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Blazers’ C.J. McCollum is Ready for a Big Role

C.J. McCollum is poised to have an increased role in Portland and he says he’s ready to step up.

Alex Kennedy

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The last time we saw Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum, he was lighting up the Memphis Grizzlies in the postseason.

CJInside1In Game 5 of the Blazers’ playoff series against the Grizzlies, McCollum scored a career-high 33 points, shooting 12-of-20 from the field and 7-of-11 from three-point range.

In the final three games of that Blazers-Grizzlies series, he scored 77 points (despite coming off of the bench in two of those three contests). The 23-year-old was remarkably efficient as well, shooting 60.9 percent from the field and 64.7 percent from three-point range.

Entering his third NBA season, McCollum is hoping to pick up right where he left off in the playoffs and he’ll have every opportunity to do so on the new-look Blazers.

After losing veterans LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo this summer, McCollum is poised to take on a much larger role for Portland. Since being the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, McCollum has averaged just 14.5 minutes and started only four of his 111 games because the Blazers were a veteran-laden contender.

Now, Portland needs someone to emerge as their new second-leading scorer behind All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. McCollum seems like best option, and he insists that he’s 100 percent ready to step into that role.

“I’m going to have ample opportunities and I plan on taking full advantage,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time, even when I wasn’t playing a lot or when I was out of the rotation. In the back of my mind, I always knew that there was going to come a time when I was going to get my chance to play and have an extended role. So I think I’m definitely ready. I definitely feel like I’m in a position now where, mentally and physically, I’m ready to handle whatever responsibilities they thrust upon me.

“I definitely relish the opportunity. This is when you prove yourself. This is when you prove why you were drafted where you were drafted. This is when you justify the organization’s decision to pick you and make them say, ‘This is why we drafted this kid; we always knew this was going to happen.’ That’s what I want them to be able to say when it’s all said and done.”

If the huge strides he made at the end of last season are any indication, he’s ready to thrive in the Blazers’ backcourt. After putting up strong numbers in the final month of the regular season and then having that scoring outburst against a very good Memphis defense, McCollum is feeling very good entering this season.

“My confidence level is definitely very high,” McCollum said. “Even if I had struggled throughout the playoff series, I would have been fine because I know the type of work I put in and I think confidence comes from preparation. It comes from just continuing to be prepared. But, yes, when you see yourself have some individual success, that definitely gives you a boost of confidence. Mentally, I’m ready. Physically, my game is there. I’m just continuing to learn and continuing to try to learn from last season. Obviously I finished the year strong, but it is a new year now so I kind of need to move on while taking things away from it, seeing what things I was able to do well and trying to duplicate that and then working on some things I wasn’t able to do so well.”

Keep in mind, this wouldn’t be McCollum’s first time as a major offensive contributor. During his four seasons at Lehigh University, McCollum was the team’s go-to scorer. In fact, he was one of the top offensive players in the country. He averaged 19.1 points as a freshman, 21.8 points as a sophomore, 21.9 points as a junior and 23.9 points as a senior. He believes that experience as Lehigh’s focal point prepared him to play an increased role in the NBA, as he’ll do in Portland this year.

“I think it helps mentally because I know what it’s like to be the focal point of an offense,” McCollum said. “I know what it’s like to initiate an offense and I know what it’s like to be keyed in on [by defenses] every night. Obviously the stakes are raised because it is the NBA; there’s advanced scouting, there’s more focus on breaking things down and there’s better players and better technology. But I think from a mental standpoint, you definitely understand the seriousness of it, such as how in shape you have to be to carry that load. I think from that standpoint, I’m definitely ready.”

As he prepares for his potential breakout year, McCollum has been working extremely hard this summer. He has spent most of the offseason training in Portland, but he has also made stops in California to work out at Peak Performance Project (P3) as well as Toronto to work out with two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash.

