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The next level: After seeing minimal playing time as a rookie, Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert looks to improve his game

Published: Sunday, May 18 2014 5:15 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Rudy Gobert certainly looks like an NBA center.

Standing 7 feet 1 and weighing a lean but muscular 245 pounds, with a wingspan stretching closer to 8 feet and a standing reach of 9 feet 7, this is a young man who, it seems, was made to play basketball.

But in his first year in the NBA, he didn't actually get to do much of that — at least, not in regular-season games against other NBA big men.

As a rookie for the Jazz, the 21-year-old center from France played in little more than half of Utah's contests (45) last season. And when he did get an opportunity to get on the floor in a game, it was usually for only a handful of minutes and often in garbage time at the end of a contest whose outcome had already been decided.

"I learned a lot, learned a lot," Gobert said, summarizing his first NBA campaign. "It's a tough league with the best players in the world.

"I would say I liked it, I liked it," he said in his thick French accent, adding that his goal moving forward is to "just get better and be able to play."

Ah, yes, being able to play — that's the key thing.

Sure, Gobert has the size and ability to be a strong rebounder and shot-blocking force inside, but his offensive skills at this point in time are very limited. If that sounds an awful lot like the scouting report on another former Jazz center named Mark Eaton, then ding-ding-ding — you are correct, sir.

And if Gobert could someday become the player that Eaton was, Jazz officials would probably be more than satisfied, maybe even downright giddy.

After all, Eaton was a 7-foot-4 behemoth who worked extremely hard to become one of the greatest shot-blocking big men in NBA history. Gobert is not nearly as imposing as big Mark was physically, but is definitely quicker, much more agile and more athletic at this stage of his career.

Now, it's up to the young Frenchman nicknamed "The Stifle Tower" to put in the time and effort to prove that he deserves major minutes on the NBA stage.

He knows he needs to build his lower body so that other big men can't push him around in the paint. And he needs to develop an offensive game that consists of more than dunks and putbacks.

"No. 1, getting stronger," Gobert said of his offseason priorities. "My legs, all my body, but especially my legs. Getting stronger, quicker, and work on my game, of course, but mostly getting stronger.

"You've got to be tough, especially me, I'm a center. So you've got to be tough, you've got to be able to fight, you've got to be able to box out, you've got to be able to guard on the post. That's the main thing for me."

During his initial NBA campaign, Gobert averaged a little less than 10 minutes of time on the floor in those 45 games he appeared in, averaging 2.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and almost one blocked shot per game. He also spent some time playing in the NBA Development League, where with increased playing time he posted much more impressive numbers.

And occasionally, he had his NBA moments, too — few and far between as they might have been. He scored 10 points in a November game against Oklahoma City, had 12 rebounds in another early-season game against Chicago — one of two occasions last season when he actually led the team in rebounding — and blocked four shots in a game at Milwaukee in March.

Then there was the season finale at Minnesota, where Gobert got more than 14 minutes of playing time and responded with eight points, nine boards and a couple of blocks in Utah's double-overtime victory.

He's hoping that season-ending performance might've made a statement for him.

"It was important for me, just ... to show my progress in the season," he said. "I know I didn't play that much, but I just tried to show, show them all the time. I think I did pretty good. I just can't wait for the next season and summer league, maybe more playing time."

Of course, there were a lot of other nights last season (31 of them, in fact) when Gobert got the dreaded "DNP — CD" in the box score. Translation: "Did Not Play — Coach's Decision."

"That's hard," he admitted. "That was hard for me, one of the hardest parts for me, sitting on the bench."

He knew he had to "just keep working and wait for (playing) time. That was the hardest part."

At season's end, Gobert planned to go home to France for a few weeks but will return to the United States at the end of this month. He feels like he made plenty of progress despite seeing limited playing time in his first NBA season and is confident that, in the future, he can become an integral part of Utah's plans to build a winning team for this franchise.

"Of course, of course," he said when asked if he was a different player in April than he was last November. "Basketball and outside (the game), too. I'm more confident; I'm stronger, I'm better, so of course.

"I look at Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah and those players, and I think I can be — not the same player, of course we are different, you know — I can be that type of player. I can be especially defensively but offensively too, I think."

Acquired in a draft-day deal with the Denver Nuggets last June, Gobert has definitely learned a lot over the last year — about himself, about life in America, and about the NBA game.

Now he'll have to start proving himself to a new Jazz coaching staff, and he hopes to take what he has learned, work hard to improve his skills, and someday soon make himself the player that he and the Jazz front office think he can be.

"There's a lot of games," he said of the NBA's 82-game, regular-season grind. "That's the biggest part — there are a lot of games — so you can't worry about the last game. You've got to just move on at times.

"I'm just focused on myself and, if I come and play in summer league and I play good, they're going to play me. That's what I think."

Yes, if that happens, he thinks he'll not only look like an NBA center — he'll play like one, too.

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com

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