Jazz fans have known since summer league that this season could be a break-out year—maybe even a special year—for Rudy Gobert, long before GMs took a poll of potential break-out players. Gobert’s performance in the World Cup for his native France only increased the excitement, and perhaps expectation, for the 7-footer and his increased role on this young, athletic team. What are some of the areas in which he’s improving that will help him get on—and stay on—the floor this season?
Getting on the floor
Defense. You can’t teach height, you can’t teach length, and he’s got both of those. He’s a complete game-changer, defensively. He did it in the World Cup against Spain, and he’s learning to do it in spurts in the NBA. When he’s in the game, he’s learning how to have a drastic impact defensively and, because he’s in for longer spurts at a time, he’s learning how to sustain that.
It’s a pretty remarkable talent to be able to so definitively impact a game on the defensive end, but his height, length, and athleticism are proving to be even more potent than we could have guessed a year ago. He’s like the 7-foot version of Andrei Kirilenko when he was at his defense-disruptive best.
Blocks. This is a subcategory of defense more than anything, but it gets its own because few things are as fun as Gobert blocks. Having a rim protector is something the Jazz haven’t had in years, and having a 7-footer who so drastically can change the other team’s shots is incredibly valuable. It also is a catalyst for getting the home crowd involved and excited.
Rebounding. Gobert’s rebounding, and not just against inferior competition. Against Spain in the World Cup, Gobert had 13 rebounds, one more than Pau and Marc Gasol. Combined. 12. Gobert averaged 9 rebounds a game during the preseason in just over 20 minutes per game. That’s a better rebounding rate than DeAndre Jordan, Marcin Gortat, Nerlens Noel, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Tristan Thompson, Andre Drummon, etc.1
He’s more aggressive around the basket. This season, Gobert looks less lost on both ends of the floor, but he’s looking much more comfortable offensively, and it’s helping him to be more aggressive on the offensive end. He’s a pretty fearless competitor, and doesn’t shy away from contact when he’s going up for a dunk (which he does, smartly, as often as he can).
Staying on the court
His free-throw shooting is improving. His defensive play, rebounding, and shot blocking is getting him on the court. But his improved free-throw shooting will keep him on the court. He shot under 50% from the line last year (49.2%) while he was much improved in the preseason (67.7%). That’s a remarkable improvement for a big man in a short period of time.
Because free-throw shooting is often such a mental game, I was curious how many games he shot under 50% from the free-throw line last season. In such short blocks of minutes, it’s hard to get into a flow of a game, but I think it was telling that Gobert had nine games last season shooting under 50% from the line. In the preseason this year? None.
His passing is better. Zach Lowe had this awesome sentence in his article on Gobert back in September: “He dished just seven assists and posted a ghastly turnover rate in the Kendrick Perkins Range of Death.”
Last season, he had 7 assists in 434 minutes, or a rate of 1 assist per every 62 minutes. In summer league, with lesser players and less of a system in place, his rate was 1 assist per every 47.6 minutes. In the preseason, his rate was 1 assist per 20 minutes, and he had more assists in preseason (10) than he did in all of last season (7). Coach Snyder called him a “willing passer.” Is that some sort of fancy psychology or self-fulfilling prophecy thing that Snyder is doing? Or maybe he’s seen Gobert passing well enough in practice and is telling the truth?2 Did you see that bounce pass to a cutting Enes Kanter against the Lakers from the top of the key? Gave me the chills.
Learning how to foul less. Getting on the floor won’t mean a ton if Gobert is picking up two quick fouls and heading back to the bench. But he’s been picking up the nuances of not fouling more quickly than expected, and it’s allowed him to stay on the court for longer stretches of time.
His hands are improving. Last year, Gobert had a bit of butterfingers. We’ve seen it at times in the preseason, but his hands seem significantly stronger and stickier—he’s able to grab and hold onto the ball better than a year ago. This is big.
Bottom line, I’m going to be irrationally excited and optimistic about Gobert this season. And I think these improvements, along with a new coach in Snyder, are going to help us forget that Gobert played fewer minutes than John Lucas III last year, and barely more minutes than Brandon Rush (16). Gobert is poised for a breakout year, which Jazz fans knew many moons ago, but it doesn’t make this process and journey any less exciting. Bring on the season!