There’s this idea among fans of the NBA that tall guys don’t have to work hard.
It’s an understandable notion, actually. There’s an oft-quoted analysis that, if you’re a 7-foot-tall American male between the ages of 20 and 40, there’s a 17% chance that you’re a current NBA player. Those numbers are a little dubious — for one, the author believed NBA players’ listed heights, before the “measure everyone in socks” days — but it’s true: if you’re tall, the chances of someone qualifying for the world’s best basketball league go way, way up.
The belief is especially true for non-skilled big men, enough that one of the most enduring topics of conversation in NBA circles is which guys don’t actually enjoy basketball that much. Anyone who is tall enough could just stand there and be a deterrent around the rim. Catch rebounds, set screens, get easy putbacks, get paid. What is there to practice?
Quite a lot, it turns out. And the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert might be the league’s best illustration of what changes when a big man tirelessly works on his very specific, very unsexy craft.
“Being as tall as I am, people think I’m just that,” Gobert said. “I’m blessed to be that tall, but there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that people don’t see.”
Little things and big things
The numbers are more ridiculous than ever. With Gobert on the court, the Jazz outscore teams by 20.6 points per 100 possessions more than when he’s off of it, per Cleaning The Glass. If the Jazz could always have Gobert out there, they’d be a 67-win team. Maybe the best way to break it down is with a list of everything that changes with Gobert on the floor.
Opposing offenses can’t get the shots they want. They can’t get layups (only 31% of opponent shots come at the rim with Gobert out there, 4th in the NBA), corner threes (5.9% of opponent shots, 3rd in the NBA), or regular threes (32.4% of opponent shots, 5th in the NBA). They can’t get to the free-throw line either (15.9 FTr, 2nd in the NBA). And when they do take shots, they’re more likely to miss. Gobert opponents shoot 4.5% worse at the rim and 2.4% worse from midrange because he’s around, and he contests the second-highest number of shots in the NBA.
“He does the little things and the big things on defense,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder explains.
The Jazz are the second-best defensive rebounding team in the NBA with Gobert out there. His backups — Ed Davis and Tony Bradley — are two of the best offensive-rebounding bigs on a per-minute basis in the league, and yet the Jazz still get a higher percentage of offensive boards when he’s on the floor.
Oh, and he’s the catalyst for the Jazz’s offense, too. The Jazz have a 115 offensive rating when he’s on the floor, which would be the second-best offense in the NBA. The Jazz get 7% more shots at the rim with Gobert on the floor, they shoot a ridiculous 41% from three, and become the league’s best half-court offense.
Screen assists have become a meme, but Gobert does indeed lead the league at those with 7.8 per game. He’s second in the league in rebounds, fourth in the league in blocks. He has the second highest shooting percentage in the NBA. And, if you like all-in-one stats, he’s third in the league in Win Shares.
Not coincidentally, Gobert has led the team he plays for to the third-best record in the league.
“Rudy may not be averaging as many points as someone else, but the points that he impacts for the team and shows itself in a lot of ways,” Snyder said. “It shows itself with no advanced metrics that aren’t really that hard to find. You know, NBA.com has them.”
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It’s all about the base
Gobert’s journey with assistant coach Alex Jensen started in 2013. That’s the year Gobert was drafted, but it’s also when Jensen was hired as a player development coach by the Jazz, fresh off being named the D-League’s Coach of the Year for his efforts with the Canton Charge. Jensen’s first project was Gobert.
The two men got to work first by strengthening Gobert’s base. Being 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan and a 9-foot-9 standing reach means that Gobert’s center of balance is going to be naturally higher than essentially every player he comes across. So to stay in position on both ends of the floor through contact, Gobert had to get stronger down low.
“To me it was just about being dominant. And I knew that I needed those things in order to be more efficient, to be more dominant,” Gobert said. “Having a strong base and being able to do the things that I do now, I think is what impacts the game in the biggest way.”
What was a weakness there has become a strength, as Gobert — this season especially — has been able to power through mismatches to get dunks on opponents. That’s been especially true in recent games — Gobert has averaged over 20 points per game in over the last five contests, largely thanks to his ability to punish defenders down low.
The other priority for Gobert early was his footwork. Running up to set screens, flipping a screen, maybe twice, then diving to the rim takes more balletic precision than it appears — until you watch a young big who hasn’t been taught those nuances. Being able to pivot, pumpfake, and then launch into a dunk. Or more recently, Gobert’s been seizing opportunities to get al the way to the rim from the perimeter with one or two bounces.
“The foundation of those things is this footwork. That’s really what it comes down to. But all the the fundamental tools that allow for that, are not things that suddenly appear, they’re a product of hard work," Snyder said. “You don’t oftentimes hear ‘Hey, let’s come in the gym and work on your footwork.'”
Gobert’s an exception.
Is this the year?
That work has been recognized. Gobert is the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time All-NBA selection, and is in the middle of a 4-year, $100 million contract.
But there is one honor he hasn’t received: an All-Star Game selection. Gobert wasn’t in the top 10 of the NBA’s fan voting among Western Conference frontcourt players, so he won’t be named as a starter. Once again, his fate will come down to the West’s coaches. They must select the seven All-Star reserves, voting two backcourt players, three frontcourt players, and two wild-card spots.
If you ask the media, they think Gobert is a lock. ESPN’s Zach Lowe picked him as a reserve lock, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck even selected Gobert among the West starters. But most expected Gobert to be named a reserve in 2018-19, and then, he famously was left off — despite actually leading the league in Win Shares.
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, one of those voters, legitimately seemed surprised to learn that Gobert hasn’t been an All-Star yet in his career — perhaps ironic, given the Warriors’ Draymond Green’s reaction to Gobert missing out last year. Kerr says his primary consideration is simple.
“I reward teams that have won, players that are playing on winning teams," Kerr said. “I think this year he’ll probably will have a better chance based on their success, but that’s without having really looked at the numbers yet.”
Gobert’s criteria — the players have a say in the All-Star starters — is similar. “I don’t care about how popular you are, how many followers you got. It’s all about winning to me.”
The All-Star reserves will be announced on Jan. 30, one week away; Gobert says that he’s less concerned about the outcome than last year. “Obviously, it would be would be weird [if I wasn’t selected],” Gobert said. “But, you know, as long as we keep winning, I’m fine.”
The work Gobert put in, in other words, wasn’t for an All-Star bid. He worked for something larger.
"After all the work we’ve put in and, you know, with the ups and downs, I really feel like it’s the best Utah Jazz team I’ve ever been a part of right now,” he said. “The goal is just to keep getting better — and have the team win at the highest level.”