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Paul Flannery | March 8, 2015

Sunday Shootaround

Rudy Gobert is revolutionizing the Utah Jazz

Rudy Gobert is revolutionizing the Utah Jazz

BOSTON -- Rudy Gobert stands out even in the impossibly strange genetic environment of pro basketball. Listed at 7’2 with a 7’9 wingspan and a preposterous standing reach of 9’7, he appears even taller and longer in person, which is both frightening and fascinating. The fear manifests itself in all the would-be scorers who stay as far away from the paint as possible. What’s fascinating is that like Anthony Davis, young Rudy grew up on the perimeter as a guard.

While not as as skilled as AD, Gobert is a willing and surprisingly deft passer, which suggests that he’s barely scratching the surface of his developing skill set. His length forces even the most graceful opponents into awkward moments of indecision, but Gobert is surprisingly nimble. (He also tried his hand at boxing when he was younger, which helps explain his coordination and tenacity -- his "spirit," as he refers to it. "I had too much energy when I was young," he says with a laugh.)

A teenage growth spurt made him a prospect and he first gained notice as an 18-year-old on the French national team. It was during last summer’s FIBA World Cup in Spain when he became a phenom. Playing without Tony Parker and Joakim Noah, Gobert dominated Spain defensively in a stunning quarterfinal upset.

"I think I earned a little bit of respect from the world of basketball," Gobert says. "It just gave me an opportunity. I learned playing against the best. I learned and it gave me confidence. That was my first real game against big competition and a very good team. One of the best in the world. That was a great opportunity to prove myself."

Things just seem to have a way of developing rapidly for Gobert. A late first-round pick by the Jazz in 2013, he was little more than an occasional League Pass curiosity as a rookie. That changed under first-year coach Quin Snyder, who has plugged him into the rotation. A trade deadline deal that sent Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City opened up a starting spot next to Derrick Favors, and suddenly Gobert became a cornerstone on the league’s most improbable second-half success story.

The numbers are staggering. Utah has the league’s top defense since February, allowing just 95.7 points per 100 possessions according to nba.com/stats, shaving almost nine points per 100 possessions from its previous total. Since the Kanter trade, the Jazz have allowed just 89.3 points per 100 possessions. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that ranked dead last defensively the previous season.

Even with a limited offensive game, Gobert is averaging 11 points and 14 rebounds while shooting over 57 percent since moving into the starting lineup. His star has risen so quickly that the Jazz are taking extra care to point out that their defense started picking up before the trade and that it’s a collective effort that features -- among others -- Favors and rookie point guard Dante Exum.

"His presence helped to accelerate the process of us beginning to identify with defense," Snyder says. "That said, whether it’s Dante or Fave or Gordon (Hayward) or Eli (Millsap) or Rodney (Hood), we’ve had so many guys that have really bought into that end of the floor. What he does is unique. He gives guys confidence, but there is so much more to that whole group than just Rudy. I’m really proud of what these guys have put into it. We’re still so young but I think you are seeing the beginning of a team that says, ‘Hey this is how we can be successful.’"

Utah won five of its first six games after the All-Star break, and was well on its way to winning again on Wednesday in Boston before the Celtics stole a victory with a last-second play that had Gobert stranded between his head and his heart. He wanted to be close to the basket to protect the rim. Snyder wanted him on the ball to disrupt the inbound pass, as he’s done routinely in those situations. Gobert wound up somewhere in the middle, which allowed Marcus Smart to lob a perfect inbound pass over his outstretched arms to Tyler Zeller for a layup at the buzzer.

Two things stand out about the play. One, it was a great play call from Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Two, Gobert almost blocked Zeller’s shot anyway. His play that night had opponents shaking their heads.

"The number one thing I walk out of here with is, damn, their defense is good," Stevens said. "Like, that’s an outstanding defense, and it’s got the potential to be an outstanding defense for a long time, with that length."

Could it be that after living in the shadows of the Stockton-Malone juggernaut for so long, the Utah Jazz are finally finding themselves again as a dominant defensive team?

"There’s a process of gaining an identity," Snyder says. "That’s the challenge for us. That identity is starting to evolve. It started out for us a team that was really unselfish and moved the ball offensively. My strong belief is when you play that way on offense, it leads to good team defense."

With seven rookies on its roster, Utah is the second youngest team in the league after Philadelphia. Unlike the 76ers, the Jazz have been building the foundation for half a decade. The rebuilding process began in 2011 when the team dealt franchise point guard Deron Williams to the Nets in exchange for Favors and draft picks. The Jazz stayed competitive for a time with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, but went into a full overhaul after the 2013 season when the duo left in free agency.

