An idea that’s become more popular in the average NBA fan’s lexicon over the past decade or so is the term “project player”, or simply “project.” The label is given typically to guys picked in the later parts of the draft, although even lottery picks are occasionally given the moniker as well. Generally, it’s a title given to guys who have great physical potential and perhaps a couple above-average skills, but who are mostly raw in terms of NBA-level fundamentals and will need significant time to develop.
Teams who make an effort to stock up on picks over a short span of time, like the Jazz did this last offseason, will typically take on one or two of these “projects”, and Utah is no exception. 27th overall pick Rudy Gobert, for whom the Jazz traded up with Denver to acquire, fits the bill about as well as any first-round pick can in today’s league.
Gobert is one of the more remarkable physical specimens in league history, a true beanstalk among beanstalks. It’s rare enough in this world to be 7’2 and capable of running and jumping reasonably well; to have all that plus over a 7’8 wingspan1 is pretty incredible. Body type alone, he’s a stretched-out version of Anthony Davis, a lengthy mess of limbs that by itself becomes a force in certain small areas. He’s not above-average as a jumper or an athlete, but his sheer size makes up for a lot of that, and frankly he’d never have been picked so late if he had even slightly better than average athleticism.
But as far as how his talents have translated on the NBA court, Gobert defines “project” to a tee. He was a defensive force in the French Pro A league, averaging 1.9 blocks in just over 22 minutes a game, albeit in a small sample size of just 27 games.2 But as impressive as that sounds, there are scouts who’d argue that given his physical tools, he should be able to attain those kind of numbers in the French league in his sleep. In addition, the lack of a large sample and relatively pedestrian offensive numbers in France have made it difficult for talent evaluators to get a full picture of what Gobert will be able to contribute in the NBA.
There is one silver lining to evaluating a guy who’s only played 226 minutes all season, the vast majority against bench units and in garbage time: it only took me roughly an hour and a half to watch every single play the guy has been involved in during his time in the NBA, from various offensive and defensive play types to just his simple rebounds and blocks.3 So with that in mind, let’s take a rudimentary and hands-on look at Gobert and what the Jazz might be able to realistically expect from him in the coming years:
The majority of his upside is on the defensive end, and this is very unlikely to change at any point in his career. Shoddy previous competition or not, a 7’8+ wingspan with any reasonable level of intelligence is almost sure to yield at least a positive rim defender, if not an elite one. In addition, Gobert has deceptively quick foot speed for a man his size, perhaps his most underrated quality. It’s natural to assume some level of oaf-ishness, but when opposing players make this mistake, Gobert punishes them with his long strides and surprisingly nimble footwork, often surprising guys for blocks seemingly out of nowhere. Small sample size or not, he’s averaging nearly a block per game on not even 11 minutes nightly this season.
As was fully expected, his smarts and defensive knowledge will need time to catch up, and how long this takes and how heady he can become will play a large part in determining his value in the league. He’s already got fairly good instincts against the pick-and-roll, but vastly more complex NBA offenses will confuse him at times. He’s an excellent weak-side helper at the rim, but he can sometimes be a bit over-excited to give this help, allowing his own man to take a drop-off pass for an easy dunk. He also needs to ground himself a bit on pump fakes; watch Nikola Pekovic (Jazz big-killer, apparently) easily get him up in the air here:
Pekovic missed the bunny in this case, but you see the point – Gobert will need to improve here. That said, these kinds of habits are extremely common for younger big men, and it’s a fair assumption that the Frenchman will pick most of this up as he goes along.
A larger area of concern defensively, in my eyes, is Gobert’s strength down low. Like a lot of other string bean players, he’s somewhat reticent to bending his knees and getting as low as possible to leverage his size against thicker players, and teams have started to attack him in the post as a result. Of the 42 finished plays Gobert has defended this season, 25 have come in the post according to Synergy. The issue isn’t so much once his man receives the ball and goes to work, although he should and will improve in that area as well – rather, it’s in allowing his marks far too much leeway in getting favorable post position. Watch him here, from the same Wolves game against Pekovic, paying particular attention to Gobert before Pekovic touches the ball:
Rudy here is making very little effort to keep Pekovic from his sweet spot just a couple feet away from the basket. By the time the pass comes, there’s basically nothing he can do given Pek’s strength advantage and his position.4 Here’s another example, this one against Timofey Mozgov:
Mozgov is coming off a pick he set up high, and Gobert is recovering from his pick-and-roll coverage, so the initial positioning Mozgov gets is understandable. But before the entry comes in, Gobert has a couple precious beats – he needs to use this time to get low, leverage his size and move his man further away from the basket. Instead, he allows Mozgov to catch the ball with basically a foot in the paint, a recipe for disaster no matter how long your arms are. Gobert may never thicken to the point where he can rely on his weight alone to help him, so how well he learns other ways to move his opponents to less threatening areas will play a big part in how he pans out as a defender. But overall, his upside on defense is quite high if he can simply develop at the average rate for guys his age. Were he to exceed average development, there really might be top-10 defender potential given his absolutely insane length.
Offensively, there are more question marks. Gobert has never shown anything close to a competent jumper, and his free-throw shooting is predictably miserable. He also has virtually no passing game to speak of, from the post or elsewhere. His footwork is a positive, as I mentioned, but his lack of any other discernable skills with the ball in his hands prevents him from having any real impact in the post. But most disturbing is his ball-handling, or lack thereof. He’s averaging 27.2 turnovers per-100-possessions per NBA.com, the very worst mark of 40 centers averaging at least 10 minutes a night this year. He has a lot of trouble with simply catching and controlling the ball, especially in the pick-and-roll:
Again, he’s still very young and inexperienced, but this is certainly an area of concern for Gobert. Lots of bigs struggle with ball control, especially at his age, but most of the ones who make it as rotation players are able to supplement that with good off-the-bounce moves or decent jump-shooting, neither of which Gobert has shown any ability to do just yet.
The silver lining: should Gobert develop his ball-handling to acceptable levels, he’ll instantly become a huge pick-and-roll problem for opposing defenses.5 Ditto for his passing out of these actions (and with basically no evidence in either direction, your guess is as good as mine as to his potential here), but if he somehow managed to develop both these areas – a long shot, but certainly not impossible – he could be a legitimate defense-bender. Plays like this pseudo-side-pick-and-roll will become a lot more common if defenses consider him a legitimate shooting or passing threat:
Gobert is a work in progress on both ends of the court, a true “project” big man. The returns so far have been minimal in both expectation and actual performance, and the Jazz are in no hurry to make any immediate judgments. His floor is pretty low, as a worst-case scenario could easily see him never develop into a rotation-level NBA player. But for the low price they paid to get him (the 46th pick, Erick Green, and cash), this potential floor is well worth the big upside on the other side of the coin. Should Gobert exceed typical developmental curves, he could end up being a real force defensively and a major steal for the Jazz so late in the first round. Only time will tell.