Rangy, raw big men can be tantalizing prospects in today’s NBA. Finding the right ones, and developing them into solid rim protectors is no easy task. Such players are clouded with uncertainty, and while their upside can be intriguing, many don’t amount to anything more than a backup center, if that (see: Hasheem Thabeet, Alexis Ajinca, others).
In the 2013 NBA Draft, the Utah Jazz took a flyer on one of those prospects in Rudy Gobert. Similar uncertainty undoubtedly surrounded the French center, who, despite breaking combine records for both wingspan (7 feet 8 ½ inches) and standing reach (9 feet 7 inches), was selected 27th by the Denver Nuggets, and subsequently traded to Utah for the 46th pick and cash considerations.
Now, perhaps we’ll never know exactly why so many teams opted to pass on such upside. But what we do know is, just a year and a half later, the Cholet product once deemed a “project” is already blossoming into an elite defender.
Gobert’s rookie season under Ty Corbin was quiet yet encouraging. Playing less than 10 minutes per game, he posted the team’s highest Defensive Box Plus-Minus at 1.5 and came away with the best Defensive Rating at 104. But under rookie coach Quin Snyder this season, he’s emerged as a budding star on the defensive end. Gobert is holding opponents to a league-best 37.1 percent at the rim and the Jazz defense improves by 8.5 points per 100 possessions when the second-year center is on the floor.
Nylon Calculus’ new rim protection metrics also sing his praises, as he leads the league in Points Saved per game (2.86) by a full point.
Even when Gobert’s not blocking shots though, his terrifying length is helping force opponents into comically bad shot selection.
Here, Brandon Knight turns the corner off of a Larry Sanders screen and uses a dribble move to create space before pumping his brakes when he notices Gobert lurking on the weak side. He settles for a hasty pull-up instead, and misses.
In a later matchup with Boston, we see a similar progression. Derrick Favors switches onto Turner when he comes off of a screen, and when Turner takes him to the basket, Favors allows a very small window. Thus, Turner has to make a split-second decision -- utilize that small window and bully his way to the rim behind which Gobert is lurking, or try his luck with a dribble-stepback. He chose the latter, and, predictably, misfired. It’s these types of plays that solidify his reputation as a feared defensive presence.
Gobert doesn’t just hide himself on the weak side and anxiously wait for blocks, though. He has tremendous footwork for someone his size, and he’s adept enough to stay in front of the smaller and quicker slashers.
In this contest with the Lakers, Gobert’s man-to-man prowess comes alive. Carlos Boozer sets a screen on Trey Burke, and Gobert is forced to switch on to Clarkson, who believes he has a mismatch, and decides to take Gobert to the basket. With active hands and superior length, however, Gobert doesn’t miss a beat, and he sticks with Clarkson until he can swat the shot away.
Big men of such a mobile breed are rare. More slender and flexible frontcourt players such as Nerlens Noel and Gorgui Dieng have burst onto the scene the last couple years, but none play with the same combination of lumbering size, alarming quickness and proficient footwork that Gobert does.
Now, Gobert’s recent emergence as a top-notch rim protector doesn’t negate his status as a project. His work is cut out for him on the offensive side of the ball. But his elite contributions on the defensive end - which include a Defensive Box Plus-Minus of 4.0, second in the league only to some guy named Tim Duncan - would signal an expedited developmental process.
“The amount he's been able to contribute so early in his career has blown pretty much everyone away,” DraftExpress scout Derek Bodner said. “The amount of ground he's able to cover, quickly, in one stride is incredible. He's the type of shot blocker that can not only impact guards driving to the hoop, but can shut his man down as well. He impacts every shot around the rim, even those he's not able to get to.”
Bodner notes that an area of Gobert’s defensive game that still needs work is in the post. “His length and quickness off his feet allows him to recover more often than not, but establishing, and holding, his ground better could make him even more effective.”
Gobert has already arrived at the age of 22, yet he retains a ton of potential for improvement. He continues to emerge as one of the game’s top rim protectors, and one of the most unique and talented defenders at his position.