Memphis, Tenn. • The finish is what gets your attention.
When Rudy Gobert rocks home a dunk, he puts a flourish on it — he wants everyone in the arena to feel the power of the slam. He’s had 99 dunks this year, and it’s been hard to miss any of them.
But there’s something the 25-year-old does that gets almost no attention, and usually it’s the exact thing that precedes his dunks: screening. Gobert quietly has become one of the best screeners in the NBA, and that’s opened up the Jazz offense — and his own game — in a way that’s hard for the layman to see sometimes.
“Screening is more of an art and a skill than people realize,” coach Quin Snyder said. “We assume screening is you just get there and get in the way.”
That’s not all it is. At least not to Gobert.
Snyder pointed out screening as something he could work on during the 2016 offseason. He already was tough to fight through given his immense 7-foot-1 frame, and his base was wide enough to give perimeter defenders problems.
What Snyder wanted him to do was learn to make reads, particularly determining whether the guy he was screening was going over or under. He wanted Gobert to learn timing to limit his fouls on offense. And he wanted, at some point, for Gobert to start making a second read on his own post defender — if he could get a clear path to the basket by making a quick roll out of his screen.
As seriously as he takes his defensive responsibilities, Gobert took to learning all he could about the thankless work of screening. He led the NBA the very next season in screen assists — screens that lead directly to baskets.
“It’s hard to guard,” he said. “When I set a screen, it puts pressure on the defense. And then when I roll, guys gotta make decisions. They gotta come in and help and open up at the three or leave me open and open up the lob or the offensive rebound. When I’m able to set a good screen and the guards know how to use it, it’s hard to guard.”
While he’s only played 39 games this season due to injury, Gobert still is leading the NBA in screen assists per game (5.8) over the Thunder’s Steven Adams (5.0). While he’s not the only strong screener on the team — Derrick Favors has 2.9 screen assists per game — he’s perhaps the screener in Utah’s pick-and-roll that creates the most conflict in defenders because of his ability to catch lobs. And Snyder said Gobert’s decision-making on his reads is improving, too.
How important is good screening to the Jazz? A February ESPN column citing Second Spectrum statistics (a subscription analytics service) reported the Jazz had set nearly 500 more on-ball picks than any other NBA team.
The pick-and-roll was run with devastating effectiveness with Joe Ingles against the Indiana bench Wednesday. No small part of that was Ingles himself — Pacers coach Nate McMillan said small forward Bojan Bogdanovic wasn’t used to guarding a player who can handle the ball like Ingles, and his ball fakes helped create moments of defensive hesitation that helped Gobert score 23 points and led to some layup attempts for himself.
While Ingles’ “Slo-Mo Joe” nickname sometimes is used derisively, his steady pace actually is ideal for the pick-and-roll.
“Joe especially in the pick-and-roll is really tough,” Donovan Mitchell said. “He runs it at such a slow pace that he can fake the big and get where he needs to get.”
Timing also is important for Gobert, who has learned how to work more in tandem with his guards. He doesn’t want them to rush into the pick. It’s better if they’re patient, allowing Gobert to get his feet down for a walloping screen.
Ahead of the Orlando Magic’s Monday game, coach Frank Vogel said his personnel would go over Gobert’s screen setting and advise his perimeter defenders: “Don’t get screened.” But you try getting around Gobert when he doesn’t want you to. The pick-and-roll helped lead to a 21-point night for the Stifle Tower.
Gobert led the NBA in blocks per game for the first time last season, and that helped him make his first All-NBA team. But while he’s already known as perhaps the best shot-blocker in the league, Gobert said he’d be equally proud to be known as the top screen-setter in the league — which, owing to his self-confidence, he already believes he is.
“You don’t see it on the stats, but it makes me happy when I set a screen and my guy gets a shot or we end up scoring,” Gobert said. “It makes you feel like you contribute.”
Feb 7, 2018 @ MEM; UTA 92, MEM 88BEST SCREENS
Rudy Gobert screens with the NBA’s best. Here are his screen assists the last two years, according to NBA tracking data.
2016-17 • 6.2 per game*
2017-18 • 5.8 per game*
* Led NBA
Jazz at Grizzlies
Where • At FedEx Forum, Memphis, Tenn.
Tipoff • 6 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 97.5 FM, 1280 AM
Records • Utah 35-30, Memphis 18-46
Last meeting • Feb 7, 2018 at Memphis; Utah 92, Memphis 88
About the Grizzlies • Memphis is expected to be without Mike Conley, Tyreke Evans, Andrew Harrison and Chandler Parsons. ... The Grizzlies have lost 15 straight games and are last place in the West. ... Memphis’ last home win was Jan. 29 over the Phoenix Suns.
About the Jazz • With 23 points and 14 rebounds, Rudy Gobert has recorded four straight double doubles. ... The Jazz have won a season-high nine consecutive games on the road. ... Joe Ingles is coming off his first regular season double-double (11 points, 10 assists) of his career.