“This offseason, I have been working on everything,” McCollum said. “Starting off each day, we do morning lifts. Usually we’re there at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. depending on the day. We lift in the morning and then we go through a series of function movements, dynamic movements, where we focus on core and back. I’ve been doing a lot of leg lifts this summer to strengthen my lower half to make sure I can finish games, be able to maneuver through pick and rolls and withstand the rigors of carrying a heavier load. Then, we get on the court and go through a series of shooting drills – it’s a lot of catch-and-shoot, a lot of shooting off the move, a lot of working on shooting out of sets that I’ll be involved in. Then, we move onto pick-and-roll stuff, ball-handling drills, a lot of passing, working on just getting different shots in different areas, floaters and things like that. I’ve really been working on everything. I’ve even been incorporating some yoga here and there and just trying to take complete advantage of my [offseason] time. It has been very productive and I’ve prepared – mentally and physically – for the season.”

Working out with Nash in Toronto was special for McCollum, since the legendary point guard is someone he watched a lot as he was growing up. Nash is nearing a deal to be a part-time player development consultant with the Golden State Warriors, but McCollum is hoping they can continue to work together going forward because he enjoyed the experience and learned a lot.

“It was a lot of fun learning from him and seeing his approach to the game and having the chance to actually have him physically work me out and push me through some different drills,” McCollum said of Nash. “He showed me some different techniques and [I was able] to just get a better understanding of how he sees the game. One of the biggest things for me was just getting an understanding of his thought process on shooting versus passing. I also got to understand how he reads pick and rolls, and how crucial it is to execute late-shot-clock and late-game situations, especially in the playoffs. It was a very good experience for me and one that I will cherish. I will continue to try and build a relationship with him throughout the future. Although I’ve heard he may be working for the Warriors soon, hopefully he can still spend a little bit of time with me during the summer.”

In addition to his training, McCollum has been watching a ton of film this offseason. Sometimes, the difference between being good or great in the NBA comes down to a player’s attention to detail and how much time they devote to learning new things and improving their craft. McCollum knows this, which is why he’s borderline obsessed with studying film.

“I’ve been doing a lot of film study, watching Synergy Sports,” McCollum said. “I’ve been breaking down my shot, my pick and rolls, Dame’s pick and rolls, a lot of players’ shots across the league. Just yesterday, I got film of some of the better two-guards who are great at moving without the ball and are accustomed to doing that. Then, I recently got film of guys who guard the pick and roll well. I’m just looking at different stuff: transitions, finishes, floaters in the lane, some of the best guys at the pick and roll in the NBA and just watching them on Synergy on my iPad. Our staff does a great job of breaking down stuff for us, and our video coordinator is always on the spot. Whenever we need anything, he gets it done.

“I watch a lot. As soon as the season ends, I just text my video coordinator and list the things I want, list the guys that I want on and off the ball, list the possessions from previous games and then he gets it back to me and I just have it all summer. Then, when I’m done watching it, he just reloads it and gives me different stuff like ways I could score in our sets. I just watch to try to get a better understanding of everything. I watch film all the time when I fly, because I always have my iPad with me when I’m flying. I watch when I have my NormaTec [recovery equipment] on, which I wear for an hour several times a week. If I can’t sleep at night, I’ll just grab the iPad and start going through stuff, whether it be my shot, Dame’s shot, Wesley’s shot. Or I would just watch post-ups to see how I can relocate off the ball, but now that we don’t have LaMarcus it’ll be a little different. Basically, whenever I’m bored or whenever I have the urge, I just watch film because my iPad is always in my possession.”

When asked which specific players he has been watching, McCollum revealed a very diverse group of individuals he has been studying lately.

