Rudy Gobert doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.
You’d think a 24-year-old averaging 14.1 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks while shooting 66.4 percent from the field would get more attention, but he continues to fly under the radar outside of Utah. Gobert wasn’t selected to the Western Conference All-Star team this year, he somehow finished seventh in last season’s Defensive Player of the Year voting despite dominating that end of the floor and he isn’t mentioned nearly enough in debates about the best centers in the league.
By now, Gobert has grown accustomed to being overlooked. After all, this is his fourth year in the NBA and his career literally began with a slight, as he slipped to No. 27 in the very weak 2013 NBA draft. Rather than let it frustrate him, the center uses the lack of attention as motivation.
“I’m a guy who has a lot of pride and all my career, there have been things like that motivating me,” Gobert told HoopsHype. “I try to use anything I can as motivation, so for sure [I use the lack of recognition]. When you feel like you might deserve something and you don’t get it, you want to prove someone wrong. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for my whole career and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
It’s not personal, and Gobert knows that. Collectively, the Jazz aren’t discussed nearly enough. This is a 50-win team with one of the NBA’s best defenses and an extremely well-rounded roster, yet they’re rarely listed among the legitimate contenders in the West.
“We talk about it sometimes [as a team],” Gobert said. “I’ve been here for four years now and Gordon [Hayward] has been here for seven years, so we understand it. We understand that it’s about the market, so we have to do more than other teams to get that respect. We also understand that we have to win games. At the end of the day, if we win games, we’re going to get the recognition that we deserve. That’s why we just focus on winning and getting better.”
Since entering the league, Gobert has significantly improved every single season. Considering he was pegged as a raw project during the draft process, he’s way ahead of schedule in his development. However, he’s not content with where he’s at as a player and he’s obsessed with translating his individual growth into more wins for the Jazz.
“I don’t even know [what my ceiling is],” Gobert said. “I’m focused on getting better on both ends and I’m just going to keep working. The main thing for me is to keep making my team better – finding ways to do that. I just want to win more than anything. I really want to win. I know that I can get so much better, especially offensively, but at the same time I don’t want to start doing any [new] things that will hurt my team, so I just want to take it slowly. I want to continue to get better as a player. But I want to do the things that I already do – that I know help the team – and do those things even better.
“I worked very hard last summer, and the main thing for me was to get stronger and be able to be healthy all year. I would say that the thing I’m most proud of is that I’ve only missed one game this season. In this league, staying consistent and playing the entire year is tough. I wanted to be out there every night so that I could help my team win games.”
Gobert has certainly done that this year. While Hayward was selected as Utah’s lone All-Star earlier this season, the 7-foot-2 center has increasingly become the Jazz’s most important player. As award season approaches, he’s one of the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year (alongside Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green) and has received some consideration for Most Improved Player as well.
It’s safe to say that Gobert will finish higher than seventh in Defensive Player of the Year voting this time around. The case for him is pretty simple. He’s the focal point of the Jazz’s defense, which allows just 96.8 points per game. That’s easily the best in the NBA; the runner-up is the San Antonio Spurs allowing 98.1 points a night. With Gobert on the floor, Utah’s defensive rating is 100.4 (which would rank first in the NBA). When Gobert is on the bench, the team’s defensive rating falls to 107.8 (which would rank 21st in the NBA).
Gobert leads the NBA in blocks per game with 2.7 per night. He easily ranks first in total blocks with 213 (no other player has more than 168) and block percentage among starters (6.4 percent, which is 0.5 percent higher than the runner-up). But while Gobert is an excellent shot-blocker, opposing players are quick to point out that what makes him such a nightmare is the fact that his 7-foot-2 frame and 7-foot-8.5 wingspan allow him to alter every shot within his general vicinity and get in players’ heads whenever he’s on the floor. It’s no coincidence that players shoot just 56.0 percent against him in the restricted area (which ranks first among starting centers), or that opponents’ field goal percentage drop an astonishing 13.3 percent when he’s the primary defender six feet from the rim or closer (also first among centers).
“He is the best shot-blocker in the game,” Sacramento Kings guard Garrett Temple said. “He is the one big I worry may block my jump shot when I come off of a pick-and-roll, even if he’s playing back from me. And he changes three times as many shots as he actually blocks.”
