SALT LAKE CITY — Some University of Utah students might’ve gotten excited, or at least intrigued, Wednesday when they saw a very tall young man roaming around the school.
Unfortunately for Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak, the 7-foot-1 player wasn’t there to play hoops.
While Jazz rookie Rudy Gobert was the Big Man On Campus for a day, he was at the U. to do what so many other people his age do every day.
And, no, that didn’t include going bowling at the Union or eating a slice of pizza at The Pie.
He's trying to learn.
Gobert, who moved to the U.S. for good last September for his job with the Jazz, is studying with a university professor to work on his second language. The 21-year-old took English lessons for a year and a half in France leading up to the 2013 NBA draft, and being immersed in a country with non-French speakers has only enhanced his ability to communicate in his home away from home. He wants to get even better.
When it comes to his ever-improving English, Gobert said, “I feel more just a habit.”
The student-athlete’s increased comfort level in the NBA is on a parallel course.
Neither his English nor his game is fully developed, but positive results are coming about thanks to extra hours of work. That’s a habit the Jazz organization has appreciated since acquiring the No. 27 pick in a draft-day trade with Denver last June.
“He's working hard in practice every day,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “He's working in the weight room trying to get stronger. It’s just going to be a process with him.”
Gobert logged a career-high 27 minutes in his last outing, the 112-97 home loss to Minnesota, as coaches gave him a chance to play behind temporary starter Enes Kanter in injured Derrick Favors’ absence.
That, however, was only the third time the center has surpassed the 20-minute mark this season. In fact, he’s only seen time in 20 of the Jazz’s 43 games.
Tuesday’s performance was one of his best as an NBA player. The "Stifle Tower," who lists Paris and “Swat Lake City" as his homes on his Twitter bio, had a career-high three blocked shots. He also scored eight points, which was just the second time he’s put more than five on the scoreboard in his sparse showings.
“It’s been a long time,” he said in the locker room Tuesday, “so it feels good for me.”
Gobert’s patience has been tested his rookie season.
The Frenchman got some time off the bench for the Jazz for the first couple of weeks, even registering double-digit rebound games twice in early November. He also played a pivotal role in Utah’s 89-83 win over Chicago on Nov. 25.
Mostly, though, he’s been the team’s tallest cheerleader at the end of the bench.
After not playing in one game earlier this season, Gobert even took to Twitter to tell his followers that he believed he could’ve made a difference in the outcome, a Jazz loss, had he played.
Gobert later deleted the tweet.
He hasn’t erased the desire to compete or scrubbed out the belief that he can be a game-changer.
“I’m not very patient, but it’s hard (to wait),” Gobert admitted. “I’ve just got to keep telling myself I’m going to have my chance and just keep working.”
Having been in Gobert’s shoes a few decades ago, Corbin can empathize with the enthusiasm a youngster has to get regular minutes from the get-go.
“As a player, you always want to play. This is a different animal than any other league any of these guys has ever played in. They understand it,” Corbin said. “I want them to want to play and to work to play more minutes on the floor, and he’s doing it.”
One of the more difficult parts of the season for Gobert came in mid-December when his NBA team left for a long trip that began in Miami while he and fellow rookie Ian Clark were sent to Reno, Nev., to begin the first of two D-League assignments.
To Gobert’s credit, his reaction on Twitter and Instagram was humorous. He posted a photo of a billiards table with the caption, “When your team is in miami and you're in reno you do what you can lol.”
Over the course of the next few weeks — with a short Utah return in between — Gobert did what he could to play well, to learn on the court, and to put up impressive numbers. In eight D-League games, he averaged 13.9 points, an eye-popping 74.1 percent shooting, 11.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocked shots for Bakersfield.
Gobert wrapped up his Jam session with 23 points and 14 rebounds on Jan. 11.
Corbin said Gobert got a better idea of playing at an NBA pace during his time in the minors. Simply allowing him to get playing time also helped out.
“The more exposure you get to the speed of the game, the better off he will be,” Corbin said. “He's learning how to use his body where he has to get stronger there, how to shortcut that a little bit by getting to his spots early, staying in position between his man and the basket, and being big there.”
Corbin is confident Gobert will become more of a staple in Utah’s frontcourt in the future, something that hasn't happened as the Jazz have mostly relied on Favors, Kanter and Marvin Williams.
“He’s getting better,” Corbin said. “We’ll find time to get him on the floor, and we see some signs.”
In the meantime, Gobert will continue to work. He's being proactive about learning English, which will only help him communicate with players and coaches. He’s hitting the weight room to strengthen his 245-pound frame, especially his lower-body strength. He shoots with Jazz player development coach Alex Jensen on a daily basis as he tries to refine a swooping left hook and other go-to post-up moves to become a more well-rounded force.
“I think everybody knows I’m going to protect the rim. That’s what I’ve got to do every night,” Gobert said. “Offensively, I’m getting better. I want to be a real threat offensively in the future.”
Though he missed that trip to Miami, Gobert believes his D-League time was beneficial. Extra playing time helps him get used to the bigger courts, faster play and different rules in the U.S. than what he was used to in France.
“I showed in the D-League I can play more physical and I’m confident,” he added. “I think it’s just confidence.”
And, of course, gaining your coach’s complete trust.
Until that all happens, Gobert will relish the hit-and-miss opportunities.
“It’s his (Corbin’s) choice. If he thinks I’m ready, he’ll just give me a chance,” Gobert said. “(Tuesday), Derrick was out, so it was a chance to see my progress.”
Gobert and fans waiting for his time to arrive gobbled that up like it was a warm baguette with French cheese.
There’s still progress to be made, of course.
But Gobert is looking — and sounding — better as time passes.
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