Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
CLEVELAND — Donovan Mitchell couldn't help but smile when reflecting on his matchup with Darius Garland moments after Utah survived a 109-108 game against Cleveland.
He thought of the way Garland responded when the Jazz were up by 15, how he trash talked and the extra swing passes he made late — he had a pretty good idea where all of that came from.
"I think the biggest thing is you got Garland being taught by Ricky Rubio," Mitchell said.
Mitchell knows a thing or two about how helpful that can be. It's been four years now since Mitchell was the young guard with loads of talent and was handed the keys to the Jazz's offense. There were a lot of reasons why Mitchell succeeded: Mitchell had talent, Quin Snyder and the Jazz system; but one of the biggest reasons was the presence of Rubio.
The veteran guard took Mitchell under his wing and taught him how to read the game. He showed him how to compete on every possession, and how to pick his spots.
"He made my job a helluva lot easier, just being able to see and feel the game," Mitchell said. "I can see how he's helping with Darius with that as well."
The beloved former Jazz point guard (his triple-double in the first round of the 2018 playoffs stands among the franchise's most iconic playoff moments) has found a niche in the league as a mentor. It's getting to the point that if a team has a young guard, it probably wants to find a way to get Rubio alongside him.
Mitchell, Devin Booker, Anthony Edwards and now Garland have all taken big steps just by being around Rubio.
"He's got a pretty good track record," Mitchell said.
Mitchell saw the fingerprints of Rubio all over the game Sunday. After the Jazz took a 15-point lead early in the fourth, he saw Rubio gather up his team in a huddle and the next thing he knew it was a 15-0 Cavs run — a run that ended on a Rubio finger roll. He saw Garland, instead of taking it one-on-one each time, make the extra pass.
"In the fourth, it's easy to go one-on-one and try and go," Mitchell said. "I'm not gonna give all the credit to Ricky, but I can kind of assume that was Ricky right there."
So what's so special about the Spanish National Team hero?
"He's instinctively thinking about his teammates," Snyder said. "And the other part of it, which is much more unique and more rare, is that there's a combination of charisma and intelligence; not only do your teammates believe in you, but they want to follow you. He's got both of those."
There's something more, too.
Snyder lauded his competitiveness, his desire to do anything to help the team win, and, maybe most of all, his selflessness.
Rubio has bounced around the league in recent years and had a couple seasons in Utah where his long hair and contagious smile made him a fan favorite. He spent one season in Phoenix before getting traded to Minnesota; he spent one season there before Cleveland traded for him this offseason.
That run could have made even the most joyful player a bit jaded. Instead, Rubio embraced the role as mentor.
"It's fun when you have a young team believing," Rubio said. "There's not one who is not buying into what we do. … It's fun to be in a group that cares about each other and has bought into the identity that we want to create."
Rubio said that after Sunday's game, but you could probably find a very similar one from a Jazz press conference in December 2017, too.
When he was traded to Utah in the summer of 2017, Rubio thought he was joining a young second-round playoff team led by Gordon Hayward. In reality, he helped the team rebuild on the fly around Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and himself as a veteran point guard.
It's a pretty similar situation in Cleveland. The upstart Cavs have surprised just about everyone with how they've begun the season. Cleveland was expected to be a surefire lottery team, but at 13-11 they are smack in the middle of the playoff battle.
"In trying to create an environment that is sustainable, you need quality leadership," Cleveland coach JB Bickerstaff said.
To those who've been around him, it's hard to find someone who's better at leading than Rubio. He helped build a long-lasting successful run with the Jazz, and it looks like he's started yet another in Cleveland.