“I study everybody,” McCollum said. “I study guys who don’t dribble a lot and are efficient at getting their shot off, like Kyle Korver. Obviously, you want to try to take the least amount of dribbles as possible because that’s how you become more efficient. I also study guys like James Harden, who’s the primary ball handler in Houston but also can play off the ball. I study Klay Thompson because he does a little bit of both, playing on and off the ball. I watch Steph Curry, a guy who handles the ball a lot. I watch Dame. I watch Wesley Matthews. I watch Eric Bledsoe. I watch Goran Dragic. I watch Chris Paul. I watch Mike Conley. I watch Isaiah Thomas from the Celtics because he’s really good with pick and rolls and he’s a guy who can score in bunches and distribute. I watch a lot of Tony Allen, a lot of guys who are good at defending pick and rolls. I watch those guys and just try to go through Synergy to see where guys are ranked and just see how I can improve and what kind of tricks I could learn from each player. So I don’t just watch guys who handle the ball, I also watch guys who move without the ball or who thrive in transition or who defend well because I’m always trying to add different stuff to my game.”

This season, McCollum will likely spend time playing alongside his close friend Lillard. The two players have been friends since they were in college and now it’s very possible they’ll be Portland’s top two scorers this season. McCollum is expecting Lillard to have a huge year now that he’ll be the Blazers’ focal point.

“I just expect him to continue to do a lot of the things he has done in the past: being a good leader, orchestrating the offense, being aggressive like he has been and just being a killer,” McCollum said of Lillard. “I always joke with him and tell him this is just like when he was at Weber State only he’s got more help. He’s going to take on the bulk load of attention from an in-game standpoint and a media standpoint so a lot of pressure is going to be on him, but I think he’s ready for it. Offensively, he has all the tools to be an All-Star again and I think where he will make strides this year is defensively – just continuing to understand the importance of defense and the importance of guarding pick and rolls. I think it starts with him and it finishes with the rest of us because we follow his lead. I look forward to the opportunity to play alongside him and I think he’ll have a tremendous year. He’s ready. He looks like he’s in great shape, his jumper looks good, he looks sharp and I think he’s focused. Everyone’s on a mission to prove something this year; they just want to show they can play at a high level year in and year out.”

This was a tough summer for the Blazers since they lost so many key players, but fans’ frustration will turn to optimism if the team’s young core can play at a high level.

“I’m really excited,” McCollum said. “Obviously this is a big change our team is going through, with the influx of new young talent and the loss of a lot of starters. We lost a lot of people who kind of changed the franchise – with LaMarcus having been here nine years, Wes and Nico each having a great career here and RoLo, even in his short time here, being very successful. So it’ll be different, but I’m glad the opportunity is available [for me] and as a young player, that’s what you look forward to. You look forward to the opportunity where you get to prove yourself, get a chance to play more minutes and get to play through mistakes. I think I’ve earned the right to do a lot of that stuff, and now I’m in a position where I’m on a young team and where I’m moving up the ranks and where I get to prove myself. I think this is a very unique opportunity for our team and for a lot of young players to prove themselves and to take advantage of opportunities they may not have been given in the past. And I’m not just talking about myself; we have a lot of guys who have been on teams where their role was reduced and now their role will continue to grow.

“It’s nice to have a lot of fresh, new faces around. [On last year’s team] we all got along because we lived similar lifestyles – not being married and focusing a lot of our energy and attention to the game. I think it’ll be the same with this influx of 23-to-27-year-olds. All of the guys are focused on basketball, focused on trying to get better and focused on proving themselves. The only difference is a lot of the guys on this year’s team are in a position where their back is against the wall and they need to prove themselves, whereas some of the veterans we had before had already established and proven themselves in the league and racked up accolades. Now, we’re on the opposite side of the spectrum just trying to prove ourselves and enjoy our time in the NBA and establish our reputation.”

McCollum was surprised to see so many of the team’s veterans leave this summer, but he tried to just focus on the things that he could control. Now that he has seen all of the team’s moves and knows the front office’s long-term plan, he’s very confident that the organization is moving in a positive direction.

