Among the post-game handshakes and congratulatory hugs that came last week after the Utah Jazz had secured a place in the NBA playoffs, one moment stood out. Quin Snyder turned to his point guard and placed his hands on the man’s shoulders.
The Jazz would not be a part of this postseason without Ricky Rubio — and Rubio couldn’t have done it if Snyder hadn’t embraced him fully over the past year.
“He’s been great since Day 1,” Rubio said. “He’s been getting the best version out of me and kept trusting me even when things weren’t going the way we wanted. We trust each other and it’s working.”
Rubio is playoff-bound for the first time in his NBA career and his journey there, the ups and downs of the past 82 games, has been the Jazz’s journey, too.
When he was traded last summer from the only NBA home he’d ever known, Rubio thought he could be a piece to help Gordon Hayward’s team take the next step in its evolution. Months later, after Hayward had left and the Jazz’s season hit its low point — a loss in Atlanta — Rubio’s shot looked shaky and the court vision and bravado as a passer that had defined him had gone missing.
Still, Snyder kept the faith and Rubio rewarded him.
The game after that loss to the Hawks, Rubio was cut and needed glue and bandages to seal the wound on his face. Still, he closed the game as the Jazz bounced back with an overtime win in Detroit. Rubio followed that with a game-winning 3-pointer two nights later in Toronto. Those moments, Snyder said, turned the Jazz’s season around.
Now Utah is streaking into the playoffs and Rubio, by his own assessment, has had the best season of his NBA career. He started the seasons with questions about his ability to score and has finished the regular season averaging career highs in both points and 3-point shooting. The Jazz believe empowering the guard has been key to his success.
“I think the role that he has with this team, he never had before in the NBA,” assistant coach Igor Kokoskov said. “He never had this much freedom. Even playing over season, playing in Spain and playing for the Spanish national team.”
“I don’t know his coaches or who he had in Minnesota, but I would be surprised if any of his coaches in his career have been as supportive and giving him the confidence to shoot the ball and be who he is,” said Joe Ingles, who has known Rubio since they played together in Barcelona in 2010.
Rubio’s adjustment to the Jazz’s system took longer than some expected, but Snyder believes that has made the payoff even more meaningful.
After clinching a playoff berth with their win over the Los Angeles Lakers, Snyder shared that moment with Rubio. The gist of their brief conversation: “How about this? Look where we were a year ago … when we traded for you?”
Rubio nodded and smiled.
“Those are probably the most gratifying moments you have as a coach, frankly,” Snyder told reporters later. “When you see a player really grind and work and invest and deal with adversity, to share in that journey and then to see him have success, that is unbelievably gratifying.”