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As the Utah Jazz offense flounders early in the NBA season, Rudy Gobert’s defense picks up

The big man’s offense isn’t there yet — as Shaquille O’Neal has noted often — but his defensive presence is a big reason Jazz went 4-2 on road trip

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) blocks a shot by Phoenix Suns forward Dario Saric (20), in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns, on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020.

During the Jazz’s six-game road trip, Rudy Gobert averaged just eight points per game. It was the perfect fodder for analysts like TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal, who has made a repeated bit out of criticizing Gobert and his new $205 million contract.

But there’s another relevant stat, too: the Jazz gave up only 1 point per possession when Gobert was in the game on the road trip. That’s best on the team among players who play major minutes, and a big reason the Jazz were able to get wins on this road trip — the Jazz are 7-1 this season when they hold teams to below their scoring averages, and 0-3 when they don’t.

That’s one reason why Gobert feels comfortable dismissing O’Neal’s remarks, he said.

“You know, he’s an entertainer now, he speaks on TV. Shaq is one of the guys that I looked up to as a young basketball player and is someone that I respect. You know, that doesn’t mean that I respect everything that he says, but I don’t take it personally,” Gobert said.

Gobert isn’t totally happy with where his game is right now, especially on the offensive end. He knows he needs to improve his free-throw shooting to at least where it was last season, and some of the turnovers and missed layups have been unacceptable.

But the defensive end? He stands behind that.

“Defensively for me, I think it was a really good road trip, maybe if you take out the Brooklyn game [when the Jazz allowed 130 points]. I think my focus as the leader defensively has been good. There’s always room to grow, but I was pretty happy in the way I was communicating with my teammates and and the way I was a little more aggressive defensively.”

JAZZ VS. HAWKS

At Vivint Smart Home Arena

When • Friday, 7 p.m.

TV • ATTSN

The loss to the Nets may have been a turning point for Gobert, as he seemed a little lackadaisical in defending the rim, which he acknowledged.

“There’s been some games when guys will drive to the rim and I wouldn’t necessarily go and try to block the shots — I would just try to be there just in case they missed it,” Gobert said. “But I realized that I’m at a point where I can be aggressive and at the same time be smart. When I play that way defensively, it changes the whole game.”

The defensive metrics agree. Analytical website FiveThirtyEight has created a player rating metric called RAPTOR, which uses player tracking data to measure shot contests on the defensive end alongside traditional defensive metrics like blocks and steals. In RAPTOR’s estimation, Gobert has saved 10.0 points per 100 possessions on the defensive end this season — which is significantly more than any player in the league. (Atlanta’s Clint Capela comes in second with a +7.8 defensive RAPTOR.)

It’s worth noting that Gobert’s offensive game has been worth -4.0 RAPTOR points per 100 possessions — in other words, he is negating some of what he brings defensively, but not most of it. The net picture is enough to rank Gobert 18th among NBA players in the young season, and Gobert is the only player in the top 20 with a negative impact on the offensive end.

So yes, O’Neal has a point regarding the French big man’s offense; which certainly needs improvement. On the other end, the early season has seen the typical Gobert, perhaps trying to reclaim his throne as the best defender in the NBA.

“I think [O’Neal] is just doing his job, and my job is to to help my team win,” Gobert said. “Nothing will ever distract me from doing that.”

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