“I mean, I found out probably the same way a lot of you guys did,” McCollum said of the free agent departures. “I think my agent gave me a call and informed me some of the stuff that was going on, some of the stuff that had happened early on free agency before the draft. But just as a player though, you don’t really worry about that stuff. You’re focusing on your job. What you prepare for each day is just trying to get better. Whether they bring in players or trade players or keep players, you just need to be ready to perform. That’s kind of how I approached it, knowing it is a business and that anything can happen. But I trust the organization. They are doing a great job of putting a plan together and I think we’re going to execute it to perfection. Now, it’s just about us performing and backing up what they’ve done.”

With so many veterans leaving and young players arriving, many people are projecting Portland to freefall down the Western Conference standings. While it’s very likely that the team won’t match last year’s 51 wins, McCollum is ignoring the doubters who say a trip to the lottery is inevitable. He believes a playoff berth is possible if the team jells and things fall into place.

“I don’t really worry about what people write or say,” McCollum said. “People obviously have a right to their own opinion, but I don’t read too much into it [when people say we’ll miss the playoffs]. I’m just really focused on individually having a better year, staying ready and continuing to help my team. I definitely think there is a reason why you play the games. There’s a reason why the schedule is made. The NBA Finals aren’t decided in September, so it’s just more about continuing to get acclimated with our teammates and control what we can control, which is to go out and play hard every night and put ourselves in the best position to succeed. We have a new team in place, a lot of new pieces, and we just have to continue to get used to each other offensively and defensively. But there’s a reason why the games have to be played, and I think everybody is looking forward to the challenge.”

In order for the Blazers to have any chance of shocking the basketball world and exceeding expectations, they’ll certainly need their young shooting guard to step up. After a summer that featured rigorous training and countless hours of film study, McCollum is prepared to do his part.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Crabbe’s Arrival Brings Wolves Needed Shooting

The Minnesota Timberwolves trading for Allen Crabbe was not simply to move Jeff Teague or to create future trade possibilities, but mostly to give Robert Covington a chance at a few more clean looks. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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By trading away Jeff Teague and his $19 million expiring contract, the Minnesota Timberwolves clearly created more time for Shabazz Napier and perhaps opened a pathway to increasing the aggression from Andrew Wiggins, as seen earlier in the year. But to hear head coach Ryan Saunders tell it, acquiring Allen Crabbe from the Atlanta Hawks will help forward Robert Covington more than anyone else.

Teague’s return to Atlanta has little effect on either team’s salary cap structures moving forward. All three pieces — Teague and Crabbe, along with Treveon Graham — are on expiring contracts, and the combination of Teague and Graham out-costs Crabbe by only $2.6 million. The lack of long-term effect has created some speculation Crabbe may be a part of another deal for the Timberwolves before February’s trade deadline, but more likely, he is on hand to create the spacing Minnesota has lacked all season as it implements a modern offensive system.

That may sound counterintuitive since Crabbe is in the midst of a career-worst shooting season, hitting only 32.3 percent of his attempts from deep while taking barely half as many per game as he did the last two seasons. Combining that with Covington’s season-long struggles from beyond the arc — and adding a scuffling shooter to a scuffling shooter — seems a poor way to strengthen the league’s No. 23 offense.

Looking at Crabbe in terms of his career, though, a 38.9 percent three-point threat better fits Saunders’ thoughts.

“A lot of times you see, just for example, a pick-and-roll, the ball will be in Andrew [Wiggins]’ hands, with [Karl-Anthony Towns] the screener,” Saunders said Saturday.  “A lot of times [Covington] is in the high [quadrant]. If you put another high-level shooter in the opposite corner, defenses when they’re coming in to help on the roll, they have to make a choice between Cov and who they want to get the shot up.”

With Towns missing more than a month before this weekend, Saunders’ exact scenario has been rare of late, but the concept holds up.

