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Ricky Rubio’s quiet brilliance is putting the shine back in Sunshine

So many of the little things the point guard does on the court have helped the Suns to a 5-2 start.

Phoenix Suns v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

It was the timing more than anything that made it peculiar for Ricky Rubio to sign in Phoenix.

Not only that it came after days if not weeks of rumors connecting Rubio to Indiana, but because of the recent transactions in Phoenix as well. When Igor Kokoskov was the coach of the Suns, targeting Rubio, who played in Kokoskov’s system with the Jazz, would have been natural. Instead, with Monty Williams coaching the team, it was unclear what type of point guard Phoenix might target.

Among the Suns’ biggest problems was shooting, where they finished at the bottom of the NBA. Rubio, a lifetime 32 percent shooter from deep, was not the ideal solution. To those who assumed Devin Booker would continue to see time running the offense, Rubio was far from an answer. He was a blockade in the way of the growth of Point Book.

After seven games in the Valley, many of those things have proven to be true. Rubio has not turned into the best shooter on this team, nor the co-star to the Point Book show. Maybe a different player would excel more fully in Williams’ offense. Yet a 5-2 record and career marks across the board for Rubio show a player and team who are figuring it out. Williams, Booker and Rubio are finding ways to complement one another and lift the team to new heights.

Everyone has to shoot

Aside from passing (Rubio is fifth in the league in assists per game), which a skill Rubio has proven to be elite at, other areas of his game have progressed so far in Phoenix, especially shooting.

Don’t get me wrong: Not everyone will make threes at the level Booker, or even Aron Baynes, have so far this year, but every player on the court has to be willing to take open ones. Within Williams’ “0.5” system, the momentum of a possession dies if an open player doesn’t shoot.

In this offense, an early ball screen will give the playmaker space heading downhill. Cutters carve out one side of the floor, and players find their open teammates when the ball reverses or kicks back out to the perimeter. The result typically is a pretty organic open shot, which is why the Suns rank 11th in three-point frequency through seven games.

In the past, Rubio may not have taken those shots. Playing alongside an electrifying playmaker in Donovan Mitchell the past two seasons in Utah, Rubio started to take a few more threes, but after an efficient showing at the FIBA World Cup this summer, Rubio has been an even more daring shooter.

“Just taking the shots breeds confidence throughout our team, making them gives us more options,” Williams said. “It gives Devin more options if teams want to blitz him or if our bigs are diving and Ricky is the guy who’s shaking out in the corner. We know we have another guy who will take those shots and is confident enough to make those shots.”

Rubio is 6-15 from deep through two and a half weeks of the season and the Suns’ offensive rating is eighth in the NBA. Defenses haven’t been able to sell out to stop Devin Booker or Kelly Oubre Jr. because Rubio has let it fly when open.

I realize that Rubio missed every shot in the four clips I picked above, but that’s beside the point. Creating an open three for Rubio is not the focus of the offense, but what’s important is how the point guard has complemented his teammates within the system.

In transition, Rubio flies out to the corner when the ball is not in his hands. As the ball moves in the half court, Rubio is smart about repositioning himself and taking advantage of sleepy defenders. And most impressively, Rubio has let a few pull-up triples fly this year.

“It (allows) Ricky to play off the ball, he doesn’t have to have the ball all the time,” Williams said.

As Rubio and Booker learn one another, Rubio could try more of that down the road.

Said Rubio: “I have a lot of confidence, don’t worry.”

Space and trust allow for more creativity from Rubio

The Jazz’s system features a lot of early action that unravels, typically, into a middle pick and roll. Anyone who watched the Suns under Kokoskov will remember this. That type of system generates a lot of corner threes, at-rim finishes for rolling big men, and drives for guards. None of those things are compatible with what makes Rubio great.

Though Suns possessions have lasted relatively longer than league average, the team’s spacing and movement fit Rubio’s style better. Creativity doesn’t only come in the form of the Showtime Lakers. In the halfcourt, Rubio has gotten in on the fun, flashing smarts as a cutter and finisher rarely seen during stops in Minnesota and Utah.

One example: The smooth reverse flip layup Rubio busted out for his first bucket as a Sun and again against Al Horford at the end of the first half on Monday.

It’s even impressing his coach.

“I didn’t see that when I first started watching him because the game was different,” Williams said. “In today’s game, the lane is more spaced and he’s able to fake a pass to the corner and shoot a quick layup. Stuff like that leads me to believe he’s a guy that can evolve.”

A rebounding clinic

One of the changes Williams has tried to implement early this season is asking all five players on the court to chip in on the glass. To that end, the coach has shown tape of Rubio rebounding the ball to educate younger players on the positioning and energy it takes to get to missed shots.

Specifically on missed free throws, Williams has designed box-out schemes to allow space for guards to dart in from the perimeter and grab rebounds. Few besides Rubio have pulled it off this year, but that’s not the only trick up his sleeve.

Against Nuggets guard Monte Morris, you’ll see Rubio box-in, which is the opposite of boxing out. Rubio (deceptively strong by the way) keeps an arm on Morris to keep him under the hoop and snags the ball as it caroms over Morris’s head. This is out of the Lonzo Ball bag of tricks.

Rubio also isn’t afraid to fight against bigs for rebounds. In the clips above, Rubio steals Rudy Gobert’s lunch (let me exaggerate on this one please) and then pushes past Jonas Valanciunas. For reference, those two average out to 7-0, 255 lbs.

It’s easy to just think of Rubio as a passer, and that’s probably his best attribute. But he does a whole lot more on the court, and many of the smaller tricks he’s developed over the course of eight seasons in the league are helping Rubio get comfortable alongside Williams and Booker.