The FIBA World Cup was weakened this summer by most American NBA superstars sitting out and the Greek National Team head coach turning Giannis Antetokounmpo into a role player, but Spain winning gold for the first time since 2011 is still a tremendous success. No one player contributed to their run more than Ricky Rubio, which is why the new Suns point guard was named MVP of the tournament despite numbers not unlike his NBA career averages.
Nothing will jump out at you from Rubio’s FIBA statistics. He scored at a nice clip but wasn’t all that efficient. He dished a ton of assists and controlled the tempo of the game for Spain, but also turned the ball over quite a bit. Yet the most unmistakable tenet of Rubio’s overseas value is how he completely dictates the terms of each game.
Last year’s hamstring injury is in Rubio’s rearview
Dating back all the way to his strong performance in a scrimmage against Team USA prior to the tournament, Rubio was physically overwhelming. He averaged 1.5 steals per game over the course of the World Cup, and it felt like he could do whatever he wanted on defense. The Spaniard danced in and out of double-teams, swallowed up passes, and juiced his team’s transition offense.
The hamstring injury that limited Rubio to just 68 games last season looks to be behind him completely. That’s huge, because the guy Utah occasionally used to check James Harden and Chris Paul defensively was a shell of himself in last year’s first-round playoff series. The Suns had to hope he could start his first season in Phoenix completely healthy, and his performance in Shanghai proved he’s good to go.
Good signs for the Suns if they want to run
One of the main reasons Spain has historically been so difficult to deal with in international play is that every player on their roster is a willing and skilled playmaker. Though Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka were both absent this time around, Rubio, Marc Gasol, Juancho and Willy Hernangomez, and Rudy Fernandez all brought NBA experience and a chemistry no one could match.
Phoenix will have a hard time gelling that quickly, particularly as Devin Booker adjusts to playing with a legit point guard for the first time since college, but they have the pieces to recreate Spain’s transition attack. Deandre Ayton is an undeniable mismatch in transition, Dario Saric brings a similar skillset to the Hernangomezes, and the Suns’ roster is suddenly stocked with shooting just one year after finishing at the rear of the NBA pack. Put the ball in Rubio’s hands, and the Suns are sure to improve on the 1.091 points they scored per transition possession last season, according to Synergy Sports.
That style would be different than how the Suns engineered their 2018-19 offense. Igor Kokoskov’s style was based on out-scheming teams in the halfcourt, using misdirection and ball movement to uncover open looks. If the Suns want to turn fast breaks into a predominant part of their offense, training camp will be very important, and Monty Williams will have to instill the basics of how he wants the team to operate in transition right away. Rubio will help a ton, but the rest of the roster is still very young and most of the players have thus far been very turnover-prone in their short careers.
Confidence feels good
Put yourself in Rubio’s shoes a minute. You probably heard about him when he was a kid in Spain dazzling men twice his age with brilliant passing and genius basketball IQ. Then he came to the United States, where the Timberwolves withheld money from Kevin Love to give it to the Spanish sensation and still failed to build around the inside-out duo. Love left, and Rubio followed soon after, where he again met a situation in which he didn’t fit well in Utah.
Seeing Rubio put on a show with his countrymen is a great reminder of what makes him great. Against NBA talent, designing an entire team around Rubio is not going to get you very far, and not every group has the Gasols or Hernangomezes to pair with him. Still, the young Suns, whose goals are simply to take a step forward and develop an identity, would benefit greatly from employing a style close to that of the Spanish National Team.
Simplified offense and a focus on defense have been core to the identities of every team on which Williams has coached over the last several years, from Oklahoma City to San Antonio to Philadelphia. In order to improve, the Suns need to find what they can do well and execute it. Rubio’s MVP performance provided a window into the role he can play in that mixture, and it’s up to Williams to design a system that takes advantage of his new point guard as well as his star youngsters.