Rudy Gobert isn’t to be confused with Knute Rockne. He’s not going to gather the Utah Jazz around him and hit them with a bunch of speeches.
At the same time, his standing for this season and going forward with the Jazz is clear: Gobert is Utah’s leader, on and off the court. With Gordon Hayward now in Boston, he’s the centerpiece of a franchise aiming for a second consecutive playoff appearance. And if the Jazz are to achieve this, they will get there largely on the back of Gobert, who on Monday’s media day looked physically bigger and stronger than he did in May.
This is what happens when you are an All-NBA center, one of the best defenders in the league and one of the most interesting Twitter follows, as Gobert is. From the moment Hayward left, the front office made it clear that the rebuild starts with its mammoth 7-foot-1 center, the one who will spearhead one of the best defensive units in the NBA.
“The thing we like about Rudy is that he has a tremendous amount of confidence in himself, and that he wants to get better,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “Part of his adaptation to being our leader is continuing to grow in his humility. Nobody wants to win more than Rudy does. But he’s someone who will continue to work to get better. That’s a great thing about him.”
Gobert’s career arc has been a meteoric one in the past three seasons, culminating in 2016-2017 when he was one of the best big men in the league. He averaged 14 points and 12.8 rebounds a game. He blocked 2.6 shots a game. He finished in the NBA’s top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Rudy Gobert update
• Is entering the first year of a four year contract extension
• Was a finalist last year for the NBA’s Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year
• Averaged 14 points and 12.8 rebounds a game last season
At the end of the year, a season in which the Jazz won 50 games and went to the second round of the playoffs, Gobert was a finalist for both the NBA’s Most Improved Player and for Defensive Player of the Year.
And yet, he largely did this in Hayward’s shadow. Last season was all about Hayward, and Utah’s ability to re-sign him. They couldn’t, as we all know, and now the spotlight is solely on Gobert.
“I have high expectations for us,” he said. “I think we have a very good team. We have guys that left and guys that came in. I think we all felt that way during the summer, and we still feel that way as we get into the preseason and the regular season. We’re going to want to play with and for each other.”
The torch was passed to Gobert officially in July. In truth, he’s been planting those seeds for the past two years. He’s always been one of the most publicly outspoken players on the team. He hasn’t been afraid to call a teammate out, and he’s willing to speak out on social and political issues.
But on the court, he’s the biggest communicator the Jazz have, especially defensively. He consistently shouts criticism and encouragement. He’s emotional on the floor, a trait borne from his competitiveness.
When Hayward left, Gobert made sure to tell anyone who would listen that the Jazz still possessed a playoff-worthy roster. When anyone questioned him on Hayward, he said he wanted to focus on the remaining guys.
Nationally, not as much is expected of the Jazz. Most prognosticators think they will fight for one of the last postseason spots. Many think they will fall out of the playoffs altogether. But Gobert’s made it clear he doesn’t feel that way.
“I think we’ve been overlooked since I’ve been here,” he said. “But that’s O.K. We have to focus on us. We have to go out there and compete. If we can do that, I think we can have a good season.”
In a year where Gobert may be looked upon for a more expanded offensive role, his offseason was about refining the things he does well, rather than attempting to add new wrinkles to his game.
He hit the weightroom hard, took boxing classes and worked on quickness and agility. He worked on being an even better free-throw shooter. And the hope is that a Gobert/Ricky Rubio pick and roll combination becomes lethal, which would potentially open up the Jazz offense and give it more options.
“I wanted to get better at the things I’m good at and keep improving,” Gobert said.
But what the Jazz really need is a backbone, physically and emotionally. A lot of it left physically with Hayward. But Gobert long ago said he’s ready to pick up the slack. Emotionally, the Jazz have more than one strong personality in their locker room. But only one is an All-NBA performer and still a few years away from the prime of his career.
Utah needs Rudy Gobert more than ever. He’s ready to deliver.