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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.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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