The Stifle Tower: Rudy Gobert's Ascent Is Unlike Any We've Seen Before

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 24, 2015

USA Today

It's appropriate that Rudy Gobert rejects convention.

The Utah Jazz's sky-scraping, shot-swatting interior force burst on the NBA scene last year by batting away everything: floaters, layups, baby hooks—even jump shots. So of course he stymies the typical methods we want to study him with.

That makes it hard to guess what kind of player this 7'2" center might become.

Resistant as he is to historical comparisons, we still have to start answering the question of what Gobert might someday be by looking at what he's been.

 

Gobert and the Jazz: Escalating Quickly

The Jazz hit the All-Star break last year with a 19-34 record and the fourth-worst defensive rating in the NBA—nothing new, as they'd finished the 2013-14 season as the very worst defense in the league. After the break, some kind of stinginess miracle took hold of the previously generous Jazz, and they compiled a 19-10 mark on the strength of a defensive effort that not only blew their pre-break performance away but also topped the entire league by a significant margin, per NBA.com:

Utah Jazz's Defensive Rating Spike
PeriodDefensive RatingNBA Rank
2013-14109.130
2014-15 (Pre-Break)106.127
2014-15 (Post-Break)94.81
NBA.com

The difference: Gobert assumed a starting role at center, replacing the departed Enes Kanter. Instead of an all-smiles greeter in the lane, the Jazz suddenly had a menacing bouncer.

"The number one thing I walk out of here with is, damn, their defense is good," Boston Celtics head coach Brad Steven told SB Nation's Paul Flannery after a visit to Utah in March. "Like, that’s an outstanding defense, and it’s got the potential to be an outstanding defense for a long time, with that length."

Gobert—a raw, stone-handed turnover machine as a rookie—fell into a starting job as a sophomore and promptly became the most effective defensive force in the league.

Gobert's Pre- and Post-Break Production
GamesMinutesPointsFG%ReboundsBlocks
Pre-Break5321.96.962.97.32.2
Post-Break2934.411.157.613.42.6
Basketball-Reference.com

Ascension's not supposed to be that easy, and Gobert's rapid rise raised questions.

How did the Jazz ever justify playing Kanter ahead of this guy?

How did Alex Len, Gorgui Dieng and Kelly Olynyk all come off the 2013 draft board before him?

Did he just block a sky hook?

And more than anything: How is this fair?

Gobert's wingspan and standing reach as a rookie rated among the highest ever recorded at the NBA draft combine. He is impossibly long and getting longer if reports that his reach has increased to 9'9" this summer are to be believed.

Already, he blocks shots flat-footed. Already, he snuffs out double- and triple-pump attempts by simply keeping his arms extended until the poor offensive player has to release the ball for fear of an up-and-down call.

Gobert erases shots of all types, whether attempted by his own man or somebody else's. And he changes the ones he doesn't get to directly because his presence on the floor is something all five offensive opponents must consider at all times.

Yet what's most remarkable about Gobert, and most unfair if you're an opponent, is that he doesn't even need all that length. His timing and court sense are uncanny. He is frighteningly quick in recovery and rarely has far to travel because his understanding of defensive positioning is that of a veteran stopper.

Among rim protectors who defended at least five shots per game last year, Gobert led the league by holding opponents to a paltry 40.4 percent conversion rate inside.

That's part of the reason Gobert stands apart from the shot-blocking specialists to whom we'd normally compare him.

 

Gobert Is Something New

Gobert's age-22 season last year featured a block rate of 7.0 percent (tops in the NBA) over a span of 2,158 minutes. Shawn Bradley is the only other 22-year-old in league history to block such a high percentage of shots over that many minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Gobert's youth is a huge part of what makes him so unique as a defensive force, but even if we remove that qualifier from our search for comparisons (and leave the block rate and minutes requirements as they are), we get a list of some of the game's all-time greatest rim protectors.

Seasons with 7% Block Rates Over 2,000+ Minutes
PlayerAgeYearBlock RateWin Shares/48 Min.
David Robinson261991-927.4%.260
Alonzo Mourning291999-007.8%.226
Rudy Gobert222014-157.0%.206
Serge Ibaka232012-137.4%.181
Hakeem Olajuwon271989-907.0%.173
Dikembe Mutombo271993-947.4%.158
Shawn Bradley282000-018.1%.151
Basketball-Reference.com

There have been 26 seasons in league history that could fit on that chart, but the ones above are the top eight in terms of win shares per 48 minutes. Gobert finishing third on that list points to something critical about his game: He's much more than just a shot-blocker.

He's a presence underneath in a number of other key ways, not the least of which is his dominance on the glass. He and Marcus Camby are the only players in NBA history to post a season with a block rate of at least 7 percent and a rebound rate of at least 20 percent.

Let's not make the mistake of calling this statistical cherry-picking. Protecting the rim and ending defensive possessions by cleaning the glass are basically the two biggest keys to sound interior D. And Gobert did both of those things better as a 22-year-old than almost anyone since the league started recording those stats.

He's rare already, but when you consider Gobert's draft slot and improbable rise to prominence, he turns into a full-on unicorn.

The Denver Nuggets selected Gobert with the 27th pick in the 2013 draft, then traded him to the Jazz for Erick Green and cash (oops!).

The other players to whom we've tried to compare Gobert were much more highly touted.

Bradley was the second overall pick in his class, as were Camby and Alonzo Mourning. Dikembe Mutombo went fourth. David Robinson was the top overall pick.

Serge Ibaka, picked 24th in 2009, may be Gobert's closest recent peer. As a 22-year-old in 2011-12, Ibaka blocked an unfathomable 9.8 percent of opponent field-goal attempts. But Ibaka had two seasons of experience before that breakout year, and he was a full-time starter in that campaign.

Gobert leaped into his role midseason with less experience and posted better rebounding and offensive efficiency numbers.

Perhaps most importantly, Ibaka's 2011-12 arrival came on a team that had won at least 50 games in each of the previous two seasons, and he was no better than a fourth option behind Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 19: Oklahoma City Thunder players, from left, Kevin Durant #35, Russell Westbrook #0, Kendrick Perkins #5, Serge Ibaka #9 and James Harden #13 wait to resume action against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Four of the Western Conferenc
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Despite spending two-thirds of the season as a reserve, Gobert was Utah's very best player last year, amassing a team-high 9.3 win shares. Ibaka's team had already become good gradually, mostly on the strength of other players; Gobert was the reason his team got good overnight.

There's no point in continuing to look. Gobert has no historical precedent.

 

So, What Now?

Darren Abate/Associated Press

Because Gobert's path to this point has been unique, it's difficult to project the road ahead.

Defensively, the Jazz should expect to remain in the league's top five as long as Gobert is healthy. If he takes even a small step forward on that end, the No. 1 defensive efficiency ranking the Jazz posted after the break won't be going anywhere.

Gobert is already elite on one end, and if he gets no better at all, he'll still be a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

He's already historically great on defense, which makes Gobert's true challenge becoming good enough on offense to make the Jazz a true contender in the years to come. Still limited in his range and lacking a refined post game, Gobert must hone his skill as a roll man to truly ascend into superstardom.

If the Jazz find enough shooters to create spacing, and if Gobert improves as a defense-drawing diver down the middle, there's no telling how good this Utah team could become.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise indicated.

Follow Grant Hughes on Twitter @gt_hughes.

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