Rudy Gobert’s free-throw feat is about far more than just one good night at the line

The Utah Jazz are hoping the center’s 15-for-16 performance from the stripe vs. Charlotte is a harbinger of being able to punish opponents who throw small-ball lineups at them.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defended by Charlotte Hornets forward Jalen McDaniels (6) as the Utah Jazz host the Charlotte Hornets, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.

Rudy Gobert’s stat line Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets was a thing of ridiculous, preposterous beauty: 23 points, 21 rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal.

Perhaps the most eye-popping of his numbers, though, came at the free-throw line: A career-high 15 makes, on a career-high 16 attempts.

For a player with a career 63.4% conversion rate at the stripe, that’s not an insignificant performance. Beyond it being an instrumental component of the Utah Jazz fending off the Hornets and snapping a two-game slide, though, there’s an organizational hope that Gobert’s free-throw success portends much, much more.

Yes, more free throws made, for one. But, it also can be an indicator that the big man is playing with the requisite force needed to make opponents pay for going with smaller, more switchable lineups.

“Now he’s getting fouled, now he’s punishing switches,” Donovan Mitchell noted after the game. “And if they want to do that — not so much in the regular season, but in the playoffs — if they want to foul him and put him on the line, he’s got to be able to hit. And he did tonight, and he’s got to continue to be able to do that.”

Indeed, while Charlotte started traditional center Mason Plumlee on Monday, they frequently went to small-ball matchups and deployed 1-3-1 and 2–2-1 zones.

Neither really worked, as the Jazz either passed into one open 3-point look after another, or located Gobert flashing to the rim unencumbered. When the latter happened, he either got off a close-range shot, or wound up shooting freebies.

“They played small, and he was just dominating them,” pointed out Bojan Bogdanovic.

Coach Quin Snyder agreed.

“The biggest thing is that he got to the line 16 times. That shows his balance and his patience. He’s not just trying to get it up to the rim, he’s more conscious of where his defender is,” he said. “They were fouls — he was making them foul him, or he was gonna dunk. And then to step to the line and have the confidence that he did, that’s something that’s been a big point of emphasis for him — not just people on our staff saying that to him, but it’s something that he’s really internalized and he works on.”

And indeed, Gobert has been putting in a ton of work on his free throws.

The 69.3% he’s shooting this season from the line is on pace to be a career-high, and is the product of a lot of behind-the-scenes effort.

“We’ve changed it a bit — my form — starting about a year, a year and a half ago,” said Gobert. “It was a process. We had to break it down to rebuild it, and now I’m feeling much more comfortable. Now I feel like it’s only going up.”

The Frenchman said he also has a personal shooting coach who’s been working with him for a little less than two years, and that free-throw work is part of his nightly routine on the court at his home.

Mitchell praised his fellow All-Star, noting that the alterations the big man has made are the product of some serious dedication.

“If you’re changing your base or changing [your form], that can take a while. That’s not something that just happens, like, ‘Oh, we work on it from June to October and it’ll be fixed.’ It takes time, and it takes going through rough patches. … It’s not just something that happens overnight,” said Mitchell. “It’s a mental battle because it’s not always going to be perfect. [But it’s about] going out there and continuing to find ways to put the work in and believing in it. He’s believed in it and he’s shown it and he’s doing it.”

Asked if he has more confidence in Gobert at the line now than he did in seasons past, Mitchell replied: “I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but I would say a lot. I think a lot of it was because I see the work and progress that went into it.”

Confidence in Gobert — and from Gobert himself — is high in general.

Snyder said he’s been pleased to see the center go up strong of late and try to go through defenders, as opposed to flinging up those finesse-type finger rolls that don’t accomplish much other than getting the ball near the rim.

The center wasn’t totally pleased with his performance — he noted that he could and perhaps should have had a few more and-ones, as he made just 4 of 10 shots from the field — but did elaborate that at least he feels good about playing the way he did, knowing that it can pay dividends down the line.

“I’ve never been scared to get to the line. Some guys have that mindset — I’ve never had that mindset,” Gobert said. “Sometimes I’m actually looking for the foul more than to score, [but] I need to try to score every time and keep playing with force. And if they’re going to foul me, I’ve got to punish them at the line. It changes the game — if they try to foul me, they get fouls and we get points at the line. Especially in the playoffs, it’s something that is very important.”