Rudy Gobert is the Utah Jazz’s best player. Since his return from injury, the All-NBA center has averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds per game, to go along with 2.5 blocked shots. The Jazz are 14-2 in their last 16 games, largely on Gobert’s back, and they are outscoring opponents by 10 points per game.
But, Gobert isn’t Utah’s barometer.
Donovan Mitchell, along with Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, is a front-runner for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. The shooting guard is smooth and explosive. He will likely finish the season averaging 20 points per game. He’s Utah’s best offensive option, and he’s already one of the best fourth-quarter scorers in the league.
But, Mitchell isn’t Utah’s barometer.
That honor arguably belongs to Ricky Rubio. Sure, Gobert and Mitchell are the Jazz’s best players, their two biggest stories, and the two biggest reasons the Jazz are relevant in a historically tight Western Conference race.
But, as the Jazz prepare for Monday night’s contest against the Orlando Magic at Vivint Smart Home Arena, they do so knowing they consistently need a good performance from their mercurial point guard. When Rubio plays well, the Jazz typically play well. When he hasn’t played well, the Jazz have typically struggled.
“He may not be our only barometer, but he certainly is one, and a big one,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “With a lot of players, when they play well the team plays well. This is true of Ricky, because he’s our point guard. He’s getting better from a leadership standpoint. He’s getting more comfortable in his reads. He’s certainly important to us.”
In Rubio’s case, the Jazz are substantially more effective as a basketball team when he plays well. In the 30 games Utah has won with him in the lineup, Rubio averages 14.7 points, 6.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds. He shoots 44 percent from the field and averages 30.7 minutes.
In 29 losses, Rubio averages 9.3 points, to go along with 4.4 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game. His minutes dip to 27.7 in losses, primarily because Snyder searches for other answers off the bench when Rubio isn’t playing well. Rubio shoots 34 percent from the field when the Jazz lose.
As the regular season progresses into its final weeks, those numbers make Rubio a significantly important piece to Utah’s potential playoff fortune. The Jazz know what they are getting from Gobert and Mitchell. But, Rubio has played very good basketball in 30 games, and shaky basketball in 29 games.
Which Rubio will the Jazz get in their remaining 19 games? The answer to that question may determine if the Jazz make the playoffs.
“I try to control the tempo of the game, and right now I feel like I’m in a good spot,” Rubio said. “I want to be a leader, I want to play well defensively, and I want to make sure the team gets good shots. I think this year has been up and down a bit. But overall, I feel like I can control the game, and that’s what I want to do.”
The Jazz after the All-Star break have mirrored Rubio to a large degree. Against Portland, Dallas and Houston, the Jazz struggled to score with Rubio coming off injury and playing limited minutes.
Utah didn’t play well offensively, and the Jazz’s pace of play was slower than Snyder wanted. Utah lost two of those first three games.
Rubio played better in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. On Saturday, in a win over the Sacramento Kings, he looked like the Rubio who played his best basketball of the season during Utah’s 11-game winning streak.
He had a tough shooting night, going 4 of 16 from the field. But he grabbed eight rebounds, handed out six assists and came up with four steals. More importantly, he pushed the ball in Utah’s offense and his teammates received easy looks at the basket as a result.
“My hip feels better now and I feel healthy,” Rubio said. “The first games back, I felt a little rusty out there. My rhythm was off from not doing much during the break. I didn’t want to disrupt what the team was doing. It was a hard task, but now I feel good.”
Even when Rubio has struggled, he has garnered the respect of his teammates. Mitchell has long lauded Rubio for his mentorship of the Jazz rookie. The two sit next to each other in the locker room, and often compare notes after games.
Mitchell points out a recent game as an example of Rubio’s leadership. On a crucial possession, Mitchell wanted to be aggressive, but Rubio called for the ball and got the Jazz into an offensive set. Utah scored on that possession.
“It was smart of him to do that,” Mitchell said. “I would’ve probably gone down there and forced a shot. Ricky’s so smart, he knows what he’s doing. He’s a great player and leader.”
Orlando Magic at Utah Jazz
Vivint Smart Home Arena, Salt Lake City
When • Monday, 7 p.m. MST
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 97.5 FM, 1280 AM
Records • Utah 33-30; Orlando 20-43
Last meeting • Utah 125-85 (Nov. 18)
About the Magic • Orlando is on a two-game winning streak, having beaten Memphis and Detroit at home. … Former Jazz point guard Shelvin Mack is a backup point guard for Orlando. … Magic forward Aaron Gordon is a cousin of former University of Utah guard Tony Harvey. … The Magic have won just seven road games this season. … Orlando surrenders 110 points per game
About the Jazz • Utah defeated Orlando by a season-high margin of 40 points in November. … The Jazz have won three of their last four games and 14 of their last 16. … Guard Donovan Mitchell has scored at least 23 points in seven of his last nine games. … The Jazz are 21-5 this season when holding opponents under 100 points, according to The Associated Press. … Utah is two games behind the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference