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Ricky Rubio can bring the Suns’ defense out of the NBA’s cellar

The Suns’ 29th-ranked defense needed a major upgrade, and the front office appears to have found it in Rubio.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Ricky Rubio was the original king of grainy European basketball footage on YouTube, a 16-year-old prodigy drafted ahead of Steph Curry, who was supposed to create Showtime 2.0 in Minnesota. Twelve years later, he joins the Suns with a more simple goal: Anchor a young defense.

Phoenix put together the second-worst defense in the NBA last season, only behind the Cavaliers, who basically punted on an entire half of the floor in playing potentially the worst defense in the history of the league. Not much of a consolation prize for the Suns.

Units featuring real NBA talent defended much better. Kelly Oubre and Mikal Bridges provided the Suns an athletic crux for a more versatile defense late in the season, while Deandre Ayton’s impact was strong as well. The Suns’ defense was more than 2 points better per 100 possessions when Ayton was on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass.

As noted in a breakdown of Tyler Johnson’s value in Phoenix over the weekend, the next step for the Suns this summer in building a defense was finding a point-of-attack defender who could guard the most basic of basketball actions — the pick and roll. Rubio is that player.

Whereas Johnson’s lack of intuition and foot speed limited him and the Suns’ defense overall, Rubio is a dedicated and aggressive defender. His length is bothersome rather than extraneous. He doesn’t go away.

While catch-all defensive metrics that attempt to encapsulate a player’s entire value are imprecise, they can help us understand the impact a given player had on helping his team prevent the ball from going in the basket. ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus had Rubio 11th among point guards last season (when you sort out the random big men categorized as guards). Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus, a metric created by The Basketball Index’s Jacob Goldstein which filters luck out of DRPM, placed Rubio 14th.

Throughout his career, Rubio has created steals at a high rate. His steal percentage tailed off a bit during his stint in Utah’s more conservative scheme, but ball-handlers still must be wary of Rubio if they can’t escape his grasp.

The Jazz defense is predicated upon forcing opponents into chucking mid-rangers rather than creating open threes. Last season, according to Cleaning the Glass data, 37 percent of opponents’ shots were mid-range attempts, compared with just 28.9 percent of shot attempts coming from behind the arc. Rudy Gobert just won his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award as a prize for scaring ball-handlers into this deadly decision.

Rubio provided a quietly important helping hand in this dance. By last season, he and Gobert developed a remarkable chemistry. Rubio’s balletic battles with screens funneled playmakers toward Gobert, and they retreated into bad shots. If Rubio lost connection with a ball-handler going downhill, he could trust Gobert would be there to clean things up. Late in the clock, Rubio could leave Gobert alone on a switch and trust Gobert to hold up.

Because of his playmaking in the open court, Rubio steals are even more valuable. When Rubio grabs the ball from an offensive player, his eyes dart ahead and the fast break is on.

Rubio is also aggressive enough to recover late and knock into guys going up for a shot. His lack of athleticism is made up for by unexpected physicality.

The same margin of error won’t exist playing with Ayton. Every possession will demand Rubio’s utmost focus and communication to develop the same chemistry with a less experienced defender. Ayton has the length and foot speed to recover back out for quick contests, and when he got the chance to play with a solid on-ball defender, Ayton executed his job.

The partnership between Rubio and Ayton has the potential to be very effective. It will just require dedication from both players as communicators and helpers. The rest of the roster will need to step up as well. Defending the 1-5 pick-and-roll well is fine, but teams will adjust and start initiating offense away from Rubio and Ayton over time. The Suns will need to capitalize on the versatility of players like Oubre, Bridges and Booker to stifle secondary offensive action and create turnovers.

Utah was a hesitant and inefficient transition team, but the Suns would be smart to run more, with a turnover-creator like Rubio heading their defense. Ayton’s speed and finishing ability make him a valuable mismatch on the fast break.

Adding Rubio spells a departure from the more switchy scheme the Suns threw out late in the year. Ayton may get the chance every so often in isolation against bigger playmakers like Giannis Antetokounmpo, but don’t expect it regularly. Rubio is not the type of player you want switching onto a big man, and draft night addition Dario Saric isn’t going to do well defending playmakers in space. The Suns appear to be building this defense conservatively.

Something had to give for the Suns’ defense, which despite Ayton’s growth allowed teams to bomb away from three and finish at the rim with aplomb. Few in the league fill the defensive role the Suns wanted to help support Ayton better than Rubio.

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