If you were worried about Rudy Gobert's left knee holding up, his vicious putback dunks during Utah's fourth game against the Clippers should have been enough to ease your concerns. The Stifle Tower is back, and he's put the Jazz in position for an upset to loudly announce that, while they may be the hipster basketball head's new favorite team, the Jazz are poised to become a Western Conference powerhouse.
That, of course, doesn't happen overnight. With Gobert laying down roots, signing a four-year contract extension last year, after turning his new house into a cozy abode, he can help make that happen sooner rather than later.
A few weeks prior to his dramatic comeback last Sunday, the 7'1" French center was playing host to his usual houseguests—his mom, Corinne, and his assistant—in his Salt Lake house. A quick glance at Gobert's house reveals the standard bachelor-pad aesthetic: tasteful furniture, a kitchen appointed with all the modern amenities and little that signifies who lives there or what they do for a living. A floor-to-ceiling window looks out onto a tennis court that Gobert says he's going to rip out in the offseason so he can erect a basketball hoop, but not before he can get in a few sets just to say he used it. He has big plans for his home and even bigger ones for his budding passion: a rap career.
Gobert wouldn't be the first French basketball player to give hip-hop a shot. Tony Parker notoriously dropped the album TP in 2007. The album wasn't a critical or commercial success in the U.S. (Parker's single, "Top of the Game," did feature Fabolous, though). Gobert says audiences gave Parker "a lot of crap" for the record, but he sees nothing wrong with making the effort.
"I was thinking about rapping, but I'd do it by myself before I put an album out. I would do something more private," Gobert tells B/R Mag.
Like Parker, Gobert is friends with the legendary French rapper Booba, who he says has offered to give him tips on how to excel in music.
"Americans don't want to listen to something different than American," Gobert says. "That's the American mentality. In France, we listen to a lot of American music. Most of the time I show my teammates French rap, they think it sucks because they don't understand it."
But what the team does understand is just how integral the Defensive Player of the Year candidate and potential All-NBA big man is to the franchise. Jazz assistant coach Alex Jensen believes Gobert has it in him to grab this squad, put it on his back and lead Utah to its first NBA championship. Gobert's restless nature and his need to be better today than he was yesterday makes that prediction believable.
Even a loss in this year's playoffs won't deter a player who's fueled by those who don't believe in him. He's still sore about not making the All-Star team this year, something Jensen says they talk about.
"I wish you'd made it, but I'm glad you didn't," the coach told Gobert after the All-Star snub, knowing the frustration would make him a better player. Jensen mentored Gobert through his first few seasons, tapping into his natural physical gifts to mold him into an elite NBA defender who is slowly learning how to play on the other end of the court.
As far as Gobert has come, he's not satisfied.
"He wants to be able to do everything," Jensen says, specifically noting dribbling drills, which are pretty far down on the list of things the Jazz need the center to do but a testament to his desire to see a flaw and correct it. Jensen recalls that he "spent probably the whole first year, year-and-a-half, maybe two years, telling him you don't need to dribble. Ever."
The most pressing issue in Gobert's life today is success in the postseason—already a tall task in the first round against a veteran Clippers team, but especially so with Gobert's knee injury that kept him out of nearly all of Game 1 and all of Games 2 and 3. He returned in Game 4 to help engineer a win behind his double-double performance.
"He can be a leader," Jensen says with a sort of wide-eyed conviction. "It comes with the maturity. Making the playoffs, winning in the playoffs. That leadership, people listening to you, just comes."
Gobert's lunch attire is the basketball version of business casual: T-shirt, track pants and sneakers. The lunch isn't anything too fussy: steak, macaroni and cheese, and asparagus. The kid from the small town of Saint-Quentin, France, isn't yet the transcendent cultural figure many of his peers can claim to be.
Gobert doesn't spend his off-duty time daydreaming about superstardom and brand-extension opportunities. He's playing video games—Zelda, to be exact. It shouldn't be all that surprising that a young man in a city whose primary pastime is skiing (which he can't partake in, for obvious work-related reasons) has an abiding interest in non-athletic amusements.
"I always liked the freedom in those games, the fact that you need to think," he says. "You have quests. You can kinda personalize the way you play, find secrets."
His Zelda love reflects an overall interest in fantasy stories. He's a huge Game of Thrones fan and gets a thrill from being transported to worlds very different from our own. You can excuse the daydreaming when considering where he lives.
In Salt Lake City, there aren't the obvious distractions that make cities like Miami, New York and Los Angeles so treacherous. The 24-year-old also doesn't drink alcohol during the NBA year, despite wine being such a big part of his heritage. Even if his mother weren't there to keep an eye on him, it's doubtful he'd find himself in much trouble.
It is Salt Lake City, after all.
It's the kind of place where most restaurants close at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends. Baristas remember your name days after you've last been in their coffee shop, traffic is almost nonexistent, and wherever you turn, there's a cute, Instagram-worthy photo just waiting to be captured.
The pace of this charming city helps Gobert zero in on his job. He's making his first playoff appearance and is hungry for respect and victory, which is why his injury in the first few seconds of Game 1 against the Clippers was so disappointing. Like his Eastern Conference counterpart, Giannis Antetokounmpo, this year is a coming-out party for a next-generation big man.
