While Gordon Hayward was the Utah Jazz’s leading scorer and lone All-Star last season, one could make a strong case that Utah was already Rudy Gobert’s team. The 7-foot-1 center was the heart and soul of the squad, as well as a strong leader who held his teammates accountable.
Last year, he emerged as one of the league’s best big men and earned a spot on the All-NBA Second Team. He also finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and made the All-Defensive First Team after Utah allowed the fewest points per game (96.8) of any team last season.
Gobert’s numbers show how important he was to the Jazz. He averaged 14 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks while shooting 66.1 percent from the field – all of which were career-highs. He led the NBA in blocks per game (2.6), block percentage (6.4), total blocks (214; the runner-up had 172) and true shooting percentage (.681). He finished second in win shares (14.3) and offensive rating (129.1).
“You 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.”
“It’s not just his blocked shots, it’s all of the shots that he alters that makes him so good,” Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. said.
Now, with Hayward joining the Boston Celtics last month, there’s no question that the Jazz are Gobert’s team. HoopsHype sat down with Gobert to discuss his offseason training, readiness to take on an increased role offensively, excitement over Utah’s additions and much more.
Let’s start with the addition of Ricky Rubio, who averaged the fifth-most assists per game (9.1) last year. What do you think of his game and how much will he help you and this offense as a whole?
Rudy Gobert: I’m very excited. He’s one of the best passers in the league and he’s a very unselfish guy. I really like the way he plays and he’s going to get you open looks. I know if I’m open or if I get good positioning under the rim, I have someone who’s going to find me.
We’ve talked a lot. He’s a great guy. I’ve played against him for a long time, we had that French-Spanish rivalry. I knew he was a great competitor and now I know he’s a great guy. I’m excited we’re no longer competitors and I can have him on my team because he’s been getting better and better. He was way better last year and I believe he’ll only keep getting better.
Donovan Mitchell, the No. 13 pick in this year’s draft, has Jazz fans really excited. You were in Las Vegas and saw some of his summer league action. What was your first impression of Mitchell?
RG: I didn’t know anything about him when he got drafted, but I watched him at Summer League and I was impressed. He can score – it’s clear he can score – but it was his competitiveness, the chip on his shoulder and the way he takes every match-up seriously that I really liked to see. I think he can be a really good defensive player in this league. I’m going to push him every day to try to make him [reach his full potential] on that end.
What are your offseason goals? What are some things you’re working on this summer?
RG: First off, I’ve definitely been working on my body – getting stronger, improving my lower-body strength and working on my quickness. But the main goals on the court are, of course, [improving] my post-game and mid-range shot. Those are my two main focuses.
In the past, I know Coach Quin Snyder has told you that he wanted to get you the ball more and now there are even more touches up for grabs. Have you two talked about the bigger role you’ll likely have offensively, and are you excited for that opportunity?
RG: Yeah, we’ve talked about it a little bit. That’s just the way it goes; I’ve gotten better every year and my role offensively has increased every year. I’m going to make another step forward this year. I’m not a guy who was taking a lot [of touches] away offensively; I was getting my teammates open, getting them good looks, and then finishing at the rim. Now, I know I’ll probably be able to show even more.
Dennis Lindsey recently told The Salt Lake Tribune that you’re a Top-10 player in the league. How nice is it to hear that from your GM and know that you’re the franchise’s top priority?
RG: It feels good. I take a lot of pride in making this team better and winning, so it’s great to have an organization that believes in me. It’s a challenge too. I’m excited to step up to that challenge and show people that we’re a really good team.
I know you’ve been frustrated in the past that you haven’t gotten the credit you deserve, so how nice was it to be named to the All-NBA 2nd Team and have your strong play recognized?
RG: I mean, it was great. Individual awards obviously aren’t what I play for, but it was great to have some recognition and it just pushes me to keep getting better. I’ve learned that the best thing to do is just go play and show people what I can do.
Do you feel you got snubbed when it came to Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player awards. And if so, does that motivate you?
RG: No matter what, I want to keep getting better and winning. When you play in a smaller market, you have to do three times what the guys in the big markets do. That’s okay; I’ve learned that. It’s fine though because I’m just focused on this team and winning games.
A French fan pointed out that you’ll be 32 years old in 2024 when the Olympics are in Paris. Does the thought of leading the National Team in Paris excite you and how good can the French team be? You guys have a lot of young talent that will be in their prime then.
RG: Yeah, definitely. It’s a dream of mine to play in the Olympics in my country. It’s pretty far away, but I’m definitely planning to still be playing at 32. And playing at a high level.
To Jazz fans who are frustrated right now, what message do you have for them?
RG: I would tell them to stop arguing with the less-intelligent people on social media and just wait for this season to start. Just wait.
Are you looking forward to showing that this team is still a contender?
RG: Our identity hasn’t changed; our goal hasn’t changed. We’ve had a few changes; Gordon [Hayward] left. George [Hill] left. We have some new point guards, new wings and new rookies so it’s going to be a different group, but the identity will stay the same. The identity doesn’t change. We’re going to continue to be one of the best teams defensively.
Were you frustrated with how Gordon’s free agency process played out, and did his decision surprise you?
RG: I’m over that already. It is what is. I’m focused on our team.