Rudy Gobert was once thought of as the last of a dying breed. As “small ball” became increasingly popular across the NBA, it seemed players like Gobert were getting played off of the court.
At 7’1” and 245 pounds, how could the relatively range-less Frenchman be expected to hold his ground on the perimeter against much faster players?
Turns out he would be just fine.
He’s the defending back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year and has been a key cog in the Utah Jazz’s ability to foster a top-two defensive rating (103 in 2017-18 and 105.3 in 2018-19). His foot speed and lateral agility aren’t great but with a 7’9” wingspan, he has the length to make up for where he’s lacking in other areas.
When modern basketball is discussed, the talk typically revolves around offense. However, Gobert has been able to turn himself into an All-Star caliber player thanks to what he can do to stop opponents from scoring.
He’s the best rim protector in the game today and has been for a few seasons. His size and length are great starting points, but over the years he has become more adept at understanding the subtle nuances that make a great defender. It’s not often you’ll see him fall for a pump fake. Instead, he waits for the shooter to leave the ground before he himself goes airborne—in the rare situations where he actually has to leave his feet to alter a shot.
Having one of the longest recorded wingspans in NBA history is one thing, but it’s another to understand how to use it to your advantage. Gobert has learned the different angles at which most attempts around the rim come from and then is able to time it out so that he can block them.
The Jazz are able to construct their team differently because of his presence.
While many franchises are chasing two-way players to surround their stars, Utah doesn’t need to put as much emphasis on defense with their 5 waiting to stifle any and all challengers:
If this was all that Gobert provided, he would easily be considered one of the top players at the position. Yet, just like he’s taken his defensive ability to new heights each year, he’s also developed a solid offensive repertoire too.
It’s unlikely you’ll see him go the Brook Lopez route and add a three-point shot—though there’s a video of him practicing this summer—but he has put in the work to improve his touch.
Through his first three years, he shot an average of 54.9 percent from the field, but thas jumped all the way up to 65.1 percent during the past three. But he also converted on a career-high 70 percent last season on shots attempted less than five feet from the hoop.
Whereas most teams will attack today’s biggest centers by stretching or running them off the floor, opponents can’t go small too often with Gobert, as he’ll just dominate them at the basket even as he adeptly covers the rim and the wings on the other end. We saw this exact scenario play out at the 2019 FIBA World Cup when France took down Team USA.
Even when teams leave like-sized players on the court, there are still ways to create mismatches for the seven-footer.
A lot of teams opt to have their defenders switch in pick-and-roll scenarios. If a team elects to take this approach against Utah, that could leave someone between six inches and a foot smaller than Gobert on him. The Jazz are very good at seeking him out when he has such a mismatch, and he often is able to position himself close enough to the basket so that he can score as soon as he catches an entry pass.
Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles are stellar playmakers, and the team brought in Mike Conley to replace Ricky Rubio over the summer. Those three should have a field day hitting Gobert for lobs out of the short corner or on drive-and-dish situations.
Keeping the biggest player on the team closest to the paint is sound advice, but if the 27-year-old wants to take the next step in his progression, he’s going to have to keep defenders honest when he’s not around the basket.
Since 2013, Gobert has taken a grand total of 216 shots from farther than five feet. He’s made 52 of them. If he can concentrate on being a reliable threat within the 5-15 foot range, then he will open the floor all the more.
It doesn’t need to be a shot he’s taking a lot, but when his defender slouches off or rotates from him to help elsewhere, Gobert must be able to make them pay. He’s only a career 63.1 percent free-throw shooter, so he has a ways to go before that can be a big part of his game, especially as a guy who primarily attacks the rim. .
Gobert was selected 27th in the 2013 NBA Draft. If teams could redo that night, it’s unlikely that he makes it out of the top four with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo and CJ McCollum the only players on his level or higher.
His rise from late first-round pick to All-NBA shows the amount of effort he’s put into becoming a great player. It’s that kind of work ethic that makes him special. As long as he continues to develop new layers to his already impressive foundation, he will continue being a force to be reckoned with.
The Jazz have their sights set on claiming the top spot in the Western Conference now that Golden State has been knocked from the “super team” mantle. The league as a whole is wide open, and Utah feels like it is in position to take the NBA by storm.
In order to fulfill on the promise, they’ll need Gobert to be at his best. If his play with the French National Team was a preview of what’s to come, then that franchise could be on a path to bringing its first Larry O’Brien trophy to Salt Lake City.
Read Part 6 here: