Rudy Gobert’s strut is distinctive: He holds his head high, his arms sway like willow branches, and he covers great swaths of ground with every step. It’s a confident walk — one that says he always knows where he is going.
That’s Gobert in a nutshell: He’s purposeful, and he’s not easily prone to doubt.
So as he surveyed the visiting locker room in Atlanta back in January, with a towel wrapped around his neck and ice bags resting on his knees, the 7-foot-1 center took stock of his team. The Jazz had just suffered arguably their worst loss of the season to the bottom-of-the-standings Hawks and had fallen to 19-28 for the season.
He felt frustrated. But then he looked at how many games were left: enough to evolve.
“It’s only brighter from that point,” Gobert said. “I looked at our team, our organization, and I thought, ‘Why not turn things around?’ We were 19-28, but we had everything in our hands. We knew we were going to turn.”
At that moment, the low point in the season, most would probably have not guessed that the turnaround was coming. It did. The Jazz finished out the season 29-6, bested only by the NBA-leading Houston Rockets, while dominating opponents with by far the best night-in-and-night-out defensive performance in the league.
It might not be quite right to say Gobert — considered a leading candidate for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award despite playing in just 56 games — carried the Jazz to that unlikely finish. A finish he foresaw that day in Atlanta, when he famously tweeted: “We will be fine.” But in so many ways, the 25-year-old defensive force was the binding ingredient in the run that caught the rest of the NBA by surprise.
It did not surprise Gobert. He decreed from the first day of training camp that the Jazz would be back in the playoffs and could be the best defense in the league — even after losing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward to Boston in free agency. The Jazz, who finished just a hair behind those same Celtics at the top of the NBA’s regular season defensive ratings, damn near fulfilled his prophecy.
But, just as important, he brought an attitude to work that was contagious: serious and ferociously competitive on the court, but upbeat and fun-loving off. That spirit permeated the locker room during Utah’s storied late-season blitz.
“He’s lighthearted, having fun — every day is a good day,” rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell said of Gobert’s locker room influence. “It carries with you on the court. You’re always happy. You’re always excited.”
The on-court influence of Gobert is undisputed. With him on the floor, the Jazz allowed just 97.7 points per 100 possessions. Without him, that rose to 105 points. That can be largely attributed to a defense in which Gobert is the centerpiece.
His 7-foot-9 wingspan doesn’t just lead him to 2.3 blocks per game, but it’s also the most powerful shot deterrent in the NBA. Many of the league’s best drivers simply pull up well shy of where Gobert can contest them, or choose not to shoot at all. The most important stat of all is well in Gobert’s favor: The Jazz are 37-19 with him in the lineup.
But Gobert brings other factors to the table that are underappreciated, perhaps none more so than his communication. While Gobert had a limited appreciation for American football growing up in France, Jazz coach Quin Snyder likes to compare him to middle linebackers like Mike Singletary or Ray Lewis — players who commanded from the middle of the gridiron. Gobert plays the same role on the basketball court.
“When he’s verbal and he’s engaged, that’s how he holds guys accountable,” Snyder said. “Because he’s talking to them, and you get that communication and dialogue. And that’s really the glue that makes a defense work.”
Nothing has been more personally challenging to Gobert than learning how to exert that same influence when he couldn’t play.
Since Hayward left for Boston, Gobert has been considered the leader in the Jazz locker room. But two knee injuries — to different knees in the span of just a month — were a huge roadblock for a player who believes he can change games simply by being on the court.
The second knee injury in December, which caused him to miss 15 games, was Gobert’s personal low point, he said. He watched from the bench, wearing colorful custom suits as the Jazz went 4-11 during the toughest part of their schedule. He fretted that the injury would take too long to rehab. But it tested a Gobert virtue that he doesn’t often exercise: patience.
“As a competitor, it’s always hard to watch from the sideline,” Gobert said. “But watching them every night really gave me the motivation. When I came back, I really felt like we could do something special.”
That has come to pass — as has another Gobert prophecy: He said after a win in Toronto in January that he wanted the Jazz to be the best defense for the remainder of the season, and Utah has achieved that by a long shot.
It hasn’t stopped questions about what Utah, the fifth seed against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, will be able to achieve in the playoffs. To some basketball observers, Gobert is a throwback — a nonshooting big man who isn’t able to stretch the floor or defend at the perimeter in an era that values both of those things.
Gobert’s response is predictable: He hopes they keep doubting him. That never has stopped him from reaching his goals before.
“Anything is possible,” he said. “Around the league, they’re gonna respect us. We have to believe in ourselves.”
RUDY GOBERT AT A GLANCE
• Born in 1992 in San-Quentin, France.
• Picked 27th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, acquired by the Jazz in a draft night trade.
• Signed to a four-year, $102 million contract extension in 2016.
• Led the NBA in blocks, named All-NBA center for 2016-17 season.
• Averaged a double-double (13.5 points, 10.7 rebounds) for the second consecutive season in 2017-18.