As Napier spurned Gorgui Dieng’s screen and drove, he looked past Wiggins at the break and instead fired to Covington in the high quadrant just as Saunders suggested. Covington hit the contested shot, part of a recent uptick from the six-year veteran, but it was by no means the open shot a system based on spacing is supposed to provide.

“Certain positions, maybe we have guys at a significantly lower percentage than Cov that [defenses] heavily shade to Cov,” Saunders said. “So I think it’ll really help Cov.”

Saunders tried to be political — not the only time in the availability, as he danced around criticizing some poor calls in Friday’s loss at the Indiana Pacers — but even the coachspeak made the reality clear. The Timberwolves do not have shooting on the roster, and they know it; that has only further hampered the shooting they do have in Covington.

Crabbe’s career mark would rank third on Minnesota’s roster this season, behind only Towns’ 40.6 percent and Dieng’s 39.2. Of Timberwolves attempting at least three 3’s per game, only Towns and Covington are shooting better than even Crabbe’s current 32.3 percent. (That excludes Jake Layman, who has appeared in only 14 games due to a sprained toe.)

Whether Crabbe spots up in the corner or at the break, a la Wiggins above, or Covington does so with Crabbe at the top, the Minnesota newcomer will offer much better shooting than has been available through the first half of the season. Even if it is not in a pick-and-roll situation, an added shooter will give Napier both a better chance to find a marksman and better spacing to get to the rim.

Despite no genuine complementary shooters, Covington has already begun to change his season’s tide. Through the year’s first 32 games, he was shooting only 33.7 percent from beyond the arc on a little under five attempts per game. Those would both be his second-worst career marks for a season.

Something shifted in the new year. In the last nine games, Covington has hit 39.5 percent of his threes on over eight attempts per game. Those would both be career-highs for a season.

All along, a significant portion of Covington’s attempts has been contested. His shooting motion may as well have become a default pump fake, welcoming a defender and then popping.

“Cov has always been a tough shot maker,” Saunder said. “Some guys have that.”

If Crabbe’s arrival has the intended effect, Covington may not need to prove that skill as often moving forward.

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NBA Daily: Gary Clark Hopes To Stick In Orlando

David Yapkowitz chats with Orlando Magic forward Gary Clark about his time in Houston and showing what he’s capable of in the duration of his 10-day contract.

David Yapkowitz

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Life on a non-guaranteed contract in the NBA can be a little bit stressful. Players have to work just a little bit harder and be just a little more efficient than everyone else. They’ve got to do about their daily grind with the thought they can be cut at any moment in the back of their minds.

Sometimes there isn’t any advance warning. They could have put in all the necessary work and gone above and beyond what was asked of them, but still end up being cut. It’s no fault of their own and they may be left wondering where they went wrong.

There are also contract deadlines they need to be cognizant of. Depending on the roster outlook at various points in the season, teams may have to make quick decisions regarding contracts. The first major hurdle players have to overcome is the initial opening night roster deadline. Once they make it past that, they’re still not out of the woods just yet.

The next deadline is in early January when all contracts become guaranteed for the remainder of the season. After impressing the organization enough last season to make the Houston Rockets’ opening night roster out of training camp, Gary Clark didn’t survive this season’s January deadline.

He played a key role at times for the Rockets as a rookie, but found himself on the outside looking in this season. Houston had three players on non-guaranteed contracts: Clark, Ben McLemore and Isaiah Hartenstein. Clark kind of knew his time in Houston was coming to an end when he was the only one of the three who was on the bench most of the time.

“I kind of expected it, just knowing how the basketball world works when it comes down to trigger dates and stuff like that with contracts. Being a guy that wasn’t playing much at that time, I figured it was kind of between me and two other guys, the three of us,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “That week, I was the only one that wasn’t playing out of us three. It was obvious what the business decision had to be, but you just take it for what it is and keep going forward.”

