Rudy Gobert has birthed a cult of personality never before seen in relation to the Utah Jazz.
A large portion of the sudden celebrity is production-based. Since permanently joining Derrick Favors in the starting lineup following the All-Star break (and the departure of Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City), Gobert has made an unmistakable impact: 9.5 points, 14.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.9 steals, and 2.6 blocks while shooting better than 55% from the field and nearly 63% from the line.
But that alone doesn’t account for the sudden stardom. He also has as entertaining an on-court demeanor as any player is Jazz history. He’s a go-go gadget, full-throttle, bicep-flexing, bench-saluting tower of theatricality. Best of all, none of it is fake.
Gobert has always had authentic star quality to his personality. It showed in glimmers before his on-court emergence, such as after being assigned to the D-League in January of 2014. He expressed his sentiment about the relegation simply: “I was pissed.”
That attitude, all confidence and directness, is showcased in his game as well. One instance was when Enes Kanter was out of position defensively against New Orleans, so Gobert shoved him boldly into his assigned spot. When asked about the incident afterward, Gobert deadpanned, “Coach told us to push each other.”
Citing such behavior by the Stifle Tower, Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune wrote, “Is that brash?… That’s Gobert.”
“He’s kind of cocky now,” says Evan Fournier, fellow Frenchman and good friend of Gobert’s. “He wants to [expletive] you up.” Fournier’s assessment of his friend’s bold attitude: a little chuckle and, “I like it.”
So do Jazz and NBA fans nationwide. So much so it’s hard to hear talk of the Jazz separate from Gobert. The praise has grown to titanic proportions in excess of even Gobzilla’s larger than life presence. Take this statement from radio voice of the Jazz, David Locke:
“[Rudy] wants to be the best who has ever played the game. He is a franchise changing player. He will be a dominating defensive force in this league as long as he stays healthy and the Jazz will be a top 5 defensive team for as long as they have Rudy.”
The best who has ever played the game? Such hyperbole is both obvious and common, but is accepted as due course largely because Gobert plays the part.
But is this furor causing some to mistake demeanor for dominance? The relative lack of mention of Derrick Favors in headlines this season says yes.
This is nothing new for the low-key Georgia boy. From even before he was drafted, Favors faced constant debate and doubt as to whether a dominant player could mature from an athlete without a demonstrative temperament. In his rookie year, the New York Daily News summed up Favors as “an unassuming personality who works hard, stays out of trouble and loves his mother.”
Anthony Morrow, then a teammate of Favors, said it more simply: “He’s just a laid-back kid.”
Four years later, Favors’ game has transformed while, in most respects, his demeanor has not. He’s still a cool Southern boy, quiet and calm. Instead of thunderous dunks and salutes to the crowd, he’s more likely to carefully gather in a questionable lob pass, dunk it simply, and run up the court with an apologetic smile.
For many, that demeanor is still obscuring just how dominant Derrick Favors has become. Allowing such factors to cloud judgment strikes me as perilous in that it risks ascribing the Jazz’ recent excellence to the team’s most demonstrative players rather than its best.1
Even professionals who cover the team are making this mistake. For example, on February 24th the Tribune’s Gordon Monson wrote a piece segregating the Jazz roster into two camps, one for approval and one for chastisement. Claiming the team was split by the presence or absence of aggression, he announced “the nonaggression headliners are Derrick Favors and Dante Exum.” To lump together Favors and a 19-year-old rookie who has failed to take a single free throw in 26 of his last 27 games is patently absurd. But this is the type of devaluing Favors experiences due to the style – and not substance – of his game, particularly in the clamor over Gobert’s emergence.
Yet, there is value in quiet greatness. I believe Quin Snyder recognizes this. In his post-game comments following a gritty win against the Knicks,2 Snyder dubbed Favors “an absolute anchor.” I don’t believe that characterization applied to that game alone but rather to the indispensable role Favors plays on this team.
Where Gobert provides explosion, Favors ensures quiet efficiency. Rudy’s 26 made dunks out of 31 attempts this season have made more Vines, but Favors’ 28 out of 29 make for a more potent offence.
Similarly, it is easy to gush about Gobert gorging himself on nearly 15 rebounds per contest in his last 10 games. What is almost impossible to spot is that since Gobert’s rise to the starting lineup, the Jazz give up an extra 3.8 offensive rebounds per 100 possessions to opponents when Favors is off the floor. Boxing out isn’t sexy, but it helps win, and no one on the Jazz does a better job of it than Favors.
So much of the Georgian’s game excels in seldom-watched aspects of competition: the outlet pass to start the break; weak side help defense and positioning; walking the difficult line between covering a stretch four while staying able to help defend the paint; crisp passes to interior players who are, as often as not, unable to handle the pass; pointing out assignments and directing the defense during game play.
Favors is as responsible as any player for Utah’s recent success, showcased by his team-leading plus/minus of plus-6.9 since the All-Star break.
That Favors is able to make such an impact quietly only projects a more dominant future. Consider that in terms of age and minutes played, Derrick Favors is approximately where Gordon Hayward was this time last season: not yet 24 years old, cresting 8,000 NBA minutes played, and shouldering responsibility for a higher usage than ever required of him before.
This season, at a similar point in his development, Favors is outpacing the Hayward of last year by bounds – and he’s doing it with such ease3 that it’s possible to miss: 22.2 PER (12th in the NBA), 3.54 real plus-minus (33rd) and .181 win shares per 48 minutes (18th).
Favors is a top-40 player in the league this season by any metric. Now consider the growth Hayward has shown this year (developmentally equivalent to Favors next year), and how easy Favors is making top-40 production look, and consider what is in store over the next twelve months plus.
Yes, but… the aggression! The numbers tell one story, but so many see something else when they watch him play. Maybe so. It all depends what you’re looking for.
Is aggression flexing after making a play and swatting shots like a volleyball player making a kill? Is that the essence of stardom? Or is stardom asserting yourself in ways and times that determine if your team wins or loses? If it’s the latter, then Favors has become the Jazz’s brightest star.
Since the All-Star break, he leads the team in 4th quarter points (5.9), rebounds (2.3), blocks (0.5) and field goal percentage (62.5%)while claiming runner-up honors in free-throw attempts (2.2) and third place in steals (0.3). Perhaps most impressive of all given the nature of his game, he has posted the fifth-highest free throw percentage in the decisive fourth quarter (78.8%).
The Jazz’s recent improvement is too rapid and complete to attribute to any one source. Rudy Gobert’s predation of the NBA has made Utah’s defense a terror. Gordon Hayward’s steady climb to stardom is the fuel that forces life into the team’s sometimes stiff and limited offense. Quin Snyder has proven just how essential good coaching is for forming great talent into good basketball players. Even Dante Exum and Rodney Hood deserve ample credit for being defensively engaged, broadening their offensive impact, and showing their ability to learn.
But in all the celebration of Gobert’s newest record or Hayward’s latest game winner, no one invested in the Jazz should obscure just how great a player Derrick Favors is becoming. He is the team’s only difference maker on both ends of the floor, and he’s making that difference when it is most needed. As the Jazz ride the celebrity wave back to NBA relevance, no amount of noise, no matter how elated, should crowd out room for acknowledging Derrick Favors’ quiet greatness.