You can learn a lot about a player by the music chosen for their YouTube highlight videos.
For many NBA players, the song choice is confrontational, emphasizing just how physically dominant a player can be on the court. For others, a song is chosen for its lyrics: LeBron James is famous, so Post Malone’s “Rockstar” is chosen.
Ricky Rubio’s highlight mix songs tend not to have words. There are some that feel cinematic, trailers showing just brief glimpses of the $9.25 ticket you’ll have to buy to see Rubio save the world. Some have a smooth jazz backing beat. There are some that feature staccato piano, like a backing to a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
That might be because what connects people to Rubio’s game isn’t text, it’s subtext. It’s his feel. It’s the surprise of a revealed magic trick. It’s the feeling of watching a virtuoso at work. He just knows things you don’t about the game.
“When I watch any kind of sport, I always like those kinds of players,” Rubio says. He brings up Ronaldinho, Xavi, and Iniesta as soccer players that inspired him on the basketball court. “They have great imagination, and see things not a lot of people see. I love making those kind of passes.”
Rubio’s story is well-known by now: he started playing basketball at age four, finding a spot on the team for six-year-olds by promising not to cry while he was on the court. At 14, he was quickly called up to Joventut’s ACB team after dominating in the youth circuit. His promotion happened so quickly he had to find shoes and beg his mother to travel for their next game. The next day, he became the youngest player in the history of the Spanish league, the second-best domestic league in the world. At 16, he attracted buzz in the USA as a potential NBA prodigy, at 17, he started against the USA in the Olympic final. At 18, he was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the No. 5 overall pick.
With that pedigree, it was obvious how his teams used him: put the ball in Rubio’s hands, and let the magic man create. No matter who the coach was, or whether he was working with the Gasol brothers, Kevin Love, or Karl-Anthony Towns, Rubio handled the rock, and set his teammates up for success. Even at the highest level, he was consistently one of the best in the league: during his time in Minnesota, only Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo and John Wall averaged more assists per game than Rubio.
JAZZ VS. ADELAIDE 36ERS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
When • Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • None
Then he was traded to Utah, and Quin Snyder expanded his game. Instead of Rubio bringing the ball up every possession, Snyder often has Donovan Mitchell or Joe Ingles do it, starting plays off with Rubio in the corner or on the wing.
At first, it seemed like Rubio’s best skills were being underutilized. Even when Rubio did get the ball, he wasn’t playing well. The shot wasn’t falling, sure, but even his trademark passes were sailing well wide of his intended target. For the first time in his career, he turned the ball over more than once for every two assists he gave out. To be honest, he just didn’t seem like a good fit.
Some players might have cringed and complained when a new coach was attempting to change his preferred style of play, but Rubio never did. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey has a theory that explains it.
“The thing that Ricky’s maybe grabbed onto and understands is, Quin’s always been a big advocate and fan of Ricky. That meant a lot to us in management ownership, when we were making the decision on point guard alternatives prior to free agency,” Lindsey told The Salt Lake Tribune.
“I even think Quin sees a little bit of himself in Ricky. Very, very smart, pass-first, good defender, thinks about others first.”
Maybe it was that similarity that made the partnership work, or maybe it was just repetition. Neither Rubio or Snyder can point to a specific turning point where things came together, but somehow, someway, Rubio started to learn how to play off the ball. Not only that, he even started to like it.
“Learning through the half of the year, it was a new basketball for me. A new way of playing, off the ball,” Rubio said. “It really helps, I’m telling you. I was used to doing all of the work from the beginning, and trying to create for others. Now, playing off the ball, I can take advantage of what’s created for me.”
He gives an example. “We have Joe Ingles who can bring the ball up and run the play. He creates the advantage first, and I’m already ahead of my defender with one dribble and have a 2 on 1 with Rudy Gobert under the basket.” He smiles, knowing what comes next.
The result: a scintillating second half of the season, where Rubio took the mantle as the Jazz’s second-leading scorer behind Mitchell. A masterful performance in Game 3 vs. Oklahoma City, the first triple-double for the Jazz in over a decade, since Carlos Boozer did it in 2008 against the then-Seattle Supersonics. And of course, a successful playoff run that ended prematurely due to injury.
And to Rubio, it was just the opening act to his performance this season.
“It’s weird, the last five years, coming to training camp it was learning something new. Different coaches every year,” Rubio said. “Now it seems like I know all of the systems and I feel more comfortable. I’m picking it up from another level, now my game can get to another level too.”
Cue the music.