We keep saying that decision time is approaching for the Utah Jazz in their journey back to contender status. One of these times, we’ll be right.
The task of sussing out which of the current 15 Jazz players will be vital pieces to a hypothetical future title run is a central theme in this stage of Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder’s construction project. The “core” question is a fascinating part of following the 2015 Jazz, and one Jazz player has further complicated the discussion just in the last few weeks.
A little over a year ago, the same player startled me with a late-night passive aggressive Twitter interaction.
The Jazz had just lost a home game to Portland in which Rudy Gobert didn’t play at all. This was two games after a 5-point-and-7-rebound performance in 13 minutes, so a lot of fans were wondering why Rudy hadn’t earned at least a few minutes. I got their point, but largely to play devil’s advocate, I pointed out that Rudy was having a hard time staying within defensive schemes, and on offense still was very tentative and unsure of where to be. I hypothesized that perhaps Gobert didn’t play because the coaches needed to play people who they could rely on to stay within the system at both ends.
As I defended my position to a throng of fans who didn’t like my unpopular opinion, Gobert favorited one of my tweets. I still don’t know why, but I took it as a little message: I see what you’re saying about me.
When that happened, I panicked. I was still covering the Jazz at that point, so I imagined the awkwardness of having to interact with someone who had clearly seen my critical comments. I deleted the tweet in question, and sent the following to Gobert:
@rudygobert15 I’m a big fan and think you have great things ahead. Just want to make that clear! It’s a journey.
— dan clayton (@danclayt0n) December 10, 2013
The thing is, I wasn’t totally wrong in my original comments. Hardwood Paroxysm recently corroborated, saying that Gobert looked “stiff and lost for most of his rookie year.” He logged just 434 minutes last season1, and only part of that was because he played for a coach who was allegedly allergic to young people. He legitimately struggled at times to keep up with the pace and rigor of NBA basketball.
That’s why Rudy’s recent stretch of solid play is so remarkable. He still freestyles a little bit, but he now has a much better mastery of the team schemes, so he knows where Derrick Favors (or Enes Kanter) is and when he can step away to challenge a shot. What we’re seeing is a guy who — in 12 short months — has improved his body, sharpened his mind, deepened his understanding of the team’s offensive and defensive philosophies, and learned how to have a major impact on games. He’s getting some MIP award buzz2, and rightfully so.
During the Jazz’s recent 7-7 stretch, Gobert has averaged 10.7 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks per 36 minutes, with a D Rating3 of 99.6. The game that grabbed the NBA’s attention was a win over Minnesota when he had an 11-5-5 quarter, but he had several games where he dictated long stretches with his defense, including a signature road win in Memphis and another in Chicago.
I’ve been just as impressed with his passing. Those who know me know I have a soft spot for big-to-big interior passing, and Gobert has gotten increasingly creative with his Notre Dimes lately4. That just shows that he can eventually become a two-way player and not just a defensive threat. His improvements at the free throw line also mean you don’t have to hide him at that end of the court.
Just as importantly, several advanced metrics suggest that Gobert has done more than ascend to fringe starter: he’s looking, by certain measures, like he might be the third best player on the team. ESPN’s newish Real-Plus Minus stat5 has Gobert narrowly trailing Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors as Utah’s third most valuable player.
Think about how many current Jazz players you could drop onto a title contender today and they’d make the team better. Hayward is clearly a top-40 player at this stage, so any playoff team could find a way to use him. Favors would start for darn near every current playoff team, and would make any contender better. Beyond, that, it starts to get really conditional: Player X could help some teams that had a positional need where he plays, but wouldn’t get off the bench on some other contenders.
Gobert is starting to join Hayward and Favors under the heading of players any good team could use, especially because he’s of a breed that’s so scarce: an imposing (but still mobile) rim protector.
If Rudy has truly become the Jazz’s third best player, that may shift the thinking of who’s at the core of what Utah is building. Hayward and Favors are having near All-Star level seasons and are ostensibly the first two foundational pieces. Dante Exum is in the wings as a potential star-in-waiting. And since the Jazz are undoubtedly still one stud away from true contention6, we’re already at five without even discussing the rest of Utah’s young roster.
If everything in that last paragraph is true – and I’m not ready yet to say that it is – think about how much that changes things. A half dozen or so guys who at one point or another we have considered central to the Jazz’s plan suddenly look like something else. If Hayward, Favors, Exum, Gobert and a still-to-be-named white knight are all 30-mpg players on the hypothetically title-contending Jazz of 2018 and beyond, then a bunch of other players just got consigned to the periphery.
Of course, that’s what these interstitial seasons are about. The plan never had engraved name plates installed next to specific roles. The plan was always to get an up-close look at as much young talent as possible and see what came of it.
We still just don’t know. The absolute right thing to do is to let this continue to run its course, being ready to roll the dice when the right risk comes along.
Maybe, in the long run, Gobert isn’t the defensive anchor of a title team. Maybe Exum doesn’t pan out at the high end of his best-case projections. Maybe Hayward and/or Favors are part of the asset package that has to be assembled to get another transcendental player.
On the other hand, maybe Enes Kanter’s own development7 makes it a more complex equation. Maybe Trey Burke capitalizes on his own recent torrid stretch and starts to more consistently approximate star level play. Maybe Alec Burks justifies the Jazz’s long term investment with his scoring ability and fluid athleticism. Rodney Hood. Raul Neto. We still don’t know who the future core of the contending Jazz will be.
But we do know one thing is for sure: the Jazz have one more legit candidate for “the core” than they did a year ago.