Jazz fans have seen a lot of things from Rudy Gobert, and in a lot of different contexts. He’s waited his turn on the bench, he’s played important reserve minutes, he’s started. He has unveiled new moves, showcased obscene defensive talent and — lest we forget — introduced us to the salute. He has plodded along in relative obscurity. He has exploded onto the national consciousness. More recently, he has demanded our attention, invited our hyperbole and tempted our imaginations.
But until last Thursday, he had never done any of it on a stage that mattered as much as the one in Lille, France.
That Thursday’s semifinal matchup with Spain was the most important game Gobert has ever been a part of isn’t entirely the big man’s fault. He came to a team at the wrong time in their competitive cycle to have tasted any sort of playoff tilt thus far, or even late season contests with immediate postseason consequences. The most intense battles the Frenchman has fought for the Utah Jazz have been regular season games with, perhaps, some hint of broader implications.
Contrast that to Thursday evening in his home country. There in Lille, the two strongest squads at EuroBasket went head-to-head in single elimination for all the marbles. The winner would qualify for the 2016 Olympics and play for Euro gold, the loser would be denied a direct ticket to Rio and be forced to slog through an 18-team mess at next July’s last-chance qualifier for one of just three remaining spots1.
By now, you know the punchline. France held the inside lane most of the way, but lost the lead late and ultimately suffered an 80-75 overtime defeat. Since then, Gobert had a nice 15-and-14 outing in a mostly meaningless third place game2.
But what hasn’t been discussed enough is how everything we know about Rudy held up in the first real crucible of his career, the first massively consequential single game he’s ever taken part in. On a technical level the results were mixed, but it’s a fantastic opportunity for the pro to experience life in a pressure-cooker. We often have to wait for postseason appearances to see how nascent NBA stars like Gobert will work through big-game jitters, but Thursday was a sneak peak. And who knows, he may even be better when those hyper-competitive NBA moments arrive because of the experience.
There was a lot to like, starting at the macro level. France outscored Spain by 11 in Gobert’s 31 minutes and lost by 16 in the other 14 minutes. He reeled in 13 boards, blocked two shots and contributed a mildly efficient 8 points on 7 shots.
It was obvious that Spain was prepared to face Gobert. Their offensive schemes seemed focused on drawing Rudy away from the defensive paint, a tactic that worked as often as it didn’t, partially because Gobert was so engaged and tenacious, jumping out on the likes of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic. Spain definitely tried to turn that tenacity against him by baiting him out onto the floor.
The guy looked like he was playing with a secret intravenous supply of Red Bull stuffed under his jersey, which was great. But strengths can be exploited to the point that they’re almost weaknesses, and Spain gambled that they could get Gobert to err on the side of overaggressive.
On another occasion, Gobert was glued to Gasol way out on the left angle3. Spain takes advantage of the fact that Rudy’s extended far from the paint; they throw a double screen at him even though he’s clear over on the weakside, allowing a strongside backcut to occur that Rudy can’t do anything about. This isn’t presented as evidence of anything Gobert did wrong — he absolutely should be mindful of Gasol there. I’m mostly sharing it out of incredulity: who the hell is so good defensively that other teams have to draw this kind of stuff up just to sneak a layup?! They’re essentially deploying elevator doors here, only not to free a ball handler, just to occupy a freak defender. Check it out:
This amount of direct scheming is a huge compliment to Gobert, who broke out last summer precisely because he did his best impression of Gasol Kryptonite.
As it turns out, we might have been a little to quick to anoint him the Gasol antidote. The younger Gasol, Marc, took EuroBasket off, but Pau offered up plenty of evidence to suggest he can still get out from under the shadow of the Stifle Tower. His final tally: 40 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks and a whole lot of mean mugs directed in the general direction of Monsieur Gobert.
Gobert’s defense was attentive, intense and mostly on point, but Gasol is just really freaking good at basketball. At times, he simply overpowered Gobert4, evidence that for all of his upper-body work, Rudy still needs a stronger base and core. Gasol also pulled out a couple of unblockable skyhooks, and benefitted from some calls that his defender didn’t exactly agree with5.
On offense, Rudy looked like an earlier version of himself… and not in the best way. He was a bit skittish at times and often didn’t look like he knew where he was supposed to be (even though in the first clip below, he still gets to the o-board for a putback).
I don’t pretend to know France’s plays inside and out, but I’m pretty sure when he goes to set a screen even though his teammate has already vacated, or when he turns around and changes directions multiple times, or when he and Boris Diaw can’t decide who’s supposed to be crossing the paint to the midpost… those aren’t the right plays.
And here’s the thing: if that happened in a Jazz game in November, I’d be worrying out loud about regression, but that’s what’s beautiful about this opportunity. Of course he was going to battle with that in the biggest game he’s ever played. Someone like Gobert whose value is directly tied to his activity level was bound to geek out a little in his first game of this magnitude. He got to experience that for the first time on Thursday and maybe, just maybe, when the Jazz get to a similar point in their journey to success, Rudy will be able to tell himself, “Oh yeah, I’ve been in games like that. I got this.” That he was able to manage through that and still have a positive impact on his team overall — again, plus-freaking-11, tops on the team even with the mistakes here and there — is remarkable.
Still, there are some clear takeaways for the big guy before his next massively important postseason battles, and some of them are simply extensions of trends we’ve seen across all his games.
He definitely needs to work on giving guards better angles to make a play. Too often, he runs into a crowd, or dives in right behind a defender, thus eliminating the option of hitting him as the roll man. When he rolls right, it’s extremely valuable, and not just to him. Twice in the bronze medal game, effective rolls commanded enough focus that Tony Parker and Nando de Colo were able to slip right to the rim wide open.
He also needs to continue working on his touch. There were a few times that Rudy was in position to score or grab a rebound, and instead batted the ball around like a kid with a balloon at a birthday party. The Jazz like to hide him in the dunker6 just as often as they put him directly in the pick-and-roll, with the goal of forcing the help big to make a tough decision. When that guy helps on the roller (say, Favors), Rudy can slide under and punish — but only if he has the hands to catch and finish.
At any rate, Jazz fans should be hugely excited that the guy got this experience, that he took his team into the crucible in the biggest game of life, played with force and value, and almost — ALMOST — came away with the win.
Hopefully that’s a preview of many epic battles to come, including a bunch with the Jazz note across his chest.