Do you like dunks? If so, just watch Utah Jazz games.
It’s early yet, but the Jazz are leading the league in terms of the percentage of shots that get hammered down. Nearly one in 10 — 9.9 percent — of the Jazz’s shots have been dunks this season.
The team’s most prolific dunker, of course, is Rudy Gobert, who has 28 already. If you stretch that out to a full 82-game season, it would result in 382 dunks. That’d be, by some distance, the greatest dunking season ever recorded. The NBA has only tracked dunks separately since 2000, but the highest total since then was Dwight Howard’s 2007-08 season, when he dunked 269 times.
Gobert “only” slammed it down 151 times last season, which was still good for sixth in the league. Gobert regressed from the previous year, when he had 235. It was the product of a shortened year (he only played 56 regular-season games) and a developing relationship with the team’s ballhandlers: George Hill and Gordon Hayward were better lob-throwers than Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell.
But knowing that there was room for improvement caused Quin Snyder and his staff to imagine a more efficient offense built on easier finishes around the rim. As a result, they put in a new emphasis during the team’s training camp period: throw the ball high, where only the Jazz big men can get it.
“When you have the length that Rudy has or [Derrick Favors] has, their ability to stretch out, and catch those passes and finish, it just makes sense to try and get the ball up in the air,” Snyder said.
As a result, “high passes” has become a mantra. Perhaps no phrase has been uttered more by the players in media scrums this year, and you get the sense that it’s the result of Snyder’s repetition on the practice court and in the film room.
With that repetition has come improvement from the Jazz’s ballhandlers who have a better idea where Gobert and Favors like the pass thrown. In his career, Rubio had primarily worked with pick-and-pop bigs — think Kevin Love or Karl-Anthony Towns — or mostly ground-bound rolling centers — the Gasol brothers. Gobert’s vertical presence was a new thing for Rubio, and you got the sense of that throughout last season, where Rubio might miss where Gobert was going badly.
“It’s not as simple as just throwing it up — those guys have to set up their passes and make the right reads,” Snyder said.
Now, Rubio and the rest of the Jazz’s ballhandlers and Gobert are connecting with regularity, lighting up a lot of highlight reels so far this season. Check out how Rubio throws this pass much more in line with Gobert’s movement, and in a place where only he can get it, even though the New Orleans defense knows what’s coming.
Another factor at play here: Gobert’s improved lower-body strength. He made core and leg strength a big part of his offseason workouts, knowing that he got bumped off the ball around the rim at times. Last season, some dunking opportunities turned into 50/50 layups. This season, they’re being flushed down for two points. He’ll still look awkward around the rim in traffic at times; his center of mass is much higher than most players he plays against. But workouts have clearly improved how Gobert can hang down low. That development fits his goals: remember, Gobert wants to be “one of the best players in the history of the game.”
Becoming the most prolific dunker in the modern era wouldn’t be a bad start.