Despite finishing fifth in the lion's den that is the Western Conference, the Jazz are often an afterthought—a mystery to the average fan who doesn't drop $200 on NBA League Pass and only watches nationally televised games.
Gobert, Gordon Hayward, Joe Ingles, George Hill, seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson and the rest are not household names, but going toe-to-toe with the flashy, big-market Clips in the first round might change that.
Does the lack of spotlight on the Jazz put a chip on their shoulder? "We have one," he says. "Coach Quin [Snyder] definitely has it. We want to use whatever we can use for motivation. To be overlooked like that in the league is great motivation."
Utah clings to its glory days, as most sports franchises do—especially one that struggles to be seen by the national media. In front of Vivint Smart Home Arena stand a pair of statues in the likenesses of Utah's finest products—Karl Malone and John Stockton, players who led the '90s Jazz to their only two NBA Finals appearances (where they ran into the brick wall of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls).
It's been a long time in the wilderness, but thanks to smart drafting by general manager Dennis Lindsey and a team ethos Snyder instilled that resembles the best of the perennially successful San Antonio Spurs, the Jazz are primed to seize the spotlight.
The Stifle Tower, as fans have called Gobert since his emergence as a defensive presence, led the league in blocks and creates matchup problems for even the most elite offenses. He's earned a four-year, $102 million contract extension in 2016. But offensively he's still primarily a threat on the pick-and-roll, rumbling to the hoop and outlasting his man through sheer height and a staggering 7'9" wingspan.
Gobert can turn even the most errant lob into a rim-rattling dunk, but it wasn't always like that. He worked tirelessly with Jensen to solidify his hands so that he could become a force down low.
"The two things he doesn't have in his game are shooting from the outside and playing [with his] back to the basket, as far as post-ups and post-up moves and being consistent in that regard," fellow Jazz Frenchman Boris Diaw says.
The Jazz front office and coaching staff's goal is to turn Gobert into the type of player who consistently commands double-teams to free up room for perimeter shooters like Johnson and Hayward.
That steak lunch helps. The knock on Gobert since draft day—when he was taken 27th in the first round in 2013, hence his jersey number—has been his size. He's long, but he's thin. Yet Gobert is quickly learning how to work with what he has. Diaw has witnessed the improvement.
"The size, he always had," Diaw says. "But he hasn't always been dominating the way he has this year. He's using his body better."
That was proved against Minnesota earlier this month. Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns traded blows (and personal fouls) for most of the game, with Gobert getting the upper hand early thanks to an expertly sold flop on a glancing elbow from KAT.
"Every night, somebody's gonna try to bang. If they don't, I'll get the rebound every time," Gobert says with a brief, but noticeable, smile.
Despite his lanky frame, Gobert is no pushover. Before settling on basketball, he dabbled in a variety of sports, including boxing. He says he "liked hitting because it was hard and [he] was expending a lot of energy."
After a year of trading fists, he cut his hand and almost swore off boxing, though he occasionally dabbles in the offseason. His restlessness even led him to give pingpong a shot. "I'm pretty good. Not great, but when I start playing, it comes back, but I don't play much."
Recently, he's been working on improving his jump shot, spending hours in the gym hoping to extend his range past the basket. He's not working past the elbow, though: "I can't shoot a three and still rebound at the same time. Right now, definitely shoot my mid-range and make sure the defense respects me. That's the main thing. Maybe, in a few years, keep extending."
Then, there's that wild Eurostep he pulled out against the Blazers. What started as a routine defensive rebound turned into what Hayward described as "one of the longest Eurosteps I've ever seen."
Gobert snatched the board, hesitated for a moment while he looked for a guard to drop it off to, saw an open lane and took it all the way to the hoop with a surprising amount of grace. Hayward has seen him pull it out in practice from time to time, but it's rare to see the big man move like that in a game setting.
"It's a good move," Hayward continued. "I don't know if we want to see him do that regularly."
The Jazz rely heavily on Gobert's ability to set picks and open up shooting lanes for backcourt players by drawing defenders to the rim, a skill they sorely missed when he went down against the Clippers. Still, Gobert wants to broaden his game.
Being told "no" is not a great way to discourage Gobert, though. If anyone embodies the adage "shoot your shot," it's him. He keeps throwing up jumpers in practice, Eurostepping in games, all while pondering a rap career.
Excelling at everything matters to Gobert. While his demeanor is usually unassuming and low-key, he says his ceaseless competitiveness has a tendency to come out in unexpected ways.
"I play on my phone sometimes," he tells B/R Mag over lunch. "I broke my phone one time when I lost a game. I'm very competitive in everything I do. I've got a lot of pride."
That competitive spirit is partly why Gobert seemed so restless sitting out Games 2 and 3 of this Clippers series, and it's what motivates him now that he's back in the lineup. "[The Jazz front office] trust me and my ability to help my team and to keep getting better," he says. "The goal for me is to win a championship and to be something."
Whatever the endeavor may be—basketball, video games, rap—Rudy Gobert wants to be the best, and there's no reason to doubt him. The Stifle Tower is ready to level up.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misidentified Gobert's home as a condo. It is a house. The story has been updated to reflect the change.
Dave Schilling is a Writer-at-Large for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also hosts the Roundball Rock podcast, a comedic look at the NBA. Prior to joining B/R, Dave wrote for Grantland, The Guardian and VICE. Follow him on Twitter: @dave_schilling.