Rudy Gobert is playing his best basketball, averaging career-highs in points (15.5), rebounds (12.9), assists (2.1) and field goal percentage (.652), while also blocking 2.2 shots per game (the fourth-best mark in the NBA). When the 26-year-old wasn’t selected as an NBA All-Star, he was understandably upset. HoopsHype sat down with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year to talk about his frustration over the All-Star snub, his terrific season, Utah’s success, why elite defenders rarely get the recognition they deserve and much more.
Quin Snyder recently said that you’re the most impactful offensive player on the team. Do you feel like your offensive abilities get overlooked because everyone knows you for your dominant defense?
Rudy Gobert: In the game of basketball, there are a lot of things that you don’t see in the stats. On both ends of the floor, on offense and defense, there are times where you make a big impact for your team, but it’s not going to show on the stat sheet. For the people who don’t watch the games, they’ll just see who looked good based on the box score, you know? Even I do it at times. When I’m looking at the other games that were played, I just look over the box score and think, “Oh, this guy was good,” and, “That guy played really well.” But I didn’t see all the things each guy did that doesn’t show up in the stats. That’s how it’s always going to be. I just have to focus on getting wins. My [contributions] will always go underappreciated because they don’t all show up in the stats. But at the end of the day, if you have your team winning, that’s what is more important.
This Jazz team has a lot of players who have been overlooked and who outplayed where they were drafted: You (No. 27), Donovan Mitchell (No. 13), Joe Ingles (undrafted), Jae Crowder (No. 34), Kyle Korver (No. 51), Royce O’Neale (undrafted). Are you guys closer because of that shared experience, and does it give this team a certain attitude?
RG: I think it’s part of our DNA. We have a team of guys who all made their own path and they all have a chip on their shoulders. That’s who we are as a team. That’s why we all have each others’ backs. We’re all here for each other because we all know what it’s like to be overlooked. Not to mention, we know we’re in a small market so we know that we haven’t really gotten a chance to show everyone what we can really do. We’re still overlooked in a way. But there are benefits to it too. Every night, we want to go out there and prove what we can do. We’re hungry. We definitely have the respect of the players and coaches around the league, but we still want to show the world what we can do. Earning respect, as a small-market team, takes more work for us than other teams – for sure.
Let’s go down memory lane. During the 2014 FIBA World Cup, you helped France beat the host nation Spain in the quarterfinal round, grabbing 13 rebounds, contesting shot after shot at the rim and holding your own against the Gasol brothers. Looking back, how big was that game for your career?
RG: It was huge. Not only because it was the World Cup and it was in Spain and all that, but because I was coming off of a rookie season where I hadn’t played much. I knew I could be a star in this league. I always knew it would be like this, but I had to prove to the rest of the world what I could do. That game, I think, helped the world discover who I was. It was kind of like my coming out party. I showed the world what I could do.
Did that performance increase your confidence and make you realize that you could make a big impact in your second NBA season?
RG: I already had that confidence. I knew I was ready to have a breakout year; I was just hoping that my coaches would give me the opportunity. Even though I already had that confidence, the biggest thing was that it increased my coaches’ confidence in me and my teammates’ confidence in me. I think it changed the way a lot of people in the Jazz organization looked at me. They started realizing I could help the team that year [as opposed to being viewed as a project who was several years away from contributing]. To be honest, I didn’t think I did anything special in that game against Spain. I just played good defense and dunked the ball. I actually remember thinking I should’ve done way more.
It seems like you and Donovan Mitchell are pretty close. What’s your relationship like with Donovan, and is he one of the guys you’ve been closest with since entering the NBA?
RG: I wouldn’t say it’s the closest relationship [I’ve had with a teammate]. I mean, I’ve been friends with so many of my teammates – some of the guys don’t play as much as Donovan and don’t have as a big of a role as he has. But I do really love the relationship we have. Donovan really has a great heart, he’s a good person and he’s fun. He’s a fun guy to be around. He’s always joking around, but when it’s time to win? We both care about winning more than anything; I think that’s the most important thing. He wants to win, I want to win and we both want to be great. As long as we continue to be there for each other and help each other get better and succeed, the team will be headed in a great direction. And that’s what we’re doing right now.
You obviously know what it’s like to have that initial success and sort of surprise teams, and then have to adjust and produce when teams are game-planning against you. Have you been able to help Donovan during his sophomore season and what have you seen from him this year?
RG: I’m really excited [about his development]. I think everything happened very fast for him. He went from playing in college to not being a Top-10 draft pick to being the most exciting rookie to having a great playoff series against OKC. Then, all of a sudden, the whole world is cheering you on and there are big expectations that come with that. In that second year, everybody knows your game and there’s a lot of pressure, a lot on your shoulders.
