When Raul Neto sees an open shot, he fires. When he sees an open lane, he attacks.
Sure, those may seem like obvious instincts for the third-year Jazz guard, but the reality is that they’ve taken time to hardwire into his game. And now, the 25-year-old Brazilian is starting to see increased dividends from his newfound aggression.
“He’s been aggressive, he’s been playing, not thinking, and when he does that, he’s a pretty good player,” said Rudy Gobert, one of Neto’s closest friends on the team. “He’s more aggressive, and I would say more confident, and he takes more risks. And in the NBA, you have to take risks, especially as a guard.
On a per-game basis, Neto’s stats (5.0 ppg, 1.9 apg) aren’t very impactful, but consider that he’s averaging almost the same figures as two seasons ago, when he was playing five more minutes per contest. Per 100 possessions, Neto has seen his points, rebounds and assists all increase, and he’s shooting better (45.3 percent FG, 41.9 percent 3FG) than he ever has in his career.
In the last four games with Ricky Rubio missing time with a hip injury, Neto has seen an uptick in minutes. His shot hasn’t been falling as well (30 percent shooting), but he’s notched 13 assists in that stretch. The fact that he makes the most of his minutes is not lost on coach Quin Snyder.
“He puts the team first always, so when you do that, it takes pressure off of you individually to make a shot or play well,” Snyder said. “The thing that he’s gotten better at is communicating on the court. Raul knows what’s going on, and he’s gotta make sure he’s sharing that with other guys on the court — to me, that’s a component of leadership.”
It’s been sometimes difficult, Neto acknowledged, to concentrate on becoming a better player when he doesn’t always know if he’s going to be able to show it in games. Neto’s dealt with injuries this year, and getting back through those challenges has been hard enough.
But with assistant Igor Kokoskov, Neto has worked on his shooting, his strength and aggression. And Snyder said Neto’s teammates can feel his unselfishness when he’s on the floor, which leads to better play.
Neto said he’s learned how to handle variable playing time in his career so far, and he knows if the Jazz are going to win and get back to the playoffs this year, he’ll be needed — in whatever role he can fill.
“I think just being able to step on the court and give everything, that’s what makes NBA teams great,” he said. “Every team needs players that they’re going to be ready every time they call their names. And I think I’m one of them.”
Rubio back in practice
The All-Star break is starting to pay off for Utah. Point guard Ricky Rubio was back in practice on Thursday afternoon, officially listed as questionable for Friday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
It was a welcome update for the Jazz after Rubio spent Wednesday getting treatment for a left hip injury that has bothered him for two weeks, keeping him out of the last three games. Snyder seemed upbeat about the point guard — who has been a big surprise of the 11-game win streak — getting back into the practice groove.
“They’re still monitoring the movement in his hip, making sure he’s in a good place,” Snyder said. “He wouldn’t be out there if he wasn’t ready for taking the next step. We’ll see how he responds from today’s practice. I think he’s excited to be back out.”
The Jazz also gave an update on point guard Dante Exum, who has been out since preseason with a shoulder injury: He’s been participating in non-contact portions of practice, which increases the hope that he’ll be able to return during the final 24 games of the Jazz’s season.
The Jazz will be selling shirts on Friday night celebrating the seven different countries that are represented on the team’s roster. Decorated with Jazz branding and country flags, the shirts will be on sale for $12.
The Jazz are tied for NBA lead for most international-flavored roster, which the team celebrates both with its style of play and its promotions. Neto, who joked that his Brazilian T-shirt will outsell Gobert’s French T-shirt, said he found it personally meaningful.
“I think that means that basketball is growing overseas, too,” he said. “Being able to represent my country with not a lot of basketball players coming from there, it’s amazing. It’s amazing that a team respects that, and that a team celebrates that.”