Why Rudy Gobert Is Primed to Become a Household Name for NBA Fans This Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 15, 2014

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Even in a league littered with larger-than-life athletes, Utah Jazz reserve center Rudy Gobert stands out for his monstrous physical tools.

Those tools alone, incredibly impressive as they are, would be powerless, though, if he didn't understand how to use them. But as any astute observer could attest, the 22-year-old has displayed a constantly improving grasp of his natural gifts, putting the freakish Frenchman on the cusp of worldwide recognition among NBA faithful.

For some, this may feel like a natural progression on Gobert's wildly intriguing ride. Scouts have been drooling over his potential for some time now and doing so for good reason.

The big man's stop at the 2013 draft combine revealed some superhuman measurements. His 7'8.5" wingspan tied for the fourth highest in DraftExpress' scouting database. That, combined with his 7'1" frame, gave him a standing reach of 9'7", which tied for the third greatest on file. Add a 29-inch vertical to the equation, and he had the same max vertical reach as Los Angeles Clippers high-flyer DeAndre Jordan (12'0").

But Gobert was sushi bar raw, and his 21st birthday landed before the 2013 draft. That helps to explain, at least in part, how someone with so much natural ability fell to the 27th selection of a woefully anemic draft class.

If front offices were fine with passing him up back then, though, they are surely kicking themselves now. After a quiet rookie season, which graded out better than most might realize, Gobert has seemingly elevated his profile with each passing day.

He has shattered enough ceilings at this point to warrant putting the entire project on hold. Fans and analysts alike could use more time to better assess what type of player Utah's massive man in the middle can become.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - NOVEMBER 24:  Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz dunks the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder on November 24, 2013 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Before looking forward at the road ahead, it's important to retrace the steps Gobert has taken to get this far.

On the surface, his rookie campaign seemed to simply reinforce how much polish he needed as an NBA player. He made 45 appearances for the Jazz, tallying per-game averages of 3.4 rebounds, 2.3 points and 0.9 blocks in 9.6 minutes a night.

The numbers looked forgettable, but a closer inspection revealed some breadcrumbs left behind that hinted at some major potential.

The combination of his blocks and minutes averages is almost unprecedented. Only twice in NBA history has a player averaged at least one block while playing fewer than 10 minutes per game (minimum 30 games played). While neither of those players, Jim McIlvaine and Adonal Foyle, amounted to more than part-time shot-blocking specialists, the statistic still captures just how impressive Gobert was at defending the rim.

Gobert's 7.4 block percentage put him well in front of New Orleans Pelicans All-Star big man Anthony Davis (6.7), who led the NBA with 2.8 blocks per game. Gobert also finished third in field-goal percentage allowed at the rim (41.2) among players who faced at least three such shots a night (minimum 30 games played), per SportVU player tracking data provided to NBA.com.

If he never developed any of his other skills—the minuscule sample size made it tough to gauge his potential as a scorer and rebounder—he at least seemed suited to rank among the game's best rim deterrents. Considering Utah finished the 2013-14 season with the 10th-worst field-goal percentage allowed on shots within five feet of the basket (60.4), Gobert's rim protection was reason enough for Jazz fans to get excited.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 23: Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz blocks a shot against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on October 23, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/o
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It would not, however, be enough to put his name on hoop heads' tongue tips.

That process didn't start in earnest until this summer, when Gobert first dazzled in four games at the Las Vegas Summer League. He scored in double figures during each game in Sin City, blocked multiple shots in three of the four games and tracked down an average of 9.8 rebounds a night.

He followed that up with an impressive showing at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. His per-game marks looked rather pedestrian (4.7 rebounds and 4.1 points in 16 minutes), but he had a marvelous 13-rebound effort to power France to an upset win over the heavily favored Spain.

Rejoining the Jazz for training camp has done nothing to slow his momentum. If anything, it has given him a new platform to showcase his skill set, which is now bolstered by a stronger self-belief than before.

"I feel way more confident than I did last season," he said, per Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune. "I feel like I can help my team win. I feel like I can make a defensive impact, and help the team maintain."

Talking big is one thing, and backing up those words is obviously quite another.

Fortunately, Gobert has been doing both through the early portions of preseason, proving he has far too many tricks up his sleeve to be a single-skill specialist.

"He's gotten much better," Jazz point guard Trey Burke said, per Jody Genessy of the Deseret News. "His feel around the rim is much better. He's always had the natural talent of affecting shots on the defensive end. Offensively, I think he's much stronger. He's more confident as well."

Gobert is more productive than before, too.

To date, he has tracked down an NBA-best 12.3 rebounds per game, a number bolstered by the 20 boards he corralled in less than 22 minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday. He has also put up 8.0 points, 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks in 20.3 minutes per night, stats that highlight the type of two-way havoc he could wreak with a longer leash.

So, what is the chance he'll take on a heavier workload this time around?

First-year Jazz coach Quin Snyder said that will be up to the big man, per Genessy:

Jody Genessy @DJJazzyJody

Snyder continued about Gobert: "He impacts his playing time. There's no entitlement because you have a good game. It’s about consistency."

Consider that more of a motivational ploy than an actual answer. The Jazz need what Gobert can bring, and they sound ready to put him on a path to success.

"The Jazz want the 7-footer to do two things this season above all others: roll hard to the basket and rebound," noted Aaron Falk of The Salt Lake Tribune.

Gobert has already flashed what he can do on the glass. If there were any concerns that his per-36-minute average of 12.9 rebounds would not hold up in an expanded role, those should be quieted now, as Jones observed:

Tony Jones @Tjonessltrib

Everyone thinks of Rudy Gobert's shot-blocking. But he may he as good a rebounder as Favors

As for his mobility as a roll man, Grantland's Zach Lowe explained how that is already paying off for Gobert and the rest of this offense:

Gobert has flashed the ability to get from the foul line to the rim without a single dribble, and, when necessary, the patience to take one rhythm dribble, gather the ball, and go up with it. And even when he doesn’t get the ball, Gobert’s rolls are already threatening enough to suck in defenders from all over the floor — opening up jumpers and driving chances for his teammates.

Gobert is clearly ready for significant minutes and well-equipped to produce during his playing time. Now the Jazz just need to figure out where to fit him into their frontcourt.

Both Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors have been working on expanding their offensive range, which will help Utah better space the floor and make it easier for Gobert to work alongside either one.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 30:  Rudy Gobert #27 and Derrick Favors #15 of the Utah Jazz pose for a photo during 2013 Media Day at Zions Basketball Center on September 30, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
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Over 78 percent of Gobert's shots came within three feet of the basket last season, and his 49.2 free-throw percentage suggests that number may not be coming down. If his role is to crash the basket, he has to share the court with players who won't clog the middle.

Considering the type of impact Gobert can have as a glass-eater, above-the-rim finisher and interior defender, the Jazz will find those real estate-opening players. They're already working on creating a few of them.

All because Gobert is figuring out how to harness those physical gifts, which is a terrifying thought for the rest of the NBA.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.