Earlier in the season, I think he was putting a lot of pressure on himself and he was kind of rushing things. I know he wanted to do great, but he wasn’t playing… (pause) I wouldn’t say he wasn’t playing the right way, but he had the wrong mindset. We were trying to help him, but at the same time, instead of talking to him [over and over], I wanted to just let him play. I know I can be a pain in the a** sometimes, but it’s because I just want to win! But he was able to just play through it and every month, he’s gotten better. He settled down and everything slowed down for him and he started looking like the Donovan we saw in the playoffs. He’s making plays for others and making the right play while still being very aggressive and very efficient. Now, lately, he’s been one of the best two-guards in the league, just because of all the things he does for us on the court.
What would it mean for you to win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award in back-to-back years? And why do you think you should win again?
RG: It would mean a lot. I think this award is about what you do for your team – the impact you have on your team, your leadership on the defensive end – and I don’t think there is another player who impacts their team’s defense like I do. There are a lot of good defensive players, but I don’t think they can change the philosophy of an offense like I do.
If a player is elite offensively and very good defensively, they’re considered a top 10-to-15 player. But if a player is elite defensively and very good offensively – such as yourself – you don’t hear their name mentioned as much in the top 10-to-15 player discussion. Why do you feel that is and is it frustrating that your name isn’t being mentioned in those top-player discussions?
RG: Defense is always going to be underappreciated because people love to watch offense. They want to watch the offensive highlights and scoring plays. It’s just marketing. It’s pure marketing. If you want to sell more jerseys, you need to be the guy who puts the ball in the basket, the guy who does crazy dunks, the guy who crosses people over. It’s more fun than watching the guy who stops people from scoring. It’s always going to be like that. People are going to be drawn to the highlight plays.
As for the top player stuff, it is frustrating. It is. But I feel like the guys who actually play the game and the coaches – even though they didn’t vote me into All-Star (laughs) – know what I can do. There are a lot of special players who can do some really unique things in this league. If your specialty is defense, you’re always going to be underappreciated compared to the special offensive player. It’s always going to be that way. I don’t think it should be like that, but that’s how it’s always going to be.
I felt like you should have been in the All-Star Game. How did you react when you first got the news and is that something you’re going to use as motivation for the rest of the year?
RG: I mean, everything motivates me. But this is definitely something I won’t forget. I don’t play for that. I play to win – and everyone around me knows that – but it is one of those things where you just say, “What else am I supposed to do?!” I feel like I’m doing everything I need to do to help my team, but the people who hold this decision in their hands don’t see it the same way. All the numbers seem to back me up, but they still don’t vote for me, so yeah… I just keep wondering, “What am I supposed to do?” I was very frustrated the day I heard the news, but I wasn’t very surprised. In some ways, I sort of knew this was going to happen. And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. My teammates know what I do for them and this team. My family knows what I can do. My coaches know what I bring to the table. What matters most to me is winning and having the people around me know my worth.
I understand the frustration, though. Fans don’t realize how much money is on the line with All-Star selections – whether it’s an incentive in your NBA contract or in an endorsement deal or money that can be made that weekend so…
RG: It wasn’t really the money that upset me, it’s more about my legacy. I feel like that kind of thing is important. I wish we didn’t look at All-Star selections like that. If All-Star selections weren’t looked at as this big accomplishment, I wouldn’t care. But 10 years from now, people are going to say, “How many times was he an All-Star?” It’s rattled off alongside how many titles you won and awards you won. It’s viewed as something that matters and affects your legacy. Of course, there is the money and all that too, but that’s honestly secondary for me. It’s more about the respect. That’s what upset me.
You got emotional during a press conference when discussing this and I thought it was messed up that people cracked jokes. To me, I saw someone who takes this very seriously and who cares a lot about this game. When you got upset, was that you thinking about your legacy?
RG: I got emotional when I started talking about my Mum [who took the news very hard]. That’s what got me. But you know, it’s not the first time I’ve gotten emotional about this game and it’s not the last time I’ll get emotional. If you are not passionate about what you do, then you’re doing it wrong.
Right. I think it just showed how much you care. On another note, what are the keys to this Jazz team making a deep playoff run this year?
RG: First of all, I think we need to be healthy. We’ve had a lot of injuries lately – mainly small injuries that guys try to play through, but those can penalize a team in the long run. Those things happen – they’re part of the game – but I think when we’re completely healthy, we’re a totally different team. Then, we need to keep our edge. We need to stay together. I think we have a wonderful group of guys who care about one another, and that’s our strength. Defense is our identity. When we defend at a high level, we can beat anyone.
This is random, but most people have no idea what it’s like to be 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan. What are some of the biggest inconveniences when you’re that tall?
RG: I try not to focus on any of the negatives, but if I had to pick I’d say finding shoes. I have to get all of my shoes custom-made, I can’t just go into a store and find something that’s my size (20). Finding clothes and finding shoes are the main things. When I was growing up, it was hard to dress nice and find the stuff I wanted just because nothing fit.