February 15, 2019

In just a short amount of time, the long arms of Rudy Gobert have already cast a shadow over the NBA. Entering just his third season, with only 37 career starts, there’s already a sturdy case for Gobert as the frontrunner for the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year award.

Gobert is a center, meaning he already has an inherent advantage over the like of Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green with voter preferences for blocks and rebounds—which Gobert gobbles up in bunches.

After the All-Star break last season, Gobert averaged a gaudy 13.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. The sudden hike (he posted 7.3 and 2.2 before the break) coincided with the trade of Enes Kanter (who started 48 of the 49 games he played for Utah in 2014-15), and subsequent promotion of Gobert to the starting lineup.

Given his age (23) and meteoric career trajectory, there’s no reason to think Gobert won’t be able to duplicate, or at the very least, come close to the baseline production he closed with last season.

But those numbers aren’t the biggest pieces of evidence in support of the Utah Jazz center.

Prior to the aforementioned Kanter trade the Jazz had the 27th-ranked defense in the league, giving up 106.1 points per 100 possessions.

Opposing teams constantly forced Kanter and Trey Burke to defend pick-and-rolls, an exercise in futility for that combo. Burke wasn’t strong enough to get through screens, or quick enough to get around them. That forced Kanter to show on the screens—something he often didn’t even bother to try. In those cases, the opposition got a wide-open jumper. When he did show, he lacked the awareness and athleticism to rotate back to his man in time to deter him inside.

The contrast between Kanter and the way Gobert handled the pick-and-roll was stark.

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It’s remarkable to watch the 7’2″ Frenchman nimbly navigate the perimeter like a wing. Because of his height, athleticism and 7’9″ wingspan, a soft hedge on a screen from Gobert is like a hard hedge from anyone else. He can sag back as the ball screen happens, but close the gap between himself and the ball-handler in an instant.

Watch his anticipation, timing and footwork as guards either tried to pull-up or get all the way to the rim against him:

He became so adept in blowing up pick-and-rolls, that some teams would occasionally try their luck against him at the rim.

That, of course, is probably the more dangerous option in this pick-your-poison scenario. By a variety of metrics, Gobert’s already the best rim protector in the NBA.

He had the lowest opponent’s field-goal percentage at the rim among qualified players (40.4 percent), led the league in points saved at the rim per game (a nifty stat developed by Seth Partnow) at 2.43, as well as points saved at the rim per 36 minutes at 3.32. He was also second in the NBA behind John Henson in block percentage at 7.0.

For another way to express that level of dominance inside, look no further than the Jazz’s official YouTube channel:

And as if defending pick-and-rolls and protecting the rim weren’t enough, Gobert can also pilfer a possession here and there.

There were 26 seven-footers who qualified for the steals leaderboard last season. Gobert’s steal percentage of 1.6 ranked him second in that group behind Kelly Olynyk.

That may not seem like much, but when you’re getting what FiveThirtyEight’s Benjamin Morris argues is the most impactful box score number from an unlikely source like your center, it’s found money.

Gobert rebounds too. The basic measure was already stated, but there’s more. Last season, he collected 20.7 percent of available rebounds, good for sixth in the league. More importantly, Utah rebounded better when he played, grabbing 53.5 percent of boards when Gobert was on the floor and 52.1 percent when he was off.

This is all evidence of Gobert’s insatiable hunger for loose balls in their various forms (blocks, steals and boards), which was critical in making Utah the best defensive team in the NBA down the stretch last season.

And that brings us back to the contrast between Kanter and Gobert.

After the trade and Gobert’s promotion, the Jazz gave up 94.8 points per 100 possessions. Not only was that the best defensive rating in the league over that span, it wasn’t even close. The second-place Memphis Grizzlies came in at 99.4, a difference of 4.6 points. If you go 4.6 points worse than the Grizzlies, you get to the 19th-ranked Detroit Pistons. The gap was vast.

Even an expected regression from the overall defense heading into 2015-16 would still put the Jazz firmly in the hunt for the league’s top defense over the course of the entire season. If the defense is anywhere near the top, you can be sure Gobert’s influence will be all over it, because there is no sign of regression from him.

In a tour of friendlies with the French national team this summer, Gobert averaged 8.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 18.8 minutes per game (16.9 points, 13.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes).

He was every bit as stout when the games meant something at the EuroBasket 2015 tournament. He led France to a bronze-medal finish, averaging 10.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, two blocks and 1.1 steals per game (15.9 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes). He shot 59.3 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from the free-throw line.

 

The one hiccup in the tournament came in France’s semifinal matchup against Spain, in which Gobert was one of the primary defenders on Pau Gasol, who dropped 40 points on his way to the championship. Obviously, 40 points is a big hiccup, but there were still good signs for Gobert.

His defense was stout down the stretch, as Pau suddenly struggled to score inside in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. The most notable play, from Gobert’s perspective, was a block on a Gasol buzzer-beater that preserved the French and sent the game to overtime.

Gobert fouled out in the extra period. Spain had three possessions after the big man went to the bench, all of which ended in Gasol dunks.

But Gobert wouldn’t fade quietly into the EuroBasket night. He came back and had his best performance of the tournament in the third-place game, where he totaled 15 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks.

Another strong offseason and the fact that he’s still years away from his prime shows that Gobert is still trending upward, but even if there is a slight bump in his career road, there’s almost no way he’ll be out of the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year next spring.

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