Crashing the Core: Rudy Gobert is Making a Case for Himself

January 15th, 2015 | by Dan Clayton
If recent results are any indication, we may see less and less of Gobert sitting.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

If recent results are any indication, we may see less and less of Gobert sitting. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

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:

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.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

10 Comments

  1. Angie Treasure says:

    1. If you go through Rudy’s favorites on Twitter, almost all of them are people who have dogged on him, either by tagging his handle or mentioning him by name. I kind of love that he goes looking for motivation.

    2. I, too, am of the camp that is sooooo stoked on Rudy’s ability to pass. He had a bounce pass to a cutting Gordon in the preseason that was more exciting than any dunk of his I could imagine.

    3. The phrase ‘Notre dimes’ is amazing. I tried making ‘The Putback of Notre Dame’ of thing when he’d dunk off of an offensive board but yours is better. As always.

  2. Mewko says:

    If 2013 draft was redone, than MCW, Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Steven Adams would crack the top 10 picks for sure.

    • Matt says:

      “Crack the top 10”? Gobert and Greek Freak are very likely #1 and 2. Please look at the 2013 draft order and tell me who you’re taking before Gobert!

      • Mewko says:

        Yeah, you’re right Matt.
        I would put Oladipo, MCW, and Greak Freak ahead of Gobert.

        But depending on other team’s situation, they might consider Tim Hardaway Jr, K. Caldwell-Pope, or Ben McLemore, because the shooting guard position is so shallow in today’s NBA.

        So I’ll change my statement to “Rudy Gobert would be drafted top 5 in a 2013 redo”

  3. sk00 says:

    Have to agree with Matt :)

  4. Kassimy says:

    French nation will make the american nightmare

  5. Spencer says:

    transcendental player: I just don’t understand all this love affair with finding this mystery player. The absolute truth about that comment is that there are only about three of those and everyone already knows who they are. Let me help here: LeBron, Kevin, and Davis. These three players can play at an all-NBA level or above in every aspect of their game. Here is the obvious catch: They are not available and never will be unless they decide they want to come to Utah.

    So all this “let’s package favors and hayward for a transcendental player” talk better be about one of those guys.

    The part that really makes no sense to me is when people start throwing other guys with big numbers into this category. For example:

    Kevin Love
    Carmelo Anthony
    Blake Griffin
    Chris Paul
    Derrick Rose
    Dwight Howard

    There is one finals appearance in that group and it was a fluke. There are a number of really poor decisions to package the farm and send in a trade. Ask yourself, do you think the Knicks would rather have Anthony or all the assets they gave up? Who has been the better team from that trade. How about Cleveland!!! I bet LeBron has a reoccurring nightmare of playing alongside Wiggins who would be the Pippen to his LeBron. What about LA?

    What I love about the current management is that I think they understand this point. We are not going to over-pay for a volume scorer or highlight dunker to doesn’t play both ends and can’t be coached.

    I believe that the career of Tim Duncan shows us that the ability to create a team that plays with no ego, is smart, is more interested in winning than money and is coachable will produce more titles than talent and big numbers. I know that Duncan was one of those transcendent players. but that was only for 10-12 years. The last two titles came from a great player who didn’t demand to be paid or coached like the above list.

    The reason I bring this up is because I think that I think the Jazz have a roster of players with that mentality if not that talent. I’ll take that and enjoy the ride for the next ten years and bet i’ll have more to cheer about than trying to hit a home run on some trade that will likely end up leaving us feeling like New York, New Jersey, and Lakers feel right now. Unless of course Anthony Davis decides he wants to take his talents to SCL.

    • Dan Clayton says:

      agree with you about the consequences of swinging and missing on a guy you think is foundational but really isn’t. the fact of the matter, though, is that you don’t win titles without a “top five in his generation” type player. period. if the jazz want to contend, they need that. maybe exum/g/fav grows into something approximating that, but you just don’t win rings without an elite, MVP-candidate type guy and a couple of other very solid stars.

      also, duncan is not an example of winning without a transcendental star. he’s a first-ballot HOF guy, top 3 (at worst) in the history of his position, and one of the best players from the last 20 years. he doesn’t disprove the need for a stud, he proves it. he is the stud.

  6. Alex says:

    i know it would be playing incredibly large and out of position, but do you think that at some point Quin should play a exum, hayward, kanter, favors, gobert linup for like say 5 minutes in a blow out game?

  7. Pingback: Season Recap * 8: Reliving 2014-15 Ten Games At a Time | Salt City Hoops

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