Clark didn’t remain a free agent for long. Just a couple of days after being cut by the Rockets, the Orlando Magic signed him to a 10-day contract. An injury to Jonathan Isaac precipitated a need for additional help on the wing and in small ball situations as the Magic find themselves entrenched in playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.

Clark joined the Magic for their current west coast road trip, and he’s immediately been inserted into the rotation. Head coach Steve Clifford has been impressed so far by what he’s seen from Clark, and he’s eager to see how Clark responds while playing on a 10-day contract.

“He can shoot and he’s got good toughness. I think he’s got a good feel for how to play,” Clifford told reporters after a recent game against the Clippers. “I want to see what he can do. We need somebody at that spot that’s skilled like that.”

Clark had his best game of this three-game stretch in his first game with the Magic, a big win over the Los Angeles Lakers. He had 10 points off the bench on 4-for-6 shooting from the field, including 2-for-4 from the three-point line. He didn’t score against the Los Angeles Clippers, but he pulled down four rebounds and gave the team an all-around toughness on the court.

In the Magic’s most recent game against the Golden State Warriors, he shot well again, hitting two of his three attempts — including one from the three-point line. Clark’s early role in Orlando has been similar to what he brought in Houston. That’s a wing who can space the floor and play some power forward in small-ball situations.

“Just bringing some energy and knocking down shots. Being versatile defensively, being able to switch on multiple guys if need be, and use my athleticism,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “Knocking down shots is one thing, but my activity on the glass on both ends has been solid.”

When Isaac went down, the Magic lost one of the best defensive players in the NBA this season. Isaac was certainly a candidate for First Team All-Defense and had even played his way into the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Bringing some of that same defensive effort is something that Clark can definitely do.

He was a standout defensive player while in college at Cincinnati. He was a two-time AAC Defensive Player of the Year and displayed a similar skill-set to Isaac in being able to guard multiple positions. In his early stint with the Rockets, he showed his ability to defend at the NBA level as well.

In his first couple of games with the Magic, he saw himself opposite players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. It’s the defensive end of the floor where he feels he can make a solid impact.

“I think this team gives me an opportunity as a young guy to show that I’m capable of doing that,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “The times that I did get those opportunities, I think I did solid against those guys. It’s going to come, when the opportunity comes I’ll be ready for it.”

While Clark started out as a rotation player as a rookie in Houston, he eventually hit the rookie wall and saw himself sent down to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the G League for seasoning. This season, he found himself on the end of the bench but saw some opportunity when Danuel House Jr. went down with an injury.

Although his role was a bit inconsistent, Clark believes he learned some things with the Rockets that will help him in his professional journey. One of the biggest takeaways for him is being able to communicate effectively with the rest of the team, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the team’s plays.

“It’s communication no matter what,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t know most of the stuff that guys run or fully know all the schemes, but just being able to talk on the floor on both offense and defense and be there for guys and guys being there for me as well.”

This stint with Orlando is nothing new to Clark in terms of having to prove himself. The Magic have two options once his 10-day runs out. They either release him or sign him to another 10-day. If he makes it past the second 10-day, the Magic have to sign him for the remainder of the season or release him.

No matter what happens, Clark is confident that he’s shown enough both with the Rockets and the Magic to prove that he belongs in the NBA.

“I think any guy that comes from a trade or being waived struggles to make the transition like I’m going through. I can’t be too high or too low in this stint that I’m here, or in the 10-day,” Clark told Basketball Insiders. “I think I did enough in Houston to show my versatility and my ability to knock down shots. I think in the long haul, what I bring to the table is good enough to be here.”

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NBA Daily: Ricky Rubio Raising Expectations in Phoenix

The momentum train in Phoenix may have slowed down, but the Suns are still rolling along nicely. There has been a myriad of changes since last season, but one acquisition, in particular, has been invaluable to the franchise’s major turnaround.

