NBA Draft 2013: Rudy Gobert and the hazardous intrigues of potential

USA TODAY Sports

Rudy Gobert can nearly touch an NBA rim without jumping. It's part of what makes his potential as exciting as it is frightening.

CHICAGO -- The 2013 NBA Draft combine can be an overwhelming scene if you're the type of person who doesn't normally hang around the very wealthy, tall and powerful people that make up the NBA's elite. Seemingly every organization in the league is represented at Chicago's Attack Athletics on Thursday and Friday as this year's NBA hopefuls go through a variety of drills and testing under the watchful eyes of the people who will determine their draft day fate.

The sights and sounds at the West Side gym are something to behold. Turn left and you'll see Tom Thibodeau and Mike D'Antoni talking shop and laughing about who knows what. Turn right and there's Rick Carlisle and Zydrunas Ilgauskas doing the same thing. Rockets mastermind Daryl Morey is standing in the back staring at his cellphone, while Nuggets GM and reigning Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri chats off to the side with a media member. Scouts are there watching closely or not really watching at all. Media folk from every outlet imaginable are trying to position themselves in the press scrum to ask the draft hopefuls the same four questions everyone is going to ask.

The noise of it all can be a bit funny if you have a certain perspective, though few would question the value of the event itself. The reason all of these rich and highly-recognizable people are hanging out on the West Side of Chicago is clear: they want to find the next diamond in the rough, the next player that fits a specific need and can possibly turn a good team into a great one.

The reason they're all here can be generally summarized in one corner of the gym, where staff workers are placing the device used to measure vertical leap on an elevated riser.

However high the contraption goes, it doesn't reach high enough to capture the wonder of Rudy Gobert. After all, Gobert is measured to have a standing reach of 9'7. They might need to get a second riser.


Those in attendance at the combine are among the first Americans to watch Gobert, a 7'2 center from France, play. Well, "play" might be a bit much; the combine is really nothing more than a high school fitness test mixed in with some light shooting drills. But there's still a reason this gym has turned into such a who's-who, and Gobert is a large part of it, literally and figuratively.

You have never seen anything in your life like Rudy Gobert shooting jump shots. His torso is impossibly long, and when he bends his knees and elbows simultaneously to take a mid-range shot, he most closely resembles a 7-foot praying mantis flinging a ball toward the hoop. His stroke isn't exactly ugly, but it isn't exactly pretty; his shots go in more often than you might expect but still not terribly regularly.

More than anything, watching Gobert shoot while a crowd of famous faces look on gets you to wonder what they're thinking. An old cliche says you can't teach height, and it just might be the most accurate cliche of all. Running on a treadmill won't make you any taller, and this is Gobert's inherent advantage over his competition.

He seems fairly skilled? He seems to be moving pretty well? It's hard to say, really, as with everything at the draft combine when the athletes are facing little resistance to what they're trying to do.

You just can't help but wonder about the general managers watching this. Gobert is hardly the first large French man to have a wingspan of 7'9. Do you remember Alexis Ajinca? The Charlotte Bobcats do. They selected the French center No. 20 in 2008 NBA Draft.

Ajinca would play only 71 games in four seasons in the NBA, posting a career average of 3.1 points and 1.6 rebounds per game. The next six picks that followed Ajinca were Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee, Kosta Koufos, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum and George Hill.

It's tough to say if anyone remembers the wingspans of those six players, but it doesn't matter much in 2013. All six are cashing checks and are important parts of NBA rotations. Who knows what Alexis Ajinca is doing, but he certainly isn't in the NBA anymore.

"The strength and the height," Gobert says when asked about the biggest difference between playing in the French league and playing in the NBA. "NBA five men are way taller. In France, [centers are about] 6'9, maybe 7-foot. In the NBA, they're a lot stronger, but also have a lot more height."

Gobert is soft-spoken and polite and looks like he couldn't be happier to be where he is. He knows that so long as he proves he can run and jump without tripping over his own two feet, he'll soon be a multi-millionaire. He speaks English well enough, but it's still a bit hard to understand him at times.

No matter the accent, Gobert is still able to communicate his thoughts clearly. He's been training for seven hours a day in Paris, working on his post moves, his face-up shot and doing heavy strength training. He thinks it's important NBA executives see him at the combine so they know he's more of a man than a myth. He loves watching Pau Gasol play offense and Joakim Noah play defense. He's well aware his role at the next level will be that of a rim protector.

Batum, a fellow Frenchman, has been giving him advice throughout the process, but advice won't change certain things. It won't change that Gobert, at 20 years old, might be the rawest player in the draft. It won't change that Gobert is 7'2 with a 7'9 wingspan and a 9'7 standing reach.

Gobert finishes with a 25-inch standing vertical leap and a 29" running vertical leap, numbers ESPN's Chad Ford calls "not great." After one testing session, Gobert talks about the experience thus far.

"I think there's more pressure," Gobert says, when asked about the difference between American and international players at the combine. "I was one of the top players in the country in France. There's more competition here. You can see it."

General managers can see it, too, but Rudy Gobert has something his American counterparts do not. You can't teach height, and that fact will change Gobert's life forever.

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