Rudy Gobert further established himself as the best defensive basketball player on the planet on Monday night, garnering for the second year in a row the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award.
“I say this all the time,” Gobert said, the trophy secured on stage, thanking his coaches, his teammates, his mom, mixing in a little French, adding that he is most grateful. “It’s a team game.”
So, it is. A team game made a lot easier by a single defensive anchor.
Gobert’s award, which was not quite as shiny on this occasion as the blue suit he was wearing, symbolized what everybody already knew, and if they didn’t, they’re either suffering from some sort of twisted bias or they’re not paying attention.
If you were to commence the building of a basketball fortress, and had 50 large stones to set around the front door, your first would be Gobert. Rudy the Rock.
This is all reiteration, but … nobody has the effect on the guarding of the basket and the overall presence at the defensive end that the Jazz big man has. And the concrete evidence to which so many turn to determine such matters is blocked shots. Gobert did not lead the league in that realm this past season. He had 187, while Indy’s Myles Turner had 199.
But those numbers are somewhat misleading because Gobert, more than any other defender in the league, has raised his profile to the height where teams often do not even attempt to take the ball into the area of the court where he roams. That is a major advantage for the Jazz since the two sections of the floor from which NBA teams most frequently want to shoot is from the 3-point arc and the area around the hoop.
Gobert disrupts that last most-favored region in a profound way, so much so that he doesn’t get the same number of attempts at blocks as some others do. Sometimes, he’s forced to go hunting for them.
He is like a great NFL cornerback who gets a good number of interceptions, but not as many as others because quarterbacks don’t even look his way to try to complete passes. The reputation has already shut down that part of the field.
Gobert’s renown is grander than any other defensive player on any other team in the NBA or any other league in the world. His intercontinental reach extends not only over the court, but into the minds of most of the players he faces.
They know that he knows that they know that he knows he’s there.
That’s why you see, more than against any other player or team, opponents dribble in and around the space where Gobert looms, and then right back out again — search dribbles forever in search of a clearer path, a path where the long arm of Rudy’s law is not enforced.
It’s fascinating and fun to watch, really, an obvious mind-freak among top-level players that is easy to read, beyond the doubt and the double-clutching: Hell, no, I’m not getting my shot blocked by that dude. I’ll take the longer way home.
Nobody gains that kind of presence with mere dimensions, although Gobert’s 7-foot-nine-inch wingspan is among the most expansive ever measured in the NBA. It’s truly menacing when Gobert crouches down in that now-familiar stance, his knees bent, head up, his arms arched upward, extending like the wings of an Airbus 380 sitting on the runway ready for takeoff.
Gobert’s defensive mastery emanates just as much from his own mind and heart, from which emerges a combo-pack of pride and determination that there is no way on God’s green earth that an opponent is going to easily flip a shot up and over and through his territorial space.
That’s true on individual possessions and it’s true in the comprehensive.
There are times when Gobert gets beat, but usually that happens when somebody else’s defensive responsibility gets loose and forces the center to move into position to cut off that advance and then that offensive player drops a pass back to where Gobert’s resistance originated. He cannot guard everyone, everywhere on every trip. But he probably plays that dual role better than anyone else. The lack of anticipation, of lateral speed, that once vexed Gobert has been largely corrected. He’s worked hard on conditioning and strength and timing. There are lapses on occasion, some overeagerness, some hesitation, but not often.
His offensive game still needs work, especially to earn the super-max contract he stands to gain sometime in the future.
Back to the defensive mental prowess in its greater application. There is nothing more frustrating for NBA teams than when they know they can score, but they cannot get stops at the other end. Confidence comes from the certainly that those stops can be made, when necessary.
Gobert conjures that more than any player in the modern NBA.
That’s a source of team assuredness when the Jazz sometimes struggle on attack. When they got off to a slow start at the beginning of last season, Gobert was the one who stepped up and spoke out to diminish concerns and squelch even the initial sprouts of panic within the locker room that the team was in some kind of trouble.
“It’s going to come,” the Jazz’s supreme leader said. “I’m confident.”
Instead of shrinking away, Gobert talked about winning championships.
He said the same thing a couple of years earlier, when the Jazz lost Gordon Hayward in free agency. It was going to be all right. And just like he said, it was.
He added after the early slump last season: “We just have to watch the tape and see what we did good and improve what we didn’t do so good. We’ve got to trust each other and we’ll be fine. It’s going to come. I can feel it. We have guys who care.”
None of them cares more than Rudy Gobert.
That’s a big part — one that is difficult to stir in a player who lacks it — of why he’s the best defensive player around, and why everybody with eyes to see knows it.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.