“You literally try to know where he is at all times when you’re around the rim because he has good timing and can cover so much ground,” Portland Trail Blazers forward Moe Harkless said. “He makes Utah’s defense really, really good.”
“What makes him so good is that Utah’s defense funnels offenses into the paint, which seems like the opposite of what you’d want to do, but it works because Rudy covers so much ground in there,” Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. said. “It’s not just his blocked shots either; it’s all of the shots that he alters that makes him so good. He just covers so much more area than other centers.”
Gobert knows his presence intimidates other players and he uses this to his advantage.
“That’s one of the things that I try to do to make our team better defensively,” Gobert said. “That’s why I always say it’s not about blocking shots, it’s about the impact you have on the other team. People look at the stats and say, ‘Oh, he got eight blocks! He played great defensively!’ But it’s not necessarily the games that I get a lot of blocks when I’ve played my best defense. There are some games where I get zero blocks, but I made more of an impact because players see me and turn it over or they don’t shoot or they take a bad shot. I won’t get a block or anything, but we got a stop and it’s great for the team. A block isn’t always the best defensive play.”
In addition to directly affecting the opposition’s decision-making, confidence on offense and shot selection, he also holds his teammates to a high standard on defense. He’s the group’s leader and he makes sure that everyone is playing focused, intense defense when they’re on the floor. Some players will kick themselves if their man scores; Gobert considers any made basket a defensive failure on his part because he’s the captain of the unit.
“He takes pride in not only locking down his opponent, but locking down the whole team,” former teammate and current Brooklyn Nets forward Trevor Booker said. “His competitive nature is probably what impressed me most, especially defensively.”
“Leadership is one of those things that doesn’t show up in stats, but it’s so important and it’s about making your teammates better,” Gobert said. “That affects your wins and losses, but not your [individual] numbers. It’s something that I’m always trying to get better at, but I try to push my teammates before every game and before every play. I think every player needs to be pushed. Everyone needs to be motivated. It can only make the team better.”
Advanced stats help show how dominant Gobert has been this season. He ranks first in the NBA in Defensive Win Shares (5.9), second in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (4.6) and he’s second in the NBA in Win Shares in general (14.1) behind only James Harden. Gobert is also eighth in Value Over Replacement Player (5.5), ahead of All-Stars like Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall and Kyle Lowry among others. His importance to Utah can’t be overstated.
Another crucial aspect of Gobert’s game is his rebounding. Utah ranks third in rebound differential (+3.2) and Gobert is the key. He ranks second in the NBA in offensive rebounds (313), fourth in total rebounds (1,026), fourth in rebounds per game (12.8), fifth in total rebound percentage (21.7 percent) and fifth in offensive rebounding percentage (13.7 percent).
Talk to opponents who have to match up against Gobert and it becomes clear that he’s respected by his peers. There are quite a few players around the NBA who believe he has earned the Defensive Player of the Year trophy this season.
“At this point, he is the Defensive Player of the Year,” Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner said. “I’ll always vote for bigs. And he’s making better reads offensively too, like out of the pick-and-roll. His length creates problems for teams, especially disrupting the teams that thrive in the paint.”
With a big smile, Turner adds: “He’s the NBA’s second-best shot blocker… behind me.”
“I think he deserves [Defensive Player of the Year],” Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton said. “He’s definitely in the discussion. He makes it tough to score in the paint. Even the shots he doesn’t block, he alters them and forces you to miss. His wingspan seems way longer than any other centers.”
“He definitely deserves Defensive Player of the Year,” Trevor Booker said. “But his name isn’t as big as some of the other candidates and that plays a huge part, which sucks.”
“I believe he’s the Defensive Player of the Year, especially if they’re a top-four seed in the West,” Miami Heat center Willie Reed said. “He’s a game changer. His length combined with his high IQ changes the way teams approach the game. Everyone knows he’s a great shot-blocker, but he’s a really good pick-and-roll defender as well as a great post defender. The sky’s the limit for him.”
“I don’t see how he’s not [Defensive Player of the Year],” Jazz guard Rodney Hood told the Deseret News, adding that simply selecting him as First Team All-Defense isn’t enough to honor his huge contributions.
