If you like bold predictions, then the recent throwback installment of the Salt City Hoops podcast is right up your alley.
Among other gutsy calls, SCH founder Spencer Hall said he expects Rudy Gobert to play his way past teammate Enes Kanter on the Jazz’s depth chart during this upcoming season. There’s no dearth of excitement about Gobert’s tools and talent, but Spencer’s specific boldness seemed unprecedented enough to invite a conversation.
Could Gobert be ready to leapfrog his friend and go from fringe rotation player to major minute guy? What would it take? Today, we read the tea leaves relative to the battle for big man minutes.
Why it could happen
At first blush, you see things to make you think Spencer’s not that crazy. Several of Gobert’s numbers are closer to Kanter’s than you might think: they both shoot 49% from the field1, and in terms of total value, Gobert adds .045 WS per 48 to Kanter’s .050. They certainly add that value in different ways, but viewed at the broadest possible level, you realize Gobert is already close in terms of per-minute value.
Gobert is already an elite rebounder, with the 7th highest total rebound percentage of any player with at least 100 minutes. His block percentage is amazing, too: 7.4% of what opponents put up while Rudy is on the floor gets sent back by the big guy. That number is second only to Cole Aldrich. Rebounds and blocks are two numbers that generally hold up OK on a per-minute basis when playing time is increased.2
If Gobert works his way ahead of Kanter in the short term, it will likely be because of his defense. It’s hard to find a statistically significant category where Gobert isn’t much better defensively. He gets baited into more shooting fouls, but that’s to be expected from a rim protector.
What held Gobert back on that end was defensive understanding. Too often he freestyled, jumping out of system to do what he thought was the right thing, and leaving four teammates out on a limb. But I’m encouraged by what we saw on the court and what he said off of it in his time at the Las Vegas Summer League. Getting him to understand team defense and be in the right places appears to be a focal point. When he’s tuned in, he can absolutely dictate what’s going to happen on the defensive end for long stretches, and not a lot of players can do that.3
Gobert’s defensive FG% at the rim was 10 percentage points better than Kanter’s and the best on the team. In fact, he was 8th in the league in that stat among players who defended at least one such play per game in at least 40 games last season. That tells us that, if the discipline is there, he might not be far from being an elite defensive player already.
Why he might not be there yet
While their shooting numbers overall are closer than one might expect, the composition of Gobert’s offensive game is very different from Kanter’s. The latter is an able mid-range threat, with healthy portions of his used possessions coming at that range, and with pretty good results for a big man. Not so with Gobert.
A whopping 99% of Gobert’s attempts — and literally all of his points from the field — came from inside 10 feet. Even in the 3-10 foot category, Gobert hit just 13% of his shots, so we’re basically talking about a guy who’s not an offensive weapon if he’s not within arm’s reach of the hoop. And while his Summer League performance was encouraging in overall terms, it wasn’t a departure from this script. Of his 19 Summer League field goals, 18 were in the immediate basket area — the other a short jumper created off a teammate’s drive.
There’s something to be said for knowing who you are, and the fact that nearly 80% of his attempts come around the rim shows that Gobert understands his limitations. But it’s hard to play 4-on-5 on offense, and unless Gobert is sitting on the rim, that’s essentially what the Jazz have to do with him out there. The sub-.500 free throw shooting doesn’t help things much.
Passing is another area where Gobert is wanting. He had a total of just seven assists last season — all season! It doesn’t look good even on a per-minute basis; if Gobert played 24 minutes per game, he’d have an assist about every third game4. And it’s not just assists – he doesn’t pass a lot, period. According to the NBA’s player tracking, he had fewer passes per minute played than any other Jazz player (although Kanter was close).
What he’d have to improve to move up on the depth chart
More than anything, Gobert has to address his free throw shooting if he’s going to spend 20+ minutes per night on the court. You can’t shoot 49% from the line and be on the court in any kind of pressure situations.
There’s a chance that in improving his technique relative to free throws, he might even develop a nice touch for short jumpers. If so, that’s gravy. He doesn’t necessarily need that; you can play big minutes in the middle for a good team even if your offensive range is limited. But any improvements in his offensive ability would help justify his minutes enough to unleash the havoc of his defense on other teams.
He also needs to get better at effectively and legally screening. Especially since he’s already a less-than-ideal P&R partner given that he can’t pop off the pick, it is extremely important that he not further diminish his effectiveness on the screen with offensive fouls or bad positioning.
And, as mentioned, he must improve as a ball mover. I wish we had player tracking from Vegas to see if he’s understanding and embracing Quin Snyder’s hot potato ideology. He and Kanter were the only Jazz men last year to pass the ball less than once per minute played. Again, seven assists in a season is just not enough.
But for now… it’s Kanter’s to lose
Gobert has a lot going for him, especially in terms of physical tools. But for now, I think Kanter has the inside lane on this one. In terms of skill areas, Kanter is far enough ahead that I think he really controls his own fate. If he does the little things, the things that require focus and discipline, I can’t imagine him surrendering too many rotation minutes to Gobert of anybody else.
Put another way: it’s easier for a highly skilled player to improve overnight in terms of effort and energy than for a raw player to improve overnight in terms of skill.
Of course, this isn’t about pitting players against one another, and the Jazz would do well to help both Kanter and Gobert realize their full potential. And either way this particular discussion turns out, the Jazz should gain from a developmental standpoint. If Gobert does indeed lap Kanter, it means he has developed enough offensively and figured out how to channel his unique, elite defensive abilities. If he doesn’t, it means Kanter has improved his focus and habits, and is doing the little things it takes to win.
When you win 25 games, nobody’s job is guaranteed, so I’m sure everybody will have to come to camp ready to earn things. But as of today, I think Kanter is penciled pretty heavily into that second big slot.