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Rudy Gobert’s style of play means he isn’t usually in the limelight, but his impact is still appreciated

The Utah Jazz big man won Western Conference Player of the Week honors for the first time

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) as the Utah Jazz host the Oklahoma City Thunder, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

It’s fun to imagine Rudy Gobert playing other sports.

What about boxing — his chosen second pastime. With arms so long, could he punch away and never receive a punch back? Would Gobert playing tennis lead to a too-fast, steep-angle, unreturnable serve? Were he a soccer goalkeeper, would he be the favorite to stop every penalty kick? Would he be an absurd volleyball outside hitter, with unstoppable spike after unstoppable spike?

Sure, basketball is clearly a good fit for him. There’s a reason ESPN’s Pablo Torre once estimated that fully 17% of American 7-footers between the ages of 20 and 40 play in the NBA. Height and length matter most in basketball. Gobert, with his 9-foot, 9-inch standing reach, has both in bunches.

But as well suited as Gobert is for basketball, those other sports might have put him in more of the limelight, had he gone down that path.

Gobert’s basketball skillset means that he’s at his best in ways that don’t catch the average viewer’s eye. As his coach, Quin Snyder, explained, “Because of the way that Rudy impacts the game, it’s not as visible to people that are watching the ball. When you watch the game, a lot of times you’re watching the ball.

“Even something as simple as blocking shots. You know, there’s a number of times he can probably make a block, but if he missed the block, someone else might score. And what he does is he makes someone miss — and gets the rebound. It’s hard to quantify that, you know?”

Actually, it’s those who do try to quantify it who have the most respect for Gobert. The media has voted him a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, thanks to advanced metrics that show how much better the Jazz have been on defense with Gobert on the floor. And this week, the NBA’s office named him the Western Conference’s Player of the Week, after averaging 16.3 points on 77.8 percent shooting from the field, 15.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.0 assists in 31.1 minutes per game during a 3-1 stretch for the Jazz.

“You don’t get Player of the Week without winning games, so it’s more about, you know, what the team’s been doing,” Gobert said. “We had a pretty good start to the season. We feel like we got a lot of room to get better. It’s always great to win games, that’s the whole point of it. It’s good recognition, but it’s something to build on. We can keep getting better as a team and of course individually.”

What’s behind the leap in Gobert’s box score stats? Two things: While Gobert has actually taken fewer shots than last year, he’s been fouled more often. Denver coach Mike Malone tried out the Hack-a-Rudy scheme in the fourth quarter of the Jazz’s win against that team, but Gobert actually is shooting the best free-throw percentage of his career: 71% on over eight attempts per game.

Second, the Jazz’s defense has forced a lot of missed shots this year, leaving Gobert in position for more rebounds than any player in the NBA. As of Thursday, Gobert had 26 rebound chances per game — defined as rebounds that fall within 3.5 feet of where Gobert is on the court. That’s three more than any other player in the league (Jonas Valanciunas ranks second with 23 chances per game.) He gets 17.6 of those per game.

“You know, we’ve continued to try to evolve to maximize how we use Rudy from a schematic standpoint,” Snyder explained. “His ability to make multiple plays, he gets back in the play, and he’s so long that there’s something in the vicinity he’s going to get it.”

The number of rebounding chances Gobert gets will likely decline somewhat, as the Jazz have benefited in their early-season play by an unusually low 3-point shooting percentage from their opponents, a number affected in part by random variance. Still, Gobert figures to be at least among the league’s leaders, if not maintain his spot at No. 1.

But for now, the numbers are actually good enough that he’s showing up on some pretty exclusive lists. Basketball-Reference’s MVP Award Tracker tracks the race from a purely statistical point of view, taking lessons from the league’s 65-year history of the honor in what the award’s voters are interested in. Currently, Gobert is listed second, behind Saturday’s opponent, Jimmy Butler.

Snyder pointed out Gobert doesn’t score around 30 points per game, like most of the NBA’s MVP winners over the years. But Snyder says that he has something in common with MVPs of years past:

“Our team is built around Rudy. If you’re going to have a team built around you in many respects, that says something right there,” he said. “In a lot of game plans, even though he may not have the ball, people are trying to take him away, which is kind of interesting. It’s because they know how impactful he is.”

“When you’re comparing Rudy to other people in that in that conversation, he’s different, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less effective.”

And to prove his point, Snyder allowed his imagination to roam — and put Gobert in another sport.

“A lot of these things we’re talking about aren’t always valued, but they show up in the wins and loss column,” Snyder said. I used to kid with Rudy: The left tackle is pretty important, even if it’s maybe not as glamourous.”

Okay, that one might work better as an analogy than in reality.

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