Years of Polishing Have Made Rudy Gobert an Elite NBA Center

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 28: Gorgui Dieng #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves defends against Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz during the game on November 28, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

NEW YORK — Rudy Gobert will tell you he's the NBA's best center right now. His coach won't disagree.

But before he became an All-Star hopeful and the literal center of one of the league's sneaky contenders, Gobert was just a 21-year-old French kid trying to learn the NBA. He played in 45 games as a rookie—barely more than half the year—and had to find other ways to progress. 

Defense came easy. His skyscraper height (7'1") and Mr. Fantastic-like reach (7'8 ½", the longest wingspan at the NBA Draft Combine) make him impossible to shoot over. His bouncy feet make him hard to circumvent.

But Gobert just couldn't figure out how to harness all those tools into a steady offensive game. He'd bail out of screens too early or flash to the paint too late. His rail-thin frame prevented him from maintaining strong position in the paint. His wretched foul shooting (under 60 percent for his career entering this season) made him timid while attacking the hoop.

So he began by studying film with Alex Jensen, a Utah Jazz assistant coach. 

"To make everything habitual and instinctive, that takes time," Jensen told Bleacher Report. "It doesn't happen overnight."

First, Gobert had to get stronger. Then he had to learn the nuances of screen-and-rolls—when to hold the pick, how to slip if the ball-handler was blitzed, to stop dribbling every time he caught the ball.

Learn he did.

Gobert has always been a defensive star (2.0 blocks per game for his career), but now, at 24 and in his fourth NBA season, his offensive repertoire has nearly caught up. He's averaging a career-high 12.4 points, leading the league both in field-goal and true shooting percentage, according to Basketball-Reference.

Rudy Gobert's NBA Career Box Score Numbers
MPGPPGRPGBPGFG%
2013-149.62.33.40.9.486
2014-1526.38.49.52.3.604
2015-1631.79.111.02.2.559
2016-1733.112.412.12.6.681
NBA.com

"I think he's just more balanced around the rim, he's catching the ball better," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said recently in New York. "It's taking him less time between the catch and the shot, I think he has a better feel for where he is on the floor."

Suddenly, Gobert has evolved into an absolute monster, a player who can impose his will in myriad ways. Never in the 40-plus years that the statistic has been recorded, has a player lead the league in both offensive and defensive rating.

Gobert, according to Basketball Reference, currently ranks No. 1 in both.

"He's taking our offense"—which is 10th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions, to go along with the team's No. 2 defense—"to another level this year," Jazz guard Rodney Hood told Bleacher Report.

And by doing so, he's propelled the once mediocre Jazz (40-42 last year) into the Western Conference playoff picture (22-14, currently the fifth seed). More importantly, he's transformed them into a potent squad that could, just maybe, play spoiler come May.

"First of all, I'm feeling stronger physically, not getting pushed around like I used to," Gobert told Bleacher Report.

"A lot of people used to try to stand him up, try to be more physical with him when he rolled down the lane," Hood said. "Now he's fighting through contact."

Gobert got better at pushing through contact by absorbing lots of it in drills

"Yeah, sometimes I'd hit him hard and he'd get mad," Jensen said.

That leverage game has also turned Gobert's screening into one of the league's most dangerous weapons. He sets some of the strongest picks in the league (the 5.9 screen assists he's averaging per game rank second in the NBA) and is averaging a robust 1.57 points per possession when serving as the roll man in pick-and-rolls, a mark that ranks better than 98 percent of the league.

"That's the stuff we've worked on a lot," Jensen said. "Just knowing how to make those kinds of reads."

The two worked on floor-spacing and positioning depending upon his frontcourt mate. A stretch 4 like Trey Lyles means the paint is all Gobert's, whereas a low-post presence like Derrick Favors means Gobert has to be more judicious with his cuts.

In years past, Gobert frequently put the ball on the floor after catching it on the roll. It helped him balance. But with a helpful hand from Jensen, who'd threaten Gobert ("I'm going to tell Coach to stop playing you if I see that again") every time he dribbled the ball, that habit has since been eradicated.

Gobert shot a miserable 49.2 percent from the line as a rookie and just 56.9 percent last season. This year he's up to 65.1, far from a strong mark, but also one that allows the Jazz to keep him on the floor.

"I used to always hit 90 percent of my foul shots in practice, but in games I was missing them," Gobert said. "Hitting more, it just changes your whole mindset. It makes me more aggressive and confident and allows me to play with force."

That, according to both Snyder and Jensen, is a key reason why Gobert's become one of the league's most prolific rim-scorers (he's shooting a blistering 69.6 percent in the paint).

"I think there's a confidence there at the line now that actually is helping him finish," Snyder said.

That, and the fact his teammatesmany of whom have grown alongside Gobert in Utahare now familiar with what their stud center can do. Case in point: He's already completed 24 lobs in 36 games this season, after finishing just 29 all of last year.

"He's open for lobs a lot, but in the past, a lot of the guys didn't really know how to look for it so much," Jensen said. "Guys aren't used to playing with a guy who's always open if you throw it up. This year that's changed."

Of course, there remains room for improvement.

Gobert's post game has gotten better, but he's still not much of a threat from the low block. He's still afraid to hoist mid-range jumpers. He sometimes struggles reading defenses on the roll and finding the open man after opponents rotate.

But those are the next frontier for this elite big man, and he hasn't let any of that hold him, or the Jazz, back.

It's a rare skill, the ability to boost a team both with and without the ball in your hands, and Gobert has figured it out. No longer a one-way star, the Frenchman has morphed into one of league's most valuable players, as well as the backbone of one of its best teams.

   

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats from NBA.com unless otherwise noted and are accurate as of Jan. 5. 

Yaron Weitzman is a Bleacher Report contributor and writer in New York. Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman