Adding Ricky Rubio as the starting lineup for the Phoenix Suns has been a revelation of joy and wonder we have missed since Steve Nash left the stage in 2012.
Rubio is third in the league in assists per game (9.2). Among playmaking starters, he leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.4 to 1) and assist rate (percentage of passes that lead to an assist). His shooting may not be great, but Rubio is still sixth among starting playmakers in offensive rating, 14th in defensive rating, and eighth in net rating (offense minus defense).
That 14th in defensive rating is important too. Rubio is a primary reason the Suns have a middling defense (18th ranked this year overall) as a team. Rubio defends opposing playmakers well, fights through screens, takes charges and generally is a winning player. His personal net rating is one of the best in the league. Without Rubio at the helm, the Suns defense might well be among the worst in the league again.
Here is a perfect video to show you what Rubio does for the Suns — every single Rubio touch in the Minny game. Not just the good plays, but the ones that didn’t work out, too.
He passes the eye test with flying colors. Watching him lead the Suns’ offense without having to pound the air out of the ball — he’s 111th in the league in usage rate — makes you wish he could play all 48 minutes.
But no player can play all 48 minutes. The 29 year old plays just under 32 minutes per game, leaving 16 minutes of backup guard time that needs to be effective so that the starting unit has a lead to hold in the closing minutes.
Who should be his backup?
In the last 8 games since Rubio returned from injury (back spasms), the Suns backup playmakers have simply not been very good.
- Ricky Rubio, +36 total plus-minus in 268 minutes (appeared in 8 of 8 games)
- Ty Jerome, -34 in 77 minutes (6 of 8 games)
- Tyler Johnson, -25 in 38 minutes (3 of 8 games)
- Elie Okobo, +3 in 35 minutes (5 of 8 games)
- Jevon Carter, -14 in 29 minutes (3 of 8 games)
When rookie Ty Jerome returned from an injured ankle, the veteran Tyler Johnson lost his rotation spot completely. We aren’t sure exactly why head coach Monty Williams is playing Jerome so many minutes ahead of the veteran Tyler Johnson or more-effective Elie Okobo and Jevon Carter, but that’s exactly what’s been happening.
Let’s dive into the rest of the season, breaking into three chunks.
*Key for each cell: Raw plus-minus per game (minutes per game)
You can see that each of the backup point guards has had their ups and downs this season and unfortunately none of them have played well since Rubio’s return when given the minutes.
Note: According to CleaningTheGlass.com, Devin Booker has only played seven possessions this season without at least one of Rubio, Carter, Okobo, Johnson or Jerome on the court with him. Point Book is not, at this time, in Monty Williams’ vocabulary.
Tyler Johnson — savvy vet
Coming into the season, the 27-year old Johnson was seen as the perfect third guard to come off the bench for either Devin Booker or Ricky Rubio. Johnson doesn’t make too many mistakes and has played in a playoff-caliber rotation for years in Miami.
And he started off the year just fine, basically turning in a net-zero scoreboard impact with the second unit as the starters ran the table to a 7-4 record.
But then when Rubio went down and Tyler Johnson was asked to carry reins of the offense, he was terrible. The Suns’ starting lineup went from a big plus to a big minus, even with all the same guys around him that Rubio had. To be fair, Johnson was also without Baynes in that time too, so he was stuck trying to make a starting lineup work that was tailored for Rubio.
Johnson did not improve, though, after Rubio came back and then quickly lost his role to rookie Ty Jerome.
Jevon Carter — relentless bulldog
Carter, a second-year 24-year old from West Virginia, was another early-season plus off the bench next to Tyler Johnson in the second unit. Williams trusted Carter enough to start him against Denver — and they won! — in game three when Rubio needed a bit of rest after tweaking a knee the night before. For a while there, Carter seemed like Monty’s fave.
In the first four games of the year, Carter averaged 10 points (50 percent three-point shooting) and 3.3 assists playing behind Rubio, helping the Suns to some unexpected wins.
But then Carter went cold too, just like Tyler Johnson. The two of them were a difficult offensive pairing, since neither could hit a jumper for 1-2 weeks there.
Since those first four magical games, Carter has averaged only 1.8 points (28 percent three-point shooting) and 1.3 assists in 10 minutes per game (12 games), but is only a minus-1.0 on the scoreboard over those 12 games — instead of much worse — because of his strong defense.
Carter is a bulldog on defense, and if he were a few inches taller, he would play a lot more like Bridges and Oubre and Cameron Johnson. But at 6’0,” he has really only proven so far he can defend guards around his size.
Still, he’s been effective a lot of this season, and was good early on as Rubio’s primary backup. There’s no reason to bury him now and forever.
Elie Okobo — smooth operator
The second-year, 22-year old point guard has played well this year when given the minutes, though he has hardly played at all with the starting unit.
Okobo’s biggest run of minutes has been as the backup point guard during the games that Rubio was out injured. He was quite effective coming off the bench with the Suns down big, as you can see by Johnson’s line in that stretch. Some would say it’s easier to play with a big deficit because you can play free and aggressive, rather than tight with a lead.
Still, Okobo has an excellent assist to turnover ratio this year (38 to 4) and has made his three pointers (10 of 25 for 40%) so it seems he would be a good fit for a regular rotation spot.
But alas, Elie isn’t the wily veteran that Johnson is, and he isn’t the shiny young guy with potential like Jerome. So I guess I’m not sure if Elie will emerge from the shadows for consistent minutes this year.
Ty Jerome — rookie shooter
After watching Jerome for his first six games, many have come to the conclusion that it’s too much too soon for the rookie. Maybe he’s still getting back into shape after a month-long recovery from a bad ankle sprain, but he looks a step slow all around.
Frankly, Jerome has been a disaster out there, joining Johnson as the biggest scoreboard negatives lately.
But it’s only been six games, and apparently Monty thinks that Jerome’s skillset best fits the 0.5 offense. Jerome is the best shooter, playmaker and passer of the backup point guard group, so maybe (like Cam Johnson) he will figure out how to get by on defense while keeping his confidence on offense.
Who do you like as the backup point guard right now?
Who should be Rubio’s primary backup point guard?
This poll is closed
Jevon Carter — the relentless bulldog
Elie Okobo — the smooth operator
Tyler Johnson — the savvy vet
Ty Jerome — the rookie first round pick