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Rudy Gobert is revolutionizing the Utah Jazz

by Paul Flannery

(This article was originally published on Mar. 8, 2015)

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.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

"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.