“Rudy is a defensive scheme unto himself,” said one Eastern Conference general manager, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “He makes it possible to pressure everywhere and if you get out of position, he is there to alter a shot and high point a rebound. He’s the only player one can say that about.”
Gobert isn’t campaigning for the award, focusing instead on Utah’s upcoming postseason run. He’s not the type of person who promotes himself, but he does acknowledge that winning the trophy would be an honor when asked about the possibility.
“It would be great,” Gobert said of winning Defensive Player of the Year. “Obviously, I play to win games, but you make history with those kind of things. It would be great to make history. I’d be the second French player to win it after Joakim Noah. It would be great for me, great for my country. It would just be great.”
While defense remains Gobert’s biggest strength (and always will be), it’s worth noting that Gobert has made huge strides offensively too. This year, he’s a more efficient scorer and improved passer. He currently leads the NBA in Offensive Rating (129.7). He ranks ninth in Offensive Win Shares (8.2), tying him with Russell Westbrook and putting him ahead of superstars like Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving.
His 66.6 percent shooting from the field ranks second in the NBA and he leads the league in True Shooting Percentage at 68.6 percent. He has also done a great job of protecting the basketball this season; despite an increase in his minutes, touches and usage rating, he has reduced his turnovers to just 1.8 per game and posted a career-low turnover percentage of 15.1 percent.
“He’s come so far, as far as his offensive game,” Jazz guard Joe Johnson said. “And defensively, he impacts the game for everybody and makes the game easy for all of us. But offensively, he’s come a long [way]. He’s starting to get a lot of easy baskets and it’s scary. His man is kind of reluctant to leave him a little bit because they don’t want him to get the lob. So, guys like myself, Gordon, Hoodie, Shelvin [Mack], George [Hill], we’re able to get in the paint and make plays and get easy layups.”
Simply put, Gobert is becoming one of the NBA’s best centers. Utah played in very few national games this season, but they’re about to perform on basketball’s biggest stage. The Jazz will play the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, pitting Gobert against All-Star center DeAndre Jordan. This is an excellent chance for Gobert to gain exposure and show the world what he can do.
With that said, Gobert is thinking big picture as the playoffs approach. He believes Utah is a legitimate contender this year with the talent to take down any team.
“I don’t want to put any limit on us,” Gobert said. “We have the potential to do unbelievable things, but we have to do it right. I was just reading your interview with Chauncey Billups, the one where he talked about how to beat a super team. I thought that sounded exactly like our team. We’re a team that nobody talks about much and we’re trying to go up against some big-market teams with multiple All-Stars. We have to have that same mentality that [Billups and the Detroit Pistons had during their championship run in 2004]. We have to go out there, play hard and believe in ourselves.”
Gobert truly believes that the Jazz are very close to being a championship team. He said this several times without any prompting.
For example, Gobert mentioned that he will try to persuade Hayward to re-sign with the Jazz when he hits unrestricted free agency this summer. When I asked him what he’ll tell the small forward when that time comes, Gobert doesn’t hesitate.
“I’m just going to ask him, ‘Do you want to win a championship?’” Gobert said. “I feel like with the way we’ve improved the last few years, since Quin [Snyder] got here, I don’t think it’d be a great decision to leave now. At the same time, I know sometimes there are personal decisions and I can’t really control any of that. But I know he likes to win. I know he likes it here in Utah, and his wife and kids like it here too. If he doesn’t want to live here anymore or there’s another city he wants to live in or he feels like he has a better chance to win a championship somewhere else, it’s his decision. But I’m going to remind him that I really want to win a championship and I think we can do it. If he stays, I think we’ll have chances [to win titles]. But it’s still going to be his decision at the end of the day.”
When asked if he can see himself remaining with Utah for his entire career, Gobert says yes and once again brings up the prospect of bringing the Larry O’Brien trophy to Utah.
“Yeah, why not?” Gobert said of staying in Utah long-term. “I obviously love living [in Utah] and I want to win, like I said. So if the goal is to win a championship very soon, there’s no reason to leave. I love my coach, I love the fans, I love the organization. There’s no reason for me to think about leaving.”
“The fans have been great to me and they’re always behind me. I always see them on social media and in the city, I run into them and they are very nice to me. They’ve kind of adopted me here. It’s great. It makes me want to keep getting better and win for this city.”
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