If Rudy Gobert can be a ball-dominant big man, Utah Jazz can be a conventionally unconventional title contender

Jonathan Raymond writes Rudy Gobert has shown the potential, if even remote, to be a transformational player for the Utah Jazz in the NBA.
Rudy Gobert is averaging 7.5 points per game for the Utah Jazz this season. Noah Graham / NBAE / Getty Images / March 21, 2015
Rudy Gobert is averaging 7.5 points per game for the Utah Jazz this season. Noah Graham / NBAE / Getty Images / March 21, 2015

It used to be in the NBA, not even too long ago, that a skilled centre was the league’s ultimate trump card.

From George Mikan to Bill Russell to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Hakeem Olajuwon to Shaquille O’Neal, throughout the years a generationally dominant big man was not infrequently the key ingredient on a number of dynastic teams.

It’s been 13 years now though since a centre was, well, the central figure on a title team (Shaq’s 2002 LA Lakers).

The position has been so weak in recent years that arguable power forwards like Al Jefferson, Tim Duncan, Al Horford and Amare Stoudemire all have appeared on an All-NBA team as the centre (36-year-old Shaq was the All-NBA third team centre for the 2008/09 Phoenix Suns).

This season in particular has been the year of pace-and-space in the NBA, the year the Warriors and Hawks have ascended to the top of basketball’s pecking order by copying the Spurs and moving the ball and working in tandem like they’re Barcelona on a hardcourt.

The prospect of a team running an offence by parking an unstoppable big man in the middle and constantly feeding him down low the way the Lakers could with Shaq or even the Orlando Magic’s 2008 Finals team did with Dwight Howard has never seemed more remote.

It’s not that centres aren’t still valuable, it’s that they’ve trended away from being ball-dominant inside forces, with rim protection on the defensive end coveted at the willing expense of traditional big-man scoring skills. If a centre can guard the basket inside and fill an offensive role that revolves more around his passing and court-spacing skills, with enough of a touch to score a few points (think Marc Gasol as this platonic ideal), that’s a trade-off every team in today’s NBA is going to make.

All respect to Gasol and the Memphis Grizzlies notwithstanding, there is, however, one team that just might be in a position to forge a future title-winner with some traditional big-man magic.

Rudy Gobert has been the revelation of the season with the Utah Jazz. He flashed his potential at last summer’s Fiba World Championships with France, but it wasn’t until Utah dealt Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder last month that Gobert took on a bigger role and started to look like a true superstar in the making.

He’s done that particularly by emerging as a historically great defensive prospect. Catch-all advanced defensive statistics can have their kinks, especially in small samples, but Gobert’s 5.3 defensive box plus-minus figure by BasketballReference isn’t just leading the league this year, it stacks up well against the best defenders of the past 30 years.

Dikembe Mutombo’s career best season clocked in at 5.3, the last two defensive player of the year winners posted figures of 5.5 (Joakim Noah) and 4.4 (Gasol). Howard, a three-time winner from 2009-11, boasts a career high of 5.0.

To put it maybe a bit more straight-forward, Gobert’s block percentage leads the league this year at 7.5; none of Howard (6.0); Noah (4.4); or Gasol (4.3) have a career-best even close to that figure. Mutombo is the best comparison in this case, with a career 6.3 block percentage and a number of 7.0-plus seasons.

His 40.1 opponents field goal percentage at the rim, by NBA.com/stats, is best in the league among players with significant roles. He suppresses opponents field goal percentage, generally, by 5.1 per cent and suppresses the average field goal percentage within six feet of the hoop 13 per cent (numbers not dissimilar from Roy Hibbert).

The long-winded point is that Rudy Gobert is not just a super defensive prospect, but, at 22, a legitimately elite defensive player right now. Everybody already knows this.

To be the biggest jewel in a title-winning team’s crown, though, the 7ft 1ins Gobert has to develop the offensive game that, say, Hibbert or Mutombo never really had.

To do it, he’ll have to become something like the evolutionary bridge from the more stationary 7-foot forces of recent past to basketball’s motion-emphasising future.

Let’s start with what Gobert does well offensively: namely, motion.

