Utah Jazz: Ricky Rubio is a case study in mental toughness

SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 03: Ricky Rubio #3 of the Utah Jazz looks on against the Sacramento Kings during an NBA basketball game at Golden 1 Center on March 3, 2018 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 03: Ricky Rubio #3 of the Utah Jazz looks on against the Sacramento Kings during an NBA basketball game at Golden 1 Center on March 3, 2018 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

Through the highs and the lows of a roller-coaster year, Ricky Rubio has emerged as a leader for the Utah Jazz.

During the Utah Jazz’s 116-108 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves last week, Jeff Teague gave Ricky Rubio the business.  By “the business,” I mean he bolted cross-court to hip-check the Jazz point guard into the first row.  The move resulted in a flagrant foul and ejection for Teague and some shoving between the teams in front of the Wolves’ bench.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Teague’s emotions were just running high during a tight game. Or maybe he was frustrated after failing to convert on the previous play. Another theory has been floated, though, and it’s one that has more than its share of and-ones.

Teague was tired of playing in Rubio’s shadow.

Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight/ESPN talked about this in the aftermath of the play. According to him, Teague has been hearing about Rubio and his past with the T-Wolves all season and, as Rubio’s successor, may have reached his limit on the constant comparisons.

We may never know whether or not there’s any credence to this theory. However, the possibility got me to thinking about Rubio’s own situation in Utah. Say what you will about Teague having to fill his shoes, the truth of the matter is that Rubio’s move to the Jazz has been much more problematic.

At 27 years old, Rubio is already playing for his fifth coach in seven years at the NBA level. This season, he’s vastly under-performed for extended stretches and the Jazz lost games as a result. He’s also following George Hill, who played a large hand in getting Utah back to the playoffs last spring.

I’m just one of a gaggle of pundits and/or fans who have openly bemoaned Hill’s departure.

Finally, Rubio owns the distinction of being the guy the Jazz brought in to help convince Gordon Hayward to stay…only to watch him bolt for Beantown.

That’s a lot of baggage to be carrying around. But you won’t see Rubio complaining or hip-checking the opposition. Instead, he quietly goes about his business. The business of making himself, his team and the community they play in better.

Since getting dealt to the Jazz, the Spanish national has been an exemplary citizen of Salt Lake City. He’s donated money for cancer research and made appearances supporting the cause. He gave for the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Puerto Rico. Rubio also met with Special Olympians in Park City.

About the latter effort, he had this to say about the experience. From The Salt Lake Tribune

"“Their smiles was a gift from them to me,” he said. “We’re in a privileged spot where we can give back to the community. And especially seeing those kids smile, especially around that time of the year where the joy has gotta be, especially in the kids.”"

Despite his struggles, his impact on the Jazz has been equally large. When the team was at its lowest point and Rubio was a lightning rod for fan criticism, Utah’s star rookie Donovan Mitchell vehemently defended his teammate. More recently, he called Rubio “a great player and leader.”

His contributions haven’t just come behind the scenes in the mentor role either. During the Jazz’s recent 11-game win streak, Rubio was a key cog in the team’s on-court success. Over the first eight games of the streak (he missed the final three due to injury), he averaged 18.9 points, 7.6 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game.

He’s still rounding back into form after returning to the lineup, but clearly something has clicked in.

If you isolate the last six weeks of action, the Jazz have been 11.4 points per 100 possessions better with Rubio on the floor compared to when he sits. That quantifiable positive impact represents a swing even greater than that of Rudy Gobert, to whom much of the squad’s recent success is attributed.

And through it all — the early lows and the recent highs — Rubio’s demeanor has remain unchanged. He’s low-key on the court, humble off of it and working hard to improve in both areas.

Next: Jazz-Magic: Building momentum for the road trip

I don’t know if he’s long for Utah or not, but one must give credit where credit is due. Lesser players falter under similar circumstances all the time. Not Rubio, though. He looks more like a case study in mental toughness.