Under general manager Dennis Lindsey and senior vice president Kevin O’Connor, the Jazz have stockpiled players in the draft. They added Hayward in 2010 with Kanter and Alec Burks arriving the following year. Trey Burke and Gobert were selected in 2013 with Dante Exum and Rodney Hood added last summer. If you include Favors, who was acquired midway through his rookie season, the Jazz started the season with six recent lottery picks. Snyder has coached this team with their youth in mind with extended shootarounds and film sessions.

"The way that we’ve gone about our development process is probably unique," he says. "I won’t say it’s collegiate but even as the season has progressed I’ve adjusted how we coach them and how we practice. We try to squeeze every little bit out of every minute.

There have been positive signs under Snyder, but until this point it wasn’t clear how this group of players was going to mesh long-term. That’s where Gobert’s emergence manifests itself in all kinds of ways.

While the Favors-Kanter tandem was productive offensively, it allowed 110 points per 100 possessions. Gobert and Favors allow a shade over 98 points per 100 possessions. Gobert’s emergence has been a boon for Favors, who was already in the midst of his most productive season as a pro. Since the trade, Favors is averaging 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds, while shooting over 57 percent from the floor.

"If he was playing against bigger guys at the center positions -- there’s a lot of really big centers in the West -- his advantage was his quickness," Snyder says. "Now he’s got a different type of mismatch where he’s playing against guys he can overpower. The big thing with Derrick has been his ability to defend on the perimeter. A lot of times when you have a big lineup you give something up on the defensive end and his ability to guard smaller guys have been crucial to allowing me to use those guys together like we have been."

The issue is spacing on the offensive end of the floor. Gobert’s range is limited and while Favors has shot better from the perimeter, he’s not a stretch four in the traditional sense. The obvious parallel is Memphis, but Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are both superior offensive players and there’s no one in the backcourt equal to Mike Conley. That made Utah’s win in Memphis (albeit without Z-Bo) earlier this week even more impressive. The Jazz simply out-Grizzed the Grizz.

"I think we’re just learning, playing together," Gobert says of his pairing with Favors. "We all know we can play very good with each other. We just have to learn how to space offensively and how to pass to each other. We don’t shoot threes. It still can be a strength because we’re good on the post and put pressure on the rim. We just have to learn how to space and be in the right spot."

That’s the next step for Utah. Outside of Hayward, who is also having a breakthrough season, the Jazz lack outside shooting on the perimeter and playmaking in the backcourt. That brings us to Exum, the 19-year-old rookie guard from Australia who moved into the starting lineup in late January on the strength of his defense. That has been its own revelation. Exum’s scouting profile suggested an athletic scoring guard. His defensive acumen wasn’t just a question mark, it was a total mystery.

"When we watched tape of Dante before the draft one of the questions that we had was can he defend at all? Because he didn’t. He just kind of hung out," Snyder says. "I’m not (surprised), having gotten to know him for two reasons. One: his frame, his length makes him unique. He’s different. It’s hard to measure that until you play against him. The other thing, I think Dante is trying to contribute any way he can. He’s figured it out."

Snyder is not overly concerned with Exum’s offense at this point, considering his age, talent and work ethic, as well as his team’s emerging identity.

"You can extrapolate when someone has an approach or the way they go about their craft, you can see that applied to other things," Snyder says. "It would be logical to think, ‘Hey if he goes about this the same way, it’s a matter of time before you see the same type of improvement.’ There’s only so many things you can improve on at once. This right now, frankly, is the priority for our team."

This is shaping up to be a crucial offseason for the Jazz, but not in the traditional manner of acquisitions and roster shuffling. After years of nondescript play and mediocre results, there is a clear path toward competitiveness. Now the onus is on the players already on hand to work on their games and create an offensive framework to match the defensive foundation. Out of nowhere, the Utah Jazz are both frightening and fascinating and there is suddenly no limit to their potential.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

The 2013 draft was supposed to be one of the worst in history, but it’s not just Gobert who is causing a re-evaluation. Here are five members of the class who are doing their part to distance themselves from comparisons to the notoriously weak 2000 class.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: Until Gobert’s emergence, the Greek Freak was the 2013 draft’s best hope for the future and he still might be. A year and half into his career, we still have no idea what he might eventually become, but we’ve received a few more clues under first-year coach Jason Kidd, who has used him just about everywhere. Giannis has taken far fewer threes this season, but has been a force around the basket. He also guards everyone, which makes him a special kind of matchup nightmare.

Alex Len: Injuries cost him most of his rookie season and now that he’s healthy, we’re starting to see why Suns general manager Ryan McDonough took him over Nerlens Noel. The Suns are better defensively when Len is on the court and his skill level suggests that his offensive game will develop in time. As the Suns make sense of a roster that was partially blown up at the trade deadline, the 21-year-old Len is part of a new core that includes Eric Bledsoe, Markieff Morris and Brandon Knight.