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When Ricky Rubio signed a three-year contract with the Phoenix Suns for $51 million in July, it was immediately deemed an overpay. The point guard was rumored to be headed to Indiana, but the Suns simply made him a better offer. The offseason addition quickly paid off for the Suns, who were one of the darling surprise teams in the first couple months of the season.

This move was met with criticism because heading into free agency, the biggest need for Phoenix was perimeter shooting. Notoriously known as a guard that can’t shoot the ball, Rubio has shown over the past two seasons that is a false narrative. Rubio is shooting over 41 percent from the floor and 34 percent from distance — those are both near career-highs for the 29-year old floor general.

Some of that can be attributed to the spacing that has opened up with the additions of Dario Saric and Aron Baynes, and, of course, the franchise’s best player, Devin Booker. The other part though is the work that Rubio has put in during the summer and over the course of the season. After six entertaining years in Minnesota and a couple of seasons in Utah, Rubio has truly excelled in Monty Williams’ system.

After a rough month of December, the Suns have been much better as of late. They have won four of their last five games, including last night’s contest in Boston. Rubio, in particular, has been stuffing the stat sheet. In New York City on Thursday night, Rubio served up 25 points, 8 rebounds, 13 assists and 4 steals. Better, he was 10-for-18 from the floor including 3-for-5 from downtown.

Now in his ninth year in the league, Rubio’s 13.6 point scoring average is a career-high. The points are what people will take notice of, but it is his distribution that should be getting the attention. Rubio is averaging a career-high 9.4 assists per game, which ranks second in the league behind only LeBron James. This is what is has been fueling the turnaround in Phoenix.

There is something to be said for shot creation, but also the effectiveness being paired with Booker. The notion early on was that it wouldn’t work because they both need the ball. It is this exact reason though that both are having more success this year. Booker no longer has to handle the ball for the bulk of possessions and create shots for himself and for others. The duo has been lethal in transition. Only LeBron and Giannis Antetokounmpo have scored more fast-break points than Booker this season.

Last season Booker had the third-highest usage rate (32.9) in the league, behind only James Harden and Joel Embiid. Through 41 games this season, Booker now ranks 19th in that category. Booker has been reaping the rewards in a lot of areas. His scoring is still right where it was last year, but his efficiency is up tremendously. In the 38 games that he has played this season, Booker is shooting 51 percent from the floor which is nearly five percent higher than any of his previous four seasons.

The pace (9th) and offensive rating (14th) have vastly improved with Rubio running the point. The emergence of Kelly Oubre Jr has been building for a couple of years now, but Rubio has brought out the best in him. Surrounding him with capable shooters in the form of big men has helped as well. Both Baynes and Saric have thrived in their roles, and rookie Cameron Johnson has been a solid contributor in that regard.

Amid all of this happening, keep in mind that the Suns have been doing all of this essentially without their franchise big man Deandre Ayton. The No. 1 overall pick in 2018 has played just 11 games this season due to his 25-game suspension. He exploded for his first 20-20 game on Thursday in New York, posting 26 points and 21 rebounds. He was perfect from the free-throw line but he has surprisingly only taken 17 attempts this year.

Perhaps the best quality of Rubio’s presence is just how contagious his style of play has become. Last season the Suns ranked 20th in team assists — and this year they are second in the league. Once everyone is able to see the ball move and they can trust that their teammates will keep moving the ball to find the open man, it really puts pressure on the defense. San Antonio has been notorious for this style of play, while Brad Stevens has been doing the same thing in Boston.

When the ball moves where it is supposed to, great things happen.

The road ahead doesn’t look pretty for Phoenix. Now they will face San Antonio twice, Indiana, Memphis, Dallas, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee. They also have matchups with Houston, Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break.

Realistically, the Suns could be well out of the playoff picture at that point — but considering where they have been for the past few years, the season could still be considered a success. They could have more wins by the break than they have won in total for each of the last four seasons. Williams is building something special in the desert and most of it began with the acquisition of something they have been missing for several years: A quality starting point guard.

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