The emphatic rise of Rudy Gobert has come in waves. His rookie season contained flashes of the spectacular within a raw game that most assumed would take several years to refine. His summer seemed to accelerate the process somewhat, with encouraging and occasionally dominant stretches coming a bit more frequently both at summer league and in FIBA play. The start of his sophomore NBA season brought further progress, but even that was in bits and pieces; Rudy was the clear fourth big in Utah for much of the first two months, cracking 20 minutes in just three games before December.
Midway through 2014’s final month, he reached yet another level. An injury to Derrick Favors allowed Gobert to enter the starting lineup for a couple games, boosting his confidence. And when he once again was pushed into a starting role with Enes Kanter going down just after the new year, the takeover began in earnest. Gobert was the toast of the league for a couple weeks, earning multiple nicknames1 and even more numerous SportsCenter highlight reels. A Jazz defense that had still been hovering around the league’s bottom five turned into a dominant unit instantly when he hit the floor.
But even more recently has come the next phase: The inevitable backslide. The term takes a negative connotation, but in reality it’s only partially so – much of the reason behind it traces back to Gobert’s monstrous impact on the game and the resulting need for opponents to scout and alter their game plans for his time on the court.
Some numbers first, which showcase a fairly large discrepancy2. From the beginning of this post-2014 stretch where Rudy truly began to dominate until roughly the middle of the month, he was likely Utah’s most important player. The Jazz got crushed whenever he wasn’t on the court to the tune of a per-possession figure that would rank below Philly’s league-worst mark, but were a borderline top-10 team by this same metric when he played. Opponent offenses went into the toilet when Gobert was in the game, and Utah’s own offense was actually better in these periods than when he sat; they took less midrange shots and got a higher percentage of their points in the paint and from 3 while posting a noticeable per-possession difference.
But ever since roughly the middle of January, things have taken a turn as teams have made adjustments to Rudy’s game. He’s actually been Utah’s worst per-possession rotation member as far as on and off court splits – the Jazz have been a bottom-five group with him on the floor and, more remarkably, are playing at an elite rate without him that would rank behind only Golden State on the year. Their shooting efficiency has fallen off a cliff with Rudy on the court as teams have better learned how to effectively help away from his limited offensive skill set.
This much had to be expected to a point, but what’s perhaps more concerning is the way they’ve performed defensively with him in this period. Rudy remains a force at the rim, but savvier teams and players have begun to realize small ways to puncture the wall he’s building. One such strategy is getting the ball up before he’s had a chance to set his feet and lift off, a tough task given Gobert’s lateral mobility. But guys with a solid first step as well as a quick release can pull it off before Rudy has a chance to extend those tree branch arms of his, like Tyler Zeller did here:
Misdirection is the key to fooling Gobert at the rim; if he has time to size the shot up and get in position, no one in the league has a chance. But he’s still too jumpy and eager to contest everything, and craftier guys can use that against him by getting him in the air too early or forcing him to lunge out of position:
As teams are figuring out some of his weaker points, it’s begun to limit his effectiveness just a tad. Opponents shot a ridiculously stifling 46.4 percent within five feet of the hoop during his initial crazy stretch with him on the floor, but over the last few weeks that figure has ballooned to 56.9 percent, barely better than Jazz units without him. He’s also averaging under half of his earlier per-minute blocks as guys are wary of challenging him unnecessarily.
The effect here has trickled down to the free-throw line as well. Both Gobert himself and the entire team while he’s on the floor have seen their per-minute fouls basically double as guys are better about getting him off-balance down low and drawing whistles, and opponents are scoring a way higher percentage of their points in the paint over this recent stretch.
Adjustments haven’t been quite as noticeable on the other end, where Rudy has always been more limited in the first place. He’s attempting more field goals and making them at a higher clip in this most recent stretch, actually a very positive sign given the smarter ways teams are defending him. Opponents know his only reliable methods of offense come directly at the rim in the form of lobs and offensive boards, accordingly defending pick-and-rolls involving him more carefully to limit him here. But Gobert continues to improve his timing and footwork in these sets, and is actually rebounding an even higher percentage of Utah’s own misses in the last few weeks despite teams certainly putting an emphasis on boxing him out more effectively.
None of this is the least bit unexpected or worrying. The fact that teams have begun to scout Gobert specifically and exploit his weaker points speaks to the profound impact he’s been making on the game. The numbers are also still on a limited sampling, and certain bits of variance and randomness are to be expected.
Most importantly, this is a player who has shown an extremely accelerated developmental curve already in his year and a half in the league. Don’t doubt for a second that Rudy and his coaches have noticed the smarter ways teams are attacking him and are scheming their own set of counters. He’s shown a sometimes staggering ability to pick up new pieces of his game in very short periods of time, and it’d be tough to bet against him doing much of the same going forward. The going has gotten tougher, but expect Rudy to Stifle on.