The basketball gods heard our continued whining about a lack of intriguing stuff going on this time of year, and delivered some much-needed sustenance in the form of a riveting upset win by France over co-favorite (and host) Spain in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals Wednesday afternoon. France led nearly wire-to-wire and pulled away down the stretch, blowing up what many had considered a sure-thing battle in the title game between Spain the United States.
Jazz big man Rudy Gobert played his best game of the tournament, and likely the best game of his professional basketball career. He was instrumental in France’s powerful defensive effort, as they held a Spanish team yet to score under 82 points in the tournament to just 52 on rancid 32.3 percent shooting. His raw numbers were five points, 13 rebounds, a steal and a block on 2-4 shooting in what was easily his tournament high of over 23 minutes; this is a solid line, but as may frequently be the case through the young Frenchman’s career, it doesn’t tell the entire story of his impact.
This isn’t the first we’ve heard from Rudy this summer. He made waves at summer league with several impressive performances, and SCH’s Dan Clayton took a detailed look at his progress roughly a month ago. Some of the attention has spilled over to the national stage as well, with Grantland’s Zach Lowe delving into Gobert’s massive (literally) potential just last week.
Points from both these fine writers, as well as my January scouting report, stood out noticeably against the Spaniards. Rudy was a defensive force throughout, particularly in his second stint on the court that began with just over three minutes to go in the third quarter and lasted the rest of the game. During these 13-plus minutes, France held Spain to just 12 points despite what most would assume would be a huge frontcourt advantage with both Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka.
His foot speed stood out in particular, especially against the pick-and-roll. France had Gobert leaping out to hedge the ball-handler in such sets all game, and his timing and footwork were impeccable, allowing him to defend effectively within the scheme:
Gobert was in constant motion on the defensive end, both lanky arms up and annoying Spanish ball-handlers anytime he was even close to a passing lane. In Dan’s superb piece from last month linked above, he points to Rudy’s defensive understanding as an area ripe for improvement – it’s just one game, sure, but the strides he seems to have made here even since summer league are somewhat astonishing. He was fully in tune with the game from the jump, making only a couple small mental errors despite being a key figure in nearly every defensive possession as the Spaniards fed their bigs down low.
He was a beastly physical presence as well; it may be difficult to sustain night in and night out in the NBA, but Gobert held his own against the bulkier Gasol tandem and didn’t back down an inch:
GET SOME, PAU!
Gobert also picked up 13 boards, showcasing more willingness to bang down low and maintain his positioning than at any point in his rookie NBA season. I wrote in my January piece how he needed to focus on learning to find ways to counterbalance the weight disadvantage he will face against most NBA centers, and evidence of work in the offseason here is readily visible. He’s identifying his box-out responsibilities more quickly, tracking the ball’s trajectory in the air more effectively, and getting lower to the ground to leverage his weight and move his opponents. Continued improvement here will see him quickly become one of the NBA’s best rebounders – no one is reaching over those arms if he’s in good position.
To my eye, though, the largest tangible improvements visible from Rudy in this game (and to a degree in earlier FIBA games) were in some of the more minute details. Offensive contribution is of course the largest obstacle standing between Gobert and an NBA starting gig, particularly one next to a non-shooting threat like Derrick Favors. I noted during the season how an improvement in his simple ability to catch and control the ball was the first big step toward finding an offensive identity, and this is clearly already happening. He’s not perfect by any means, but is already showing a noticeable refinement in his hands:
These plays don’t seem like much (and may not have had positive endings), but they’re among several examples of Gobert’s increased confidence with the ball in his hands. He’s clearly been drilling himself on catch-and-react scenarios, and doesn’t appear afraid to put the ball on the floor for a dribble or two now and then. Given his size and defensive skill set, this type of development may mean more for a guy like Rudy than nearly any other NBA big. As Lowe noted in his piece, if Gobert can follow the Tyson Chandler model as an offensive big man1, his value as an overall player will skyrocket.
He showed promise in other offensive areas, as well. Just like on the defensive side, Gobert was hyper-active without the ball – I counted at least a few possessions where he set five or more picks for teammates, including a few heady improvised back screens like this one leading to an open look:
Just like several other elements of his game, Gobert’s court sense has undergone an accelerated development. He’s setting smart, effective screens and appears infinitely more aware of how his spacing affects his teammates. Coach Snyder is going to love his activity level away from the ball, something a motion offense absolutely must have from its big men, especially if they aren’t shooting threats.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, know that Gobert still has a long way to go. He remains a horrible free-throw shooter (under 50 percent for the tournament) and likewise isn’t a threat to score further than a few feet from the hoop. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to go pound-for-pound with heavier guys every night in the NBA like he did against Spain, and he’ll need to bulk up significantly to avoid significant physical mismatches on a regular basis. And while it’s certainly improved from the NBA season to now, his mental acumen still lags a tad behind his aggression. Touch fouls like these 40 feet from the hoop aren’t going to cut it at any level:
But with that said, Jazz fans have real reason to be excited. I typically caution against gleaning too much from summer league or international competitions, but context remains king here. This wasn’t DeMarcus Cousins swallowing up rebounds against Ukranian bigs similar in stature to American high school players; it was a 22-year-old going against the world’s best international frontcourt in a vital elimination game between two teams that hate each other, and more than holding his own. We aren’t crowning him an All-Star just yet, but his performance this summer is very encouraging. Whether or not he can duplicate Wednesday’s showing before the end of the tournament, I can’t wait to see how his development translates to the NBA game and his role with the Jazz.