Why the NBA overlooked Rudy Gobert – and how much hardware it will take to make amends
BOSTON – The 2013 NBA draft combine explains a lot about why teams doubted Rudy Gobert – and why that wound up a mistake.
Gobert had massive measurements – 7-foot-2 in shoes and a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan. His 9-foot-7 standing reach is tied for the third biggest in the DraftExpress database.
But the French big man posted underwhelming numbers in the athletic testing, including a max vertical of just 29 inches.
It’s one thing to be big. It’s quite another to be big and athletic, and Gobert appeared to be only the former.
So, he fell to the No. 27 pick in the draft, the Jazz trading up to get him.
And they couldn’t be happier now with that decision.
Gobert is averaging 7.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. In 11 starts since Utah traded Enes Kanter, Gobert’s averages have jumped to 10.5 points, 14.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. The Jazz are 9-2 in that span, including wins over the playoff-bound Trail Blazers, Spurs, Bucks, Grizzlies and Rockets
If the 2013 draft were re-done – with consideration to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nerlens Noel, Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams, Mason Plumlee and everyone else – Gobert makes a compelling case to go No. 1 overall.
He’s just so dominant, in so small part due to his impressive athleticism.
So why didn’t it show at the combine?
Gobert participated while battling a pre-existing knee injury.
Despite the risk of faring poorly and seeing his draft stock fall – which ultimately happened – Gobert insisted on competing because he believed teams hadn’t seen enough of him playing in France.
“I had to prove to everybody else what I could do,” Gobert said
Gobert hasn’t stopped working to prove himself since.
Being 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan and 9-foot-7 standing reach helps. But Gobert is clearly committed to being the best 7-foot-2 player with a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan and 9-foot-7 standing reach he can be.
He didn’t become a center until age 18, playing small forward growing up before a growth spurt. It didn’t take him long to realize what his size advantage could offer – an advantage many players have tried to rest on.
Instead, Gobert is progressing nicely toward maximizing the potential offered by his natural ability.
He doesn’t float toward the perimeter offensively. He works hard to position himself for as many high-percentage shots at the rim as possible.
He doesn’t just stand under the basket and swat shots. He’s learning the finer points of defensive positioning.
Now, in his breakout season, Gobert is a legitimate contender for three awards – Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player.
He might not win any, and two would be tough. Three would be unprecedented.
Just six players have won two of the major player awards – Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player – in the same season:
- Darrell Armstrong, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1999
- Hakeem Olajuwon, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1994
- Michael Jordan, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1988
- Alvin Robertson, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1986
- Wes Unseld, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1969
- Wilt Chamberlain, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1960
Can Gobert join that group?
Defensive Player of the Year
This is the award Gobert said he covets most of the three.
But he’s not holding his breath.
“To be honest and to be realistic, I think they’re going to put somebody who’s more exposed to TV,” Gobert said.
That might be true, though the seemingly popular leader for Defensive Player of the Year – Draymond Green – is an unconventional candidate who thrives because of his defensive versatility. If voters want a convention rim-protecting big man, Gobert makes a strong case.
The Jazz allow 100.0 points per 100 possessions when Gobert plays (equivalent of fifth in NBA) and 106.8 when he sits (28th).
He also leads the league in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim when he’s defending it (at least three shots defended at rim per game):
Serge Ibaka is another player who fits the Defensive Player of the Year archetype, and his name has been tied to the award for years. That familiarity is a disadvantage to Gobert.
More fairly, some of Gobert’s defensive success can be credited to playing with Derrick Favors. Favors, a more advanced defender, guards extremely well on the perimeter for a big man, allowing Gobert free reign in the paint. However, in the same sense, Gobert boosts Favors. Just because they work well in tandem – allowing 97.4 points per 100 possessions (equivalent of first in the league) when they share the court – doesn’t mean Gobert should be docked.
If these numbers aren’t your bag, just watch a Jazz game. Gobert’s defensive impact is easy to see.
This happens when he’s in the lane (hat tip: Mike Prada of SB Nation):
Want proof Gobert is correct about the lack of attention he receives? There wasn’t more outrage at Jazz coach Quin Snyder not using Gobert to defend the rim in that situation.
Sixth Man of the Year
Gobert is entrenched as a starter now – and likely for years to come.
But he already came off the bench in enough games, 45, to clinch his eligibility for this award.
No player currently eligible has produced more win shares than Gobert:
Most Improved Player
Many voters gripe about this award, complaining about a lack of clear criteria.
Do they honor a player who saw his role – and therefore numbers – increase or someone who actually got better?
Gobert checks both boxes.
The second-year center has progressed on both sides of the ball, but his growth offensively is especially impressive.
He has flashed a passing ability that was completely non-existent last season. He’s shooting 65.7 percent in the restricted area, up from 53.0 percent last season.
He runs the floor hard (ranking 18th of 400 eligible players in points per transition play finished) and finds space in the pick-and-roll (ranking 31st of 198 eligible players in points per roll play finished).
Joe Ingles has assisted Gobert more than anyone else, because Ingles has seemingly figured out he can throw the ball anywhere near Gobert’s general vicinity and Gobert will grab it. Even low passes have a way of finding their way into Gobert’s hands.
“He’s just kind of easy to play with, really,” Ingles said. “He’s so tall and stuff that when you play pick-and-rolls and stuff like that, it’s easy to find him. He gets to the right spot.”
All in all, no player has increased their win shares from last season more than Gobert (0.4 to 6.5)
Gobert’s improvement can be defined not just by how much he’s already done, but by how much untapped potential remains.
As much as Gobert helps the Jazz’s defense, their offense falls by about the same amount when plays. A key issue: Neither he nor Favors shoots well from outside.
How do you make that pairing work offensively?
“You just asked one of the hardest questions in coaching,” Snyder said, “and It’s how to space bigs in pick-and-roll. It’s why the league, over a period of time, is going to stretch bigs. It just makes the floor open. It’s easier. What you lack maybe in shooting range, you have to make up for with movement, screening, passing, different types of skill to occupy defenders. It’s just not easy. It’s not easy.”
That’s a frank answer, and there’s no disguising the challenge Utah faces. Favors has three seasons after this one remaining on his contract, and Gobert has two before he can become a restricted free agent.
So, no, this is hardly a perfect situation.
But as long as Gobert remains so committed to proving himself, bet on him figuring out how to make it work.