Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert is among the NBA’s leaders in a surprising category: avoiding injury

After suffering two knee injuries in 2017-18, the All-Star big man has taken extra precautions to keep himself on the court

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) were both knocked to the floor, seconds before Turner rammed into Gobert starting a scuffle between the two centers, resulting in the ejections of Gobert, Turner, Donovan MItchell and Joe Ingles, in the 4th quarter, in NBA action between Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers at Vivint Arena, on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

Rudy Gobert’s knees bow out in opposite directions but still rise up toward his chest as he tries to get comfortable in a courtside fan’s chair — not designed for 7-footers.

“Those little guys love to run into your knees, like dive into your knees,” the Utah Jazz center says as the morning’s shootaround comes to a close.

Donovan Mitchell is a few seats over, and overhears the conversation.

“Hey, who’s little? Who’s little guys?,” Mitchell asks, in his most bombastic, trouble-causing tone of voice.

“Little guys like Donovan,” Gobert snarkily answers.

While Mitchell isn’t the culprit Gobert is really thinking of, he’s got a point — for someone as tall and long as the 7-foot-1 Frenchman is, nearly everyone else is a little guy. And that means their center of balance, especially when diving for loose balls or trying to box out, can pose a threat to Gobert’s long legs: a lot of force, directed horizontally, at a part of the body that is not meant to withstand horizontal force.

Four seasons ago, it looked like an issue that could have ruined Gobert’s career. Just as the Jazz were beginning their first season without Gordon Hayward, as then-Heat guard Dion Waiters dove for a loose ball, he undercut Gobert right at knee level.

Gobert was extremely frustrated — to the point where he essentially accused Waiters of diving at his knees rather than diving for the loose ball. The Jazz asked the league to investigate the play, who responded that Waiters should have been called for a foul, but not a flagrant one, on the play. Meanwhile, Waiters felt he had to respond to Gobert’s characterization: “I’ve never been a dirty player in my life,” Waiters told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I went for the ball. Tell him to get out of his feelings.”

Gobert sat out three weeks, but as if to illustrate the danger again — as well as the wide variety of players that can be considered little next to the Jazz’s center, Derrick Favors rolled under Gobert’s legs in a game against Boston.

That caused a Grade 1 PCL sprain, and Gobert to miss another month.

But what could have been a recurring nightmare for Gobert and the Jazz hasn’t turned into one.

In fact, since returning from those injuries in the 2017-18 season, he’s played in 316 of the 322 games the Jazz have played, missing three of those games as the team decided to rest him in the bubble or at the end of a season. This is a remarkable stat, but it’s true: Over the past four seasons, only one player has started more NBA games than Rudy Gobert: Denver MVP Nikola Jokic.

After suffering those two knee injuries, Gobert started to wear a knee brace, especially while the ligaments were still healing. Even over four years later, he still wears the brace.

“I can’t afford to like miss a month because somebody decided to dive into my knees. It’s just protective measures,” Gobert said. He proudly cited Tim Duncan as another center who wore a knee brace throughout his career, though there have certainly been others.

The brace isn’t the only thing Gobert has done to protect himself. He’s also worked to strengthen the muscles around those ligaments, in a program led by strength trainer Fabrice Gautier. In fact, Gobert was one of the first athletes to use a tool that’s now in vogue across the NBA — a yoga pillow called Waff pads. Essentially, athletes stand on the pillows filled with air and try to maintain balance.

Now, the technique, and the pillows in sizes big and small, can be seen in NBA locker rooms everywhere. LeBron James is the most famous convert. The pillows can provide immediate feedback on where an athlete could stand to be more balanced on the court — and more balance can lead to the ability to make more game-changing plays.

“He’s got a very specific routine that he’s developed over a period of time,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “What he does in the weight room, there’s a lot of times you see him in there after practice, just very methodically going through the things that he knows he needs to do.”

It also means it’s easier for Gobert to avoid those injuries; sometimes, he can get out of the way. In fact, Gobert’s record has been nearly perfect since the two consecutive injuries cited above. “Sometimes we’ve had to save him from himself or there’s been an opportunity for him to take a game, but that doesn’t happen very often,” Snyder said.

“At his size and the way he’s built, you know, you would expect him to be more susceptible on some level, and that’s been exactly the opposite,” Snyder added.

Count it as a win for the big guys.