazz have to do everything they can to keep the other one happy.

In the Jazz backcourt, Dante Exum loyalists are clamoring for a resurgence, even if it seems like Exum will need something more along the lines of a resurrection. Meanwhile, there’s Donovan Mitchell, who ran through summer league with a tenacity that made you want to suspend reality and pretend that summer league means something. Can you already picture a cutting Rubio slashing toward the rim only to fiercely kick it out to Mitchell, who shoots it from deep without hesitation?

Even as his shooting and scoring declined slightly from 2015–16 to last season, Rubio’s 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio in 2016–17 was in the top 10 in the league, and the best mark of his career.

"We’re a program that’s going to want to believe in players," Lindsey said of the Jazz. "We’ll breathe some confidence there. We’ll help him if we see some technique issues. We need to get to know him."

Maybe all Ricky Rubio, despite his flaws, his injuries, or his (maybe unfairly) underwhelming past, needs is just that: Someone to believe in him again.