As Ricky Rubio stepped foot on Vivint Arena’s floor for the first time as a member of the Phoenix Suns just over an hour before Monday night’s tipoff, the 100-or-so people watching warmups let out a cheer.
That’s because Rubio, despite not getting re-signed last summer as the Jazz acquired Mike Conley ahead of free agency, is still one of the most beloved former members of the community. As he began his workout, he put his arm around teammate Royce O’Neale’s shoulder, spoke briefly to the Jazz’s assistant coaching staff that was out on the court at the time, and even shook hands with the team’s ballboys with whom he worked for two seasons.
Rubio’s numbers this season look very similar to the ones he had in his two seasons with Utah. He shoots exactly 10.7 times per game in each of the last three years. He makes exactly 4.3 of those shots, just as he did last year. His free-throw percentage is down 2%, but his 3-point percentage is up 2%. He’s getting a couple more assists per game, but that’s not a huge surprise given what Snyder’s system tends to do to point guards’ assist totals.
The Suns have been better than last season, though still fall well short of fighting for a playoff spot. They won just 19 games last year, so their 23-34 record now looks good in comparison. And Suns coach Monty Williams gives Rubio a lot of the credit.
“It’s pretty clear he’s made a lot of our guys look better on the floor. His leadership, his demeanor, obviously the game that he brings, the winning attitude. He’s a great dude," Williams said. “He’s really inspired our team in moments. He’s come on for a big-time run this summer and the ability to change over to a new team and lead and at times manage a lot of stuff with me has been crucial for us.”
Rubio had every bit of that on display for the Suns on Monday night. He scored 22 points on 6-13 shooting from the field, while dishing 11 assists, adding seven steals to the mix along with six rebounds. It seemed like he was everywhere on the court, all at once.
Interestingly, that hasn’t been the norm in the last couple of months. In his time with the Jazz, he really struggled early in seasons before playing his best basketball late in the year. This year, that pattern has been reversed: he was terrific early in the season, but has shot less than 40% from the floor in January and in February the Suns have struggled.
There are at least two logical reasons for that. Williams spoke about the fatigue of the preseason FIBA World Cup, something that might be culminating in his slippage in play:
"I don’t know how they fix that, but it does back up to the season in a way that if we’re really going to say we care about the players and load management, then we need to think about the scheduling of that particular tournament,” he said.
But the second one definitely leads to an immediate lack of sleep: the birth of his son, Liam, on January 16. “He’s a new dad and he’s got all kinds of stuff on his plate,” Williams said. "I feel for him at times when I see him in the morning.”