Ricky Rubio gets a fresh start as the Jazz’s new point guard

Spaniard already beginning to influence how Utah shares the ball.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Jazz guard Ricky Rubio throws mini basketballs to the crowd following scrimmage in the Warrior Fitness Center on Hill Air Force Base as a part of a "Hoops for Troops" promotion Ogden Friday September 29, 2017. It's also Utah's first public scrimmage of the season, and the first look at how the new pieces of the team will work together.

If Ricky Rubio is shooting for added mystique, he’s hitting his mark.

Over the last year, social media has taken notice of a beard that has transformed his former boy-band look into something more roguish. He’s also grown out his locks to the point where he sports a man-bun during practice and scrimmages. In June, he added a tattoo sleeve of a lion and its cub on his right arm — when pressed by the media to explain what inspired it, he said only, “Private.”

Of these many cosmetic changes, Rubio had a similarly brief answer at Media Day: “Change the team, change the look. It’s growing up.”

The Utah Jazz, who traded for the 26-year-old Spaniard in June, aren’t as interested in his appearance as in how he’ll influence the team’s offense. And if Friday’s scrimmage at Hill Air Force base is any indication, his influence could be more widespread than his stats alone.

Since he turned pro at 14 in Spain, Rubio’s been known for his nifty passing, and his first appearance in a Jazz uniform was no different. One of his early hook-ups came to Rudy Gobert, a no-look dish for a dunk. Later in transition, he hit a streaking Joe Ingles behind the defense for a layup. These are somewhat expected contributions from a point guard who has been among the league’s top-five assist men the past three years, and has averaged 8.5 per game for his career.

But what’s more interesting: He wasn’t the only one passing and creating transition baskets on Friday. Raul Neto, Donovan Mitchell, Thabo Sefolosha and others all recorded assists, and it was common to see players running the floor looking for passes after stops. For a team that finished 29th in the league in fast-break points, it represents a change that coach Quin Snyder believes Rubio’s presence fosters.

“It’s contagious in the idea that if you cut and you run, and if you’re in the right place, the ball will find you,” he said. “It just starts to propagate itself.”

Of all the players on the Jazz roster, Rubio is working his way into training camp most gradually after a demanding offseason with the Spanish national team. But when teammates speak about playing with him, their eyes light up.

The Jazz should know the upshot of Rubio’s potential: He improved in each game against the Jazz as the year went on, finishing with 26 points and 12 assists in their final matchup in April. After trading for him, general manager Dennis Lindsey said he believed Rubio could be “a facsimile of Jason Kidd,” pointing to his surge after the All-Star break (16.0 ppg., 10.5 apg., 4.6 rpg.).

The Jazz say it’s a relief to be playing with him for a change.

“He always had his head up, he’s looking to get assists, he wants you to score the ball,” Rodney Hood said. “He’s just a true pass-first guard. It’s motivating. It makes you want to get out and run.”

While Rubio is still on the young side in the league, he’s among the most experienced pros with 12 seasons under his belt. For much of that time, he’s been one of Spain’s most celebrated athletes: Ingles, who was his roommate at FC Barcelona for a year, compared hanging out with Rubio to hanging out “with Justin Bieber.”

Rubio said he’d prefer to avoid the trappings of fame altogether, but over time, he’s gotten used to it.

“It comes with the job, you know?” he said. “I think the right way is to set an example, and there’s a lot of kids looking to you as an example. You gotta act the right way.”

There’s also a lot of teammates looking to him as an example: Donovan Mitchell, Dante Exum and Raul Neto cited Rubio as an influence and inspiration that they’ve been watching a long time. Exum said he’s admired how Rubio has competed against Utah’s game plans over the years, while Mitchell said he looks to Rubio’s example as an “underrated” defender.

Neto, who is 25, says he’s been watching Rubio since he was young — or more accurately, since they both were young.

As the Jazz try to build from a mostly half-court team to one that’s looking for more opportunities to score out of the full court, the ripple effect of having Rubio is helpful — which builds on the Jazz’s pre-existing culture of ball movement.

“We already had that unselfishness to us, but he just brings another dimension to it,” Joe Johnson said. “It just contageous, man. You can see that out on the floor.”

For Rubio, there might be an offer of stability. This fall, he’s playing for his fifth coach in six seasons.

But the connection with his latest seems a little different: Rubio said Snyder has talked with him more in the past two months than any other coach — about playing style, about the Jazz organization, and about his new home in Utah. Snyder said they’ve bonded over their affinity for European basketball, which Snyder watches diligently.

Snyder said in their conversations, there’s an undercurrent of passion that makes him believe that Rubio will quickly find his way with the Jazz.

“He’s a guy that I’ve watched for a while and that I think is a good fit for us and what we do,” he said. “It goes both ways. I think this situation for him is one I’d like to see him have fun with.”

For Rubio, “having fun” might be defined by how much the Jazz can win this season. So far in his career, he has not been to the NBA playoffs.

That’s another thing about himself he’d like to change.

“I think I’m at a point in my career where I’m mature enough to take the next step,” he said. “Be one of the guys on the team to lead them as far as we can go.”