EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

As he retires from NBA, let’s not forget Ricky Rubio and his season with the Suns

Jan 6, 2024, 6:43 AM

Ricky Rubio and Devin Booker...

Ricky Rubio #11 and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns walk on the court during the second half of the NBA game against the Sacramento Kings at Talking Stick Resort Arena on October 23, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Kings 124-95. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Ricky Rubio isn’t among the first handful of Phoenix Suns whom fans will cite for helping the franchise end a decade-plus run of ineptitude.

Devin Booker, James Jones, Monty Williams, Chris Paul and even Kelly Oubre Jr. will get their fair share of credit.

But after the 33-year-old Rubio announced his retirement from the NBA on Thursday as he continues working through mental health challenges, it is important to give him his due. There’s an argument his best, most impactful NBA season came during his one year in Phoenix.

Remember how the Suns began the 19-win season in 2018-19 by withholding who their starting point guard would be on opening night? Remember how they revealed that it would be Isaiah Canaan in the season opener?

That telegraphed how dire the season would go for Devin Booker and Co.

And it alluded to the gravity of the Rubio signing a summer later by a team owned by Robert Sarver. Phoenix inked Rubio to a three-year, $51 million contract, a deal that got tepid grades.

It turned out the quiet, thoughtful Spaniard was the stability the Suns needed.

“I mean I could be up here all day (talking about Rubio),” Booker said after a win against the Miami Heat on Friday. “Even though it was just one year, it was so impactful to my career. Just his veteran leadership, his IQ, his approach. He’s a brother … he’s someone who would always check in on you when he was on the team and even when he left, too.”

One of the NBA’s best passers, Rubio eventually shed the label as an underwhelming European prospect who didn’t live up to the hype.

The fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft began his pro career in Spain as a 14-year-old phenom. As the Washington Post’s Ben Golliver wrote, it came at the beginnings of a social media era where basketball diehards could catch wind of a rising star overseas, like they did to a much greater degree watching Luka Doncic’s path to the NBA nearly a decade later.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t outrageous that Rubio was drafted as the first point guard in 2009 (if we considered James Harden and Tyreke Evans shooting guards). Rubio came off the board ahead of mid-major risk Stephen Curry, high school-to-Europe star Brandon Jennings, plus blue blood products Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday out of UCLA.

(As an aside, it was outrageous the Timberwolves also selected Syracuse point guard Jonny Flynn right after Rubio, whiffling on all the above).

Rubio spent a few more seasons overseas before making his NBA debut, where athleticism and an early ACL injury limited him. While his time in Minnesota cooled the perception of his ceiling, the mixtapes looked damn good. And they were good because Rubio was always a winning player — peep the Spanish national team accolades.

Rubio was a floor general who could create at a massively high rate, especially considering he never threatened as a scorer, didn’t have overly absurd handles and didn’t attack with elite athleticism.

His value showed with the Suns.

That 2019-20 team went 34-39 with Rubio playing his usual productive part before and during the Disney World bubble run that saw the Suns go 8-0 and finish a Caris LeVert mid-range jumper away from an unimaginable playoff berth. Of course, it was the launch-pad to the success in the past several years, the move that began narrative changes for the Suns as a team and Booker as a player.

Rubio finished the year behind only LeBron James in assists and fifth in assist percentage.

Utah Jazz fans have a strong argument that Rubio helped their team more.

While Rubio joked that he was the man behind Booker’s and Donovan Mitchell’s success, it was the latter whose career intertwined at a deeper level and at multiple stops in Utah and then Cleveland.

Rubio helped the Jazz in 2017-19 to make the playoffs as a No. 5 seed for two seasons, manning point for the No. 2 defensive team each of those years.

But as a free-agent signee in Phoenix for the 2019-20 season, Rubio can make a case for his best work when he and Williams joined Booker to improve from a 19-win campaign.

By the basic numbers, his 13.0 points per game were 0.1 off his career mark hit twice. His 8.8 assists per game tied a career-high. His shooting clip (41.5%) was second-best, and his three-point accuracy (36.1%) was his best.

Even if the Suns hadn’t traded Rubio in the Chris Paul deal a year later, it would have been worth all that $51 million even if Rubio had struggled with health issues in the final two years still in Phoenix.

In the NBA, maybe he’s viewed as one of many drafted ahead of Curry. Diehard basketball fans see him as an international star.

His legacy will hold as a member of the Spanish basketball culture. Rubio went from prodigy in the era of Pau and Marc Gasol into 2019 FIBA World Cup champion and MVP.

“An amazing career,” Booker said. “Someone whose career we’ve all been following since he was 15, 16 years old in Spain. He’s gained respect from everybody over here. Great career. Wish he’d play longer but everybody makes that decision.

“I’m going to miss him on the court but he’s a friend forever.”

In Phoenix, Rubio was the victim of the own proof he provided: His play alongside Booker gave the Suns reason to pursue a Paul trade. He was proof to Paul that there was potential for a true floor general with the Suns, and that the culture was fixed.

That proof Rubio provided was an important domino in his journeyman status afterward, the Suns’ 2021 NBA Finals run and where Phoenix now sits. The Suns have massive expectations after discarding two aging floor generals, replacing them with an unorthodox roster-building risk.

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As he retires from NBA, let’s not forget Ricky Rubio and his season with the Suns