LAS VEGAS — After years without a point guard, the Suns struck quickly this summer to find their guy.
As James Jones took the reigns to the Suns franchise, he made a bet that Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker could grow into the cornerstones of a great team. Moments into his first free agency period, he found in Ricky Rubio a point guard he believes can help those two on and off the court.
“His ability to run a team, to lead a team, is something that we’ve missed, something that we haven’t had recently in Phoenix,” Jones said at a press conference introducing Rubio after he officially signed his three-year, $51 million contract on Monday.
Since the Suns traded Eric Bledsoe in November 2017, they’ve needed an on-court leader. In the locker room, it never seemed like leading a motley crew of high-lottery picks was something Bledsoe wanted to do.
Rubio wants to fill the leadership void on and off the court. He comes off stops in Minnesota and Utah where he was the ringleader of young teams with remarkable similarities to Rubio’s new Suns teammates. The Timberwolves turned the franchise over to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins just as Rubio’s time with the team came to an end, and he joined a Jazz team with their own talented, young wing-center tandem in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
The Suns hope the effect he had on those guys can help Booker and Ayton just as much, if not more.
“The guys on our team have never really been led on the floor,” said general manager James Jones. “So my conversation with Ricky was really direct: ‘We need you, we think you can thrive here, and you can make us better.’”
Said Rubio: “It’s just a really exciting project, a big challenge. I want to be the coach on the floor.”
It was obvious, especially within coach Igor Kokoskov’s pass-happy offense, that the lack of a traditional point guard was holding the Suns back. Rubio, who coincidentally came from the system engineered by Kokoskov as an assistant in Utah to join the Suns under new coach Monty Williams, can be the offensive initiator and secondary playmaker Booker needs. The harder part of this project for Rubio will be shaping a cohesive winner out of a roster that has been completely remade since the end of last season.
“I like to lead by example, always go out there and compete, do my best, play hard, but at the same time knowing (teammates) as players and as a person, too,” Rubio said. “At the end of the day, we’re not only players, we’re more than that. Knowing your teammates, getting to know them off the floor, helps you lead them on the floor, too.”
In this way more than any other, Rubio shows the like-mindedness with Williams that the Suns prized in targeting the veteran point guard shortly after the free agency period opened on June 30. Williams has discussed two main priorities since taking over as coach early this summer: Building a culture and developing the skill and team play of the team’s young core. The two see themselves as partners in this venture.
“Ricky is going to be an extension of me on the floor,” Williams said. “He’s about all the things that we want to promote, the habits, the attitude, experience.”
Though Rubio acknowledged the Jazz fell short of expectations this year and that he understood why they reformulated their roster this summer, it seemed as if his desire to play with the Jazz had run out as well.
“I’m hitting my prime mentally, and physically, I would say I’m in the best shape of my career and had a lot of experience the last few years in the playoffs,” Rubio said. “I was ready to take that next step to be more of a veteran on the team.”
Rubio will shepherd a group of guards headlined by Booker but filled out with guys anxious to prove themselves, including undrafted rookie Jalen Lecque, national champion and first-round pick Ty Jerome, and for now, two second-year guys in Elie Okobo and Jevon Carter who could contribute soon. But most importantly, he will set the table for the many role players acquired by Jones and his staff this summer.
One could imagine Rubio being used occasionally to run the second unit. This would give Booker room to play-make alongside Jerome or veteran Tyler Johnson, who started 12 games next to Booker last season. Staggering Rubio and Booker would also put Rubio among lineups where his passing is needed even more. Dependent offensive players like Mikal Bridges, Frank Kaminsky and rookie Cam Johnson will get far more open shots playing with Rubio than anyone else currently on the roster.
Rubio’s biggest strength at this stage of his career may be his point-of-attack defense. It’s hard for a point guard to impact the game defensively just by causing problems on the perimeter, but Rubio’s focus heading to the Suns is on setting a tone on that end right away.
“Offense can win you games,” Rubio noted, “but defense tells you more about how you are as a team and as a player too, being able to sacrifice a lot of things to play defense.”
Few young Suns in recent years have had to sacrifice. Phoenix just shipped two players out in T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson who struggled to consistently make winning plays and often succeeded in spite of their teammates rather than by making them better.
The ball will be in Rubio’s hands a lot this year. He will create pressure on defense. Everyone on the roster will have to adjust. It’s supposed to be that way.
“When we looked at our team, we knew that our two young building blocks were Devin and Deandre,” Jones said. “So every move we made after that was really to add guys that could complement and help them become better players.”
Getting better doesn’t always mean getting more minutes or increased opportunities to score. With Rubio in place, the Suns are betting on basketball being simpler for their young core.