Gobert is incredibly good at moving toward and around the basket and making points happen. On many pick-and-rolls, he doesn’t so much even set the pick as turn the act of beginning to set one and rolling into one motion. That can leave his ball-handler out to dry sometimes, but it also often times draws his defender out of the paint just enough to give him an opening into space in the middle. And Gobert is so long he really only needs one step once he has a clear path. An astonishing 81.7 per cent of his field goal attempts this season have come without any dribbles taken.

He’s also elusive. It’s strange to describe a 7ft 1in long-limbed giant that way, but he shows off deft footwork and a general spatial intelligence that lets him work into little seams around the basket, even when defenders know they don’t have to trail far from the hoop to stay on him. When he gets stuck in a tough one-on-one situation, he’s slithery enough and his arms are long enough that he can fall back on little up-and-under layups.

He’s effective enough at it all to be making 61.5 per cent of his field goals this season, which would be second in the league if he qualified.

His 14.2 offensive rebounding percentage is also excellent. He has a knack for drifting around just outside the key and then timing a hop toward the rim on missed shots for a bunch of tips that create a lot of second and third opportunities for Utah on offensive possessions.

He’s got enough giddy-up in him to run with a fast break and enough legs under him that he can try the occasional leap from the middle of the key for a dunk or layup, or at least to draw a foul. He has sure hands catching the ball in all those rolls toward the basket.

All in all his PER is 21.5, which compares favourably with someone like Howard at the same age (22.9).

As for what Gobert can’t do: shoot, in any conceivable fashion.

Rudy has attempted 322 field goals this year, according to NBA.com, and all but nine of them have come from within about five feet of the basket.

While he can put the ball on the floor, it can often turn into a liability as he works against a one-on-one defender. He’ll dribble, start rolling and get caught stumbling into a human wall and flailing the ball skyward. His turnover percentage, 17.5, is fairly high.

He’s shown a few hook-shot attempts this year, and he has the length and leaping ability for that to potentially be a key weapon for him, but none of the touch is there yet.

He’s not consistent enough or polished enough yet to have earned Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s trust, or his teammates’ for that matter, for a more significant offensive role. His usage rate is just 14.2 per cent, which is definitely supporting-role territory.

If he’s to turn into the primary force for an NBA title-contending offence, his usage rate will eventually have to be more reflective of the low-to-mid 20s Dwight Howard has fluctuated around for much of his career.

It’s a large ask of Gobert. While he can score around the basket in small doses with great efficiency, ramping that up by about double will be incredibly difficult as defences zero in on him.

While advanced metrics like PER and BasketballReference’s O-Rating (122), love him, ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (-2.01) rates him a poor offensive player at the moment and for the season Utah are scoring something like seven points more per 100 possessions with him off the floor.

Statistically, his offensive profile is a bit of a mixed bag.

The cautionary tale would be someone like Andris Biedrins, who also showed nice hands and an ability to roll to the basket and shift around the hoop for easy points at a young age. He led the NBA with a 62.6 field goal percentage at 21 and had a 19.2 PER. It turned out to be his peak.

You could argue coach Don Nelson got into his head, but the plain fact is that he was also just too one-dimensional. Once teams figured him out, his nuanced effectiveness ceased. There’s a similar risk there with Gobert.

But he’s certainly athletic enough and showing to be smart enough that he has the potential, at least, to be an acrobatic, fluid, ball-dominant big man at the middle of a modern NBA offence. Right now he’s flashing something like a much-less-powerful DeAndre Jordan’s game. Gobert will need that and little bit of Kareem to reach the bar set by Howard as the last leading-man centre on a Finals-bound team (unless you count Duncan with San Antonio last season, but Duncan is his own species).

He’ll need that hook shot, and a set shot from even the 10-feet range of some efficacy would help, and he’ll have to develop a couple reliable one- and two-dribble low-post moves and bulk up a bit, too – let’s not undersell it: he’ll have to take major leaps forward. But the outlines of a scorer are there. The potential to be something nobody else is right now is there.

His defence is so good that his future in the league, unlike Biedrins, doesn’t depend on it. But if he can get there, to the point where he can be a uniquely dangerous offensive threat in the league, he can give the Jazz a weapon no other team could match.

As the rest of the league zigs toward the way of Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs model, Gobert could possibly allow the Jazz to zag, dip into history and refashion a traditional model for the 21st century.

Everything old, after all, can eventually be new again.

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Published: March 22, 2015 04:00 AM

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