Rudy Gobert is known for believing in himself. He isn’t known for shying away from challenges.
Even keeping that in mind, this is still a whopper of a goal. After a morning practice session at training camp, Gobert told reporters that “I definitely want to be one of the best players in the history of the game.” He meant it, too.
Think about what that would mean: Gobert dominating not just stretches of games, but entire seasons. He’d have to lead the Jazz to at least the brink of a title, if not finally winning the whole enchilada. A Gobert statue would be erected outside of Vivint Arena, and probably another one placed in his hometown of Saint-Quentin, France. French tourists would come to Salt Lake City to see one, Utahns would travel to France to see the other.
We’re pretty far away from that, yes. But Gobert’s lofty sights are a natural extension of his philosophy toward limitations in general. In 2013, Gobert heard general managers writing him off as too skinny and unathletic to succeed after posting iffy combine numbers. In 2014, the Jazz sent Gobert down to the G League, his playing time limited by Enes Kanter and Andris Biedrins.
Gobert blew those expectations away. He chose No. 27 as a daily reminder of all of the players who were selected before him in the draft, and he says he can name every one of them. He dominated his stint in the G League, then outplayed the Gasol brothers and Spain in European basketball, then stole the Jazz’s starting center spot in 2015 and quickly became Utah’s most impactful player.
So in 2018, when there are commentators calling him “one-dimensional,” his unique game Utah’s ‘Achilles heel,’” Gobert feels pretty confident in his ability to prove those people wrong. And when you don’t believe in any limitations, “one of the best players in the history of the game” is the logical conclusion.
“I think I haven’t scratched the potential that I can have and the things I can do on both ends,” Gobert said. “I feel like this year is going to be my best year so far.”
Gobert isn’t entitled, though: he knows that greatness only comes with a lot of work. To address his offensive deficiencies, he worked extensively on his footwork, his finishing around the rim and even his jump shot this offseason.
Opponents could really reduce Gobert’s effectiveness in seasons past by preventing him from facing and rolling the rim, but he’s trying to develop counters to that: a quick hook shot if he happens to have his back to the basket, and a not-exactly-deft but still effective floater if he’s stopped short. And yes, if the situation requires, a mid-range jumper to hold up his end of the offensive bargain.
Improving his strength was also a big focus of Gobert’s offseason: bumps impacted Gobert’s lanky frame more than most players, so his effective finishes in practice can become ineffective in game traffic. With more lower body and core strength, he’s hoping to be more sturdy, to be able to handle more contact.
For what it’s worth, he also says that the lower body work he’s done has made him a quicker player on the perimeter, for when the league’s elite role players force the Jazz into a switch.
“I’m 7-1, it’s always going to be different for me to guard a guy like Chris Paul or James Harden. I think I’m quicker than I was last year,” Gobert said. “I don’t think it’s easy for those guys to score on me either. They’re going to hit some stepback threes, but that’s going to happen on anyone anyway. Make them hit the shots and see if they can hit them all game.”
That introduces a potential roadblock to Gobert’s plans of greatness: what if the Houston Rockets’ backcourt, or, maybe more likely, Golden State’s superteam, just prove too much for Utah to beat? Without the highest level of success, Gobert can’t be considered one of the NBA’s historic elite. Would he consider being the final piece of a team’s puzzle elsewhere to achieve his goals?
Gobert shrugged that idea off at media day Monday. "Everyone’s different. I take a lot of pride of when you build something. I'd rather do it the hard way than do it the easy way,” Gobert told 1280 AM. “It's not just getting a ring, because if I just want to get a ring I just go the jewelry store and get a ring. What’s most important is the story behind it.”
With three more years on his $100 million contract with the Jazz, it’s not as if Gobert’s departure was imminent anyway. But as much as he believes in himself, he believes in the overall program — in Quin Snyder, in Donovan Mitchell, in Dennis Lindsey — to do what’s never been done in Utah before, even if it’s not this season. There’s only one way for Gobert to achieve his goals, and that’s to win at an unassailable level.
“To me, winning is the thing that matters the most. There’s a lot of things you can’t show on the stats that impact your team in a positive way. A lot of people have good stats but impact their team in a negative way,” Gobert said. “Winning is the most important.”