When Rudy Gobert came to Utah from his native France, he didn’t always know what to say.
Yes, he wanted more than anything to prove himself in the context of the NBA, to prove the doubters wrong, to outperform the No. 27 draft selection he wears on his back every night.
But there was a certain reality to his situation. In his rookie season, he was, at best, the Jazz’s third center behind both Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, and fought for minutes with a frightfully poor Andris Biedrins. He found himself playing for the Bakersfield Jam of the D-League. In that context, it’s hard to find a voice on the floor.
And then there was the simple logistical truth of adapting to his new home in Utah and a new language, in english.
“Communication and talk in general, it’s a skill. It’s easier for some people than others," said Quin Snyder, who has now been Gobert’s coach for five seasons. "I think in Rudy’s case, coming over from France, english being his second language, there was just a comfort level that he achieved more and more in communicating in every way.”
Snyder helped Gobert blossom by generating belief in him after that rookie season. Inspired by Gobert’s international play, Snyder came into his first season as coach telling Gobert that he was going to be a huge part of what he had planned, even though he had played only nine minutes per game the season before.
Some of what was necessary was learning Snyder’s “unique” defensive vocabulary.
“When you come into a system, you have to know what you’re saying in order to communicate, you don’t need gibberish. Rudy’s gotten better and better at talking, and being involved in so many plays on the defensive end,” Snyder said.
By last season, Gobert proved himself: the runaway winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award despite playing in only 56 games for the league’s No. 1 defense. He started last season as the team’s undisputed biggest star, and even after the arrival of Donovan Mitchell, Gobert’s personality shone through. During last year’s playoffs, he was the biggest factor in stifling then-reigning MVP Russell Westbrook to an average series, frustrating the Oklahoma City Thunder on the way to a six-game series win.
2018-19 has been harder than the Jazz expected, but after a slow defensive start to the season, they’re starting to get it together again. That effort begins with Gobert, and his teammates have noticed.
“He’s scary now, I like it. He’s back to being scary. He’s playing with a lot of heart. He’s turned it up emotionally, screaming and yelling,” teammate Donovan Mitchell said. “He’s back to the Rudy I knew."
Whether it’s the trust he’s earned from his coworkers, the Defensive Player of the Year trophy earned from media voting, the long-term contract he’s signed, or just the familiarity and comfort earned from having lived in Utah for six years, know this about Gobert: he’s still as proud as ever, but he now finds that pride in the success of his team.
After spending his first few years working to maximize communication in himself, now he’s asking more from his teammates. “I’m trying to push the other guys to communicate more. I’m always communicating, but helping to communicate is a big thing. And for a lot of guys, it’s not natural. I’m trying to help make it natural for them,” Gobert said. He knows what that’s like, after all.
That’s not to say that Gobert has been completely happy with his own play this season. When asked about the Jazz’s defensive struggles early in the year, Gobert took ownership. “It’s about, first of all, me being better defensively.” But he followed that up with the impact his play has on his teammates: when he plays well, it gives the team confidence.
"When he’s dominant, you feel confident on defense, knowing any mistake you make, he’s going to clean it up,” Mitchell said.
This past week, the communication problem for Gobert has been that he’s simply talking too much — this time, about the refereeing. But it’s telling — no pun intended — that he’s asking for respect for his teammates as well as himself.
“They can’t be deciding the issue of a game just like that. If you call a foul on the play on D. Wade, Donovan got pushed harder right before. And he’s not Dwyane Wade, it’s fine,” Gobert said in Miami. “But just respect us, as competitors, as players.”
Gobert was fined $15K by the league for his comments. Snyder offered to split the fine with him, because he was stepping up and saying something that the whole team believed in.
Gobert’s demonstrative attitude two games later against Houston was potentially more impactful to his team than $15K, though. After slapping items off the scorers' table just 2:47 into the nationally-televised game, Gobert found himself watching the game in the locker room. Afterwards, he was contrite about what he’d done, but mostly for what it had meant for the Jazz as a whole. "I need to be smarter,” Gobert said. “It didn’t cost the team tonight, but losing me in the first quarter is not the smartest thing to do.”
The Jazz did beat the Rockets, and the Plan B center tandem of Derrick Favors and Ekpe Udoh stepped up in a big way. But the Jazz know they’re at their best when Gobert is a dominating presence, the one who sets the tone for the whole squad.
“I liken it to a middle linebacker,” Snyder said. "Think about Ray Lewis and the way he talked. I don’t know that Rudy is Ray Lewis, but that’s not bad to aspire to.”
JAZZ VS. SPURS
At AT&T Center, San Antonio
Tipoff • Sunday, 5:00 p.m. MST
TV • AT&T SportsNet
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 13-13; Spurs 11-14
Last meeting • Jazz, 139-105 (Dec 4)
About the Jazz • Jazz have won four of their last five games, and are 3-1 since acquiring Kyle Korver ... Team defense has recovered to 10th in the league ... Jazz rank third in the league at free-throw rate and seventh in the league at 3-point rate
About the Spurs • Pau Gasol and Dejounte Murray will still be out for San Antonio due to a foot stress fracture and a ACL tear, respectively ... DeMar DeRozan leads the Spurs, scoring 24.3 points per game ... Spurs rank 29th in the league defensively