Coming soon in 2016: Rudy Gobert.
"We can definitely use him right now," Jazz forward Trevor Booker said. "He's a big part of our team. As soon as he gets back, the better it is for us."
It has been a month now since Gobert injured his left knee during practice and the Jazz center appears to be on track for his return in the next couple of weeks, though no official timetable is in place. Even so, the sight of his progress has been heartening for a team hit hard by injuries of late.
"I think it's always hard to gauge where [he is in his recovery], but just seeing him out on the court" is meaningful, Jazz coach Quin Snyder said on Thursday. "It's hard right now without [Gobert and forward Derrick Favors] and without [shooting guard Alec Burks] now. So anything that can give our team some sense of, 'Hey, let's keep grinding.'"
The Jazz were still trying to find their groove and recapture some of the success they tasted at the end of last season, when Gobert went down. The last game he played was a hard-fought loss to the reigning champions Golden State, and the Jazz's play that night had Gobert confident "that we can be great. Not good — great."
But at practice on Dec. 2, Gobert was standing underneath the basket when a teammate fell into his legs. Gobert was diagnosed with a grade-2 sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, an injury that wouldn't require surgery but would likely sideline him for the next six to eight weeks.
A full month has passed, and indications at present point to Gobert being at the shorter end of that timeline.
The 15 games he has missed to date, meanwhile, have helped crystalize how important the defensive-minded center is to the Jazz's success. The Jazz were 8-8 when Gobert went down with his knee injury. They have gone 6-9 since. In December, the Jazz were the fifth-worst defense in the league, according to NBA.com.
"In a lot of ways, he was who gave them their defensive identity," Portland coach Terry Stotts said prior to tipoff between the Jazz and the Trail Blazers on New Year's Eve. "That's where they made their mark at the end of last season, was being an excellent defensive team and he was a part of that. I'm not saying they aren't now, but he certainly was a big part of that."
Throughout his rehabilitation, Gobert has remained an active participant to the extent that he can. He's worked on his shooting. He's traveled to every away game. He sits behind the bench and offers advice to his backup.
Whenever Gobert does finally return, the Jazz expect a readjustment period as the center, who will likely have to play in a knee brace for most — if not the remainder — of the season, finds his rhythm and his fitness.
But having him on the court is better than the alternative.
"I think everybody can't wait until Rudy comes back," point guard Raul Neto said. "But he's just got to take his time. He doesn't have to hurry up and come back early and get injured again. Now it's about when he feels comfortable to come back."
On Thursday, when the Jazz handily beat Portland at home, Snyder praised his squad's fight despite the absence of Gobert, saying he didn't want his team to think "we're just going to wait around until Rudy gets back. This team hasn't done that."
"At the same time," he added, "it will be good to see Rudy back in uniform when it happens."