As Rudy Gobert sat in the stands of the Paycom Center in Oklahoma City on Wednesday morning, taking part in a media session immediately following the Utah Jazz’s shootaround and a few hours ahead of their coming game against the Thunder, he was asked to reflect on a moment that spanned both the immediate and the distant.
After all, in the Jazz’s previous game, Gobert had surpassed Greg Ostertag to move into third place on the franchise’s career blocked shots list. When the team tweeted out the accomplishment, the center quote-tweeted it with the message, “What a journey.”
“I mean, I started from nothing,” Gobert explained Wednesday, ahead of the Jazz’s 110-104 victory. “But it’s been cool to be able to work hard, work my way to the NBA, and in my ninth season now, to be able to be third in anything [is amazing], but to be third in blocks for a franchise that’s been around for so many years, it’s a great blessing.”
The Frenchman, who was drafted No. 27 overall in 2013 and immediately sold for cash, who was buried on the bench as a rookie and spent some time early in the D League, now trails only Mark Eaton and Andrei Kirilenko for most blocks in franchise history.
Coach Quin Snyder, when asked about Gobert’s growth over the years — more figurative than literal — recalled an early interaction that set the tone for what the big man would become.
“Well, I can remember, it might’ve been our first road trip — it was early on — where I grabbed him and, there was more seats on the plane then, so we went in the back of the plane and just sat down, the two of us, and I just told him, from what I’ve seen, even in a short period, he’s got a chance,” said Snyder. “I said, ‘You’re a good player right now, and you’ve got a chance to be a great player. And if you want to go beyond that and be an elite player’ — which he has become — ‘it’s going to be discipline, hard work, that formula.’ And I think that’s what he’s done over a period of time.”
To be sure, Gobert has put in the time and effort.
He’s bulked up physically, adding 20-some-odd pounds since his rookie season to better withstand the physical toll of professional basketball at the highest level. He’s gone from shooting 48.6% from the field and 49.2% from the line as a rookie to 73.3 and 67.6%, respectively, this season.
Every offseason, he’s endeavored to add a new component or two to his skill set. “I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I can do” has become a familiar refrain.
“Just work — just working every day, being a student of the game, just putting my heart out there every night,” Gobert explained before he racked up another 15 points, 17 rebounds, and five blocks. “It goes pretty fast. It’s Year 9 — hopefully there are many more ahead. It’s cool, it’s exciting to be a part of this.”
Snyder, meanwhile, saw Gobert take that early conversation to heart, and says the results quickly followed as a result.
“His road wasn’t just a clear path. It’s something that he had to work for and persevere through some things,” said Snyder. “And I remember, around the All-Star break [of my second season], I just said, ‘This is the guy, and we’re going to go ahead and go with him right now.’ And that’s what we did. And I think that second half of that year, our defense became elite. There are other factors that contributed to that, but I think in large part [it was] due to his presence, me playing him. You probably could argue I should have figured it out sooner.”
Self-deprecation aside, both men have flourished as a result of their partnership.
It’s not merely that Gobert has transformed into a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, but that with him in the lineup, the Jazz have consistently ranked among the NBA’s best in defensive rating.
Barring injury, Gobert could well pass Kirilenko before the season is up, although, as Snyder pointed out, “Mark Eaton might be a tough one to catch.” And indeed, the late 7-foot-4 mammoth has more than double the career blocks that Gobert does.
Snyder noted that regardless of the block totals, the Frenchman is also up there in the non-official departments of “altered shots or shots not taken, because of some level of intimidation that he’s down there.”
For his part, the center is just looking for his team to continue to improve on that end.
Some work remains to be done, if Wednesday’s game against the Thunder is any indication. On the one hand, OKC got just four fast-break points, and only four offensive rebounds. On the other, the Jazz’s transition defense still left a bit of room for improvement, even if the Thunder only got nine points off of turnovers.
Jordan Clarkson had a team-high 20 points off the bench, Bojan Bogdanovic added 19, Mike Conley had 18 and Rudy Gay 15, as the team overcame a rough night from All-Star Donovan Mitchell (13 points on 6 of 16 shooting).
While the Jazz are a top-10 defense at the moment, their focal point believes there remains room for growth.
“You need to have a lot of pride to be able to be a great defender. It starts with effort and it starts with being relentless. And then you learn,” Gobert said. “Obviously, you need a coach, you need everyone to be on the same page, to be on the same mindset. And we’ve been able to do that. Obviously, there’s still a lot of margin for us to get better, but it’s always exciting to embrace those challenges and keep getting better every game.”