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Grading the Suns’ last offseason: Ricky Rubio is a real point guard

Phoenix Suns guard Ricky Rubio (11) drives as Golden State Warriors guard Damion Lee (1) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in Phoenix. The Warriors won 115-99. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The Phoenix Suns will be back for at least eight games, but even then, they are 65 games in and certain declarations can be made about the moves they made before the 2019-20 season.

Empire of the Suns will take a look at the most significant moves from last offseason, the first in which general manager James Jones and senior VP of basketball operations Jeff Bower were in charge on a permanent basis. Both Kevin Zimmerman and Kellan Olson will be giving their own grades, and we’ll also post the results from a Twitter poll.

This time, we take a look at the point guard the Suns had been looking for.

Kellan Olson: B+

Kevin Zimmerman: A-

Twitter grades: B – 54.6%, A – 28.8%, C- 14.4%, D/F 2.2%

It was easy to dismiss the Ricky Rubio signing last offseason as a sketchy fit for the Phoenix Suns.

Inking him for $51 million over three years just as free agency opened looked like an overpay, and the team took flak for having to salary dump T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson just to find the cash for the soon-to-be 29-year-old.

All those things are fair — and I’ll get to that in a bit — but the reasons for the signing, that he filled a position of dire need and at an above-average level, has been a huge win already.

Over the last two seasons, the following list of basketball men who started at least one game at point guard for Phoenix were: Isaiah Canaan, Tyler Johnson, Elie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, Elfrid Payton, Mike James, Eric Bledsoe and Shaq Harrison.

Bledsoe is the only starting-caliber NBA point guard of those players but accounted for only three of those starts before he found himself tweeting from a hair salon. Booker should not be starting at point guard and four of those players are not on an NBA roster as of June.

If you’ll remember, speculation about whom the Suns would sign or trade for last offseason included Patrick Beverley and Cory Joseph in the realistic realm. There was obviously a huge push by fans to go after a sign-and-trade deal for D’Angelo Russell, and Malcolm Brogdon was among the too-good-to-be-true options.

With hindsight, Terry Rozier looked like a high-risk, high-reward possibility, but there were questions about why he’d only had one above-average half-season of basketball. It turns out that the Suns had interest in him before Michael Jordan and the Hornets backed up the Brinks truck and paid the man. Rozier is having a career year, but he also lost the starting point guard role to second-year pro Devonte’ Graham.

Phoenix dodged a bullet there.

Instead, the Suns got the most point-guardy point guard on the market, a guy who can make a difference on both ends. Through March 11, before coronavirus suspended the season, he was third in the NBA by averaging 8.9 assists per game on a team that averages more assists per game than any other.

Rubio played the third-most minutes on the Suns and his NET on-off rating is 10.3, tops on the team and well ahead of Booker’s 6.6. While staying out of Booker’s way, he’s complemented his backcourt mate better than expected. Of two-man lineups who’ve played 200 or more minutes together, the backcourt’s NET rating of 7.3 is second (curiously behind reserves Cheick Diallo’s and Cam Johnson’s 7.8).

Admittedly, I dismissed the Suns signing Rubio because of the ill fit back in June. He was on the decline athletically and wouldn’t space the floor. While the worries remain warranted, it took one whole season opener of him playing above his head for me to feel like the Suns made the right call giving him that contract.

That opinion will hold even if Rubio’s legs fall off in year two or three of the deal after watching Booker work off the ball for a coronavirus-shortened season.

Rubio’s already limited athleticism dipped during the season due to minor bangs and bruises. While his mileage has added up because he’s been a pro since he was 16 and spent this summer playing for Spain’s national team, certainly he was asked to play too heavy of minutes. You could tell his body wore down some and that he got his legs back before the season suspension.

Each game, Rubio took three too many off-balance, mid-range banks while trying to draw a foul. His ability to finish at the rim isn’t great, and his shot remains ugly.

Yet Rubio is fifth in the NBA in assist rate and shooting respectable splits of 41% overall, 35% from three and 85% from the foul stripe. Most of all, his style takes a massive leadership and playmaking load off Booker, helping the shooting guard put together his efficient All-Star campaign.

That last point was the biggest problem over the last two years and the reason that so many fans feared Booker would seek greener pastures. Just Phoenix’s ability to sign one of the best free agents on the market at a position of dire need marked a huge leap forward for the James Jones-led front office.

No, Rubio isn’t perfect. But boy, the Suns sure needed him.


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