Victor Oladipo: The point guard experiment has been mercifully curtailed with rookie Elfrid Payton on hand, which has allowed Oladipo to find his true path as a guard. Full stop. Since Payton was inserted into the starting lineup in late December, Oladipo has averaged 19 points per game. He’s also seen a nice uptick in his shooting percentage, and a drop in turnovers. Oladipo’s defensive potential has been evident since his days at Indiana, but his growth has been obscured by the Magic’s porous play on that end of the court.

Nerlens Noel: This is really Noel’s rookie season as he missed all of last season with injuries and so far he’s been a disruptive defensive presence, as advertised. Noel is a shot-blocking machine and a force on the boards, who has the quickness to guard players on the perimeter and the timing to force steals. The big question for the Sixers is how he’ll fit with Joel Embiid when this year’s injured rookie big man project is able to take the court.

Ben McLemore: How’s this for improvement: As a rookie, McLemore averaged 8.8 points per game with an unsightly .485 True Shooting Percentage. In his second season, he’s averaging 12 points per game with a more respectable .559 True Shooting Percentage. He’s taking more shots from behind the arc and converting at a 36 percent clip. The Kings have a lot of issues to sort through, but they may have found their answer at shooting guard.

Note: There were at least a dozen other players from this class who could have merited notice, so save your outrage and let’s check back in a few years when this class is fully developed.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Understanding the locker room

Sarah Kogod talked to Michele Roberts about her media comments in what was a good, informative discussion. I’ll add that if Roberts’ perception of locker room working conditions is New York and the All-Star game then a tour around the league would be a very good idea.

The Terminator

Remember when people would debate you about whether Russell Westbrook was really a top-10 player? Yeah, that’s over now. Zito Madu on the rise of the unstoppable force that Russell Westbrook has become.

The failures of Brian Shaw

Brian Shaw’s tenure in Denver was not pretty and Mike Prada has the gruesome details. (Also have to agree with Kevin Garnett’s assessment that the team quit on Shaw. Just a bad fit all the way around.)

A true minor league

Tom Ziller presented a plan to expand rosters and make the D-League a more viable minor league. Lot of good points here.

There are no favorites

Hawks, Warriors or the field? Ziller and I discussed who’s really the favorite and why we’re skeptical of the top seeds.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"I know it's tempting with where we are to say let's go for it. But my goal has never been to put a team that can just make the playoffs and get our ass kicked in the first round. We want to build something more sustainable." -- Suns GM Ryan McDonough.

Reaction: The Suns are in an interesting position. They’re good enough to be a playoff team with an improving young core of players, but the roster isn’t finished yet. The Goran Dragic trade was made under duress but might wind up being the kind of thing we look back on in five years as a pivotal moment in their evolution.

"I’ve been through a lot of tough challenges in my career. Right now, this is up there." -- Spurs guard Tony Parker to Yahoo’s Marc Spears about his balky hamstring.

Reaction: Just when you’re ready to write them off, the Spurs put together a modest winning streak and make you think that just maybe they can pull it all together again this spring. And yet, they’ve played a LOT of basketball the last few years. Even with Gregg Popovich’s rest plan all those minutes take a toll eventually.

"It’s funny, people always say, 'Build your brand,' but a lot of times when people focus on building your brand it's not authentic, it’s not real. It’s just doing whatever you've got to do to build this foundation, to build this platform, and gain a following. For me, I think it’s been so easy because I’ve only been myself. It means something to me to do stuff for your community, to do stuff for others. I like to bring others up. That’s always been a part of who I am." -- Blazers guard Damian Lillard.

Reaction: I was at dinner with a bunch of writers who cover the league last week and someone asked which NBA player has the best marketing? The entire table in unison answered, ‘Dame.’ The reason is right there in his quote to USA Today’s Sam Amick. Lillard may never be the league’s biggest star, but he might be the most authentic.

"We have a lot of unselfish guys and we have a lot of guys that are just wanting to win. And we're at all different parts of our careers, but when you have everybody with the common goal of winning, it doesn't really matter how we get there. I want Shaun (Livingston) to play well, I want Klay (Thompson) to play well because that makes everybody play better. We've had guys that have been on teams that have had great stats, but not won. And we've had guys who have had limited roles on winning teams. Everybody brings something to the table. In that regard, it makes us go. It makes us click every single night." -- Warriors guard Stephen Curry in a terrific interview with our old pal James Herbert.

Reaction: One of the most interesting subplots of the postseason is whether Golden State can make it through the Western Conference gauntlet without a true low-post scoring option. Those of us who love their fluid game are silently rooting for them to prevail, if only to prove that there are many ways to build championship teams in this day and age.

"I probably should have been dead. But this is the truth: I never had a bad day. Never. Never said, ‘Why me?’" -- TNT's Craig Sager.

Reaction: Welcome back, Sages. The league wasn’t the same without you.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

MVP! MVP! MVP!

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.

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