I’m trying to act like it doesn’t (affect me), but of course it does. We had two months of preparation and competition — nine games with crazy intensity, so of course it takes some focus and some energy. —Gobert said of playing in the EuroBasket 2015 tournament
SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this year, Rudy Gobert, a young man who isn’t a afraid to speak his mind, admitted that he wanted to be a starter.
Not only did Gobert’s play give his desire some credibility, but the Utah Jazz also traded away a player they’d previously thought was part of their long-term plans to ensure that the French big man would be front and center in their revised rebuild.
Almost 10 months after being open about his preference, Gobert is firmly entrenched in the Jazz’s starting lineup. He’s also considered a defensive player of the year candidate heading into the 2015-16 season.
Meanwhile, the player Gobert replaced at center — the offensively gifted/defensively limited Enes Kanter — will make his second return trip to his first NBA home tonight when the Jazz host the Oklahoma City Thunder in their second-to-last preseason game.
It’s uncertain how long either player will play for seeing how the regular season is a week away.
But you can guarantee that the player nicknamed the Stifle Tower will receive big cheers while the other, someone considered a Jazz traitor from Turkey, will get even bigger jeers because of his trade demands and ensuing dissing of the Jazz's organization.
More important than a crowd reaction, Gobert is trying to get his body in prime condition for when games actually count beginning next week. While he’s in great shape, this preseason has been somewhat of a mixed bag for him because of how hard he’d been going in the months leading up to fall camp.
Playing for the French national team during the EuroBasket 2015 tournament wore him out a bit.
“I’m trying to act like it doesn’t (affect me), but of course it does,” Gobert said. “We had two months of preparation and competition — nine games with crazy intensity, so of course it takes some focus and some energy.”
Those two aspects — focus and energy — are critical to Gobert’s success and consequently to the Jazz’s chances of being a top-tier defensive team this season like they were for the final few months of the 2014-15 campaign.
He knows it.
His team knows it.
The rest of the NBA, especially guys like Kanter who have to try to score around him, can only hope it doesn’t happen.
“I expect him to pick up from where he left off last year being one of the best defensive players in the league,” Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward said. “He’s more than capable of doing that. For Rudy, it’s a mental thing. It’s a focus thing. If he’s focused, the sky’s the limit.”
That focus helped Gobert lead the league in protecting the rim last season. He held opponents to just 40.4 percent shooting within five feet of him and rim in his breakout sophomore year.
Gobert was also second behind rising Pelicans star Anthony Davis in blocked shots, averaging 2.3 per game. Davis topped the NBA with 2.9 swats an outing.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder is cognizant that Gobert is in an interesting point of his career. The big Frenchman was sparsely used his rookie season and only had a limited role at the beginning of last year (averaging just 15 minutes per game the first month).
But Gobert gained respect and popularity throughout the world last season as his effort and impressive results increased.
Much of the credit for the Jazz’s defensive improvement — a worst-to-first transformation — was allotted to the 23-year-old.
Gobert is the type who uses doubters to fuel his fire. Case in point: When the NBA defensive player of the year list came out this past spring and Gobert finished fifth behind Davis, DeAndre Jordan, Draymond Green and winner Kawhi Leonard, he tweeted, “Can’t wait for next season.” A couple of weeks later, he tweeted, “Keep feeding keep feeding until I eat everything.”
But the hype machine has been building all offseason with Gobert getting plenty of props and praise.
Snyder wants Gobert to ignore the external evaluations of his game.
“Last year we could’ve said people are saying he wasn’t good enough. He used that (as motivation). It’s easy for us to doubting, you use that,” Snyder said. “Now someone may be complimentary of you. How do you use that? It’s harder, right? It’s just human nature. My thing for him is let’s just not evaluate ourselves externally, like, let’s do that in here (with) people that are close to you and you trust.”
The evaluation from Snyder has been constant and honest since he became the Jazz coach last season.
“I believed in him in last year and believe in him this year, and he knows that,” Snyder said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t hold him accountable and tell him the truth. The great thing about Rudy is he wants that.”
Snyder has been understanding of Gobert’s fall fatigue. He’s played him carefully during the preseason, hoping to find a balance between giving him enough playing time to get back into the NBA groove while allowing his body to refresh itself in time for the season.
“It’s long. It’s physically demanding. It’s emotionally demanding because you’re playing for your country. What greater opportunity is there than that?” Snyder said.
“For Rudy, he’s still learning. So there’s a psychological component. You forget he was in another system for three months — different style of play, different rules, different role. There’s a process there for him. I told him we just can’t wait. That may be the reality that it happens slowly, but that doesn’t mean that’s where we set the bar.”
Snyder said that last week and rested Gobert in Sunday’s Portland game, allowing the center’s body to get some more rest.
Gobert admitted that getting his “energy back, my body right” is a big goal of his this preseason. He likes where his mindset is heading into the season.
And like Hayward and so many others, Gobert has huge expectations for himself this season. He doesn’t have to worry about winning a starting job. He has his sights set on bigger and better things than that — being a dominant defender in a dominant defense.
“Defensively, I’m more thinking team-wise. I really want us to be, of course, one of the best teams in the league defensively,” the third-year player said. “I want us to take pride in our defense like we did at the end of the season last year.”
Gobert didn’t give any specifics when asked about personal goals. He kept it all about the team, including how the Jazz want to limit opponents to 22 points or fewer each quarter.
“We know that if we play good defense (that) even on a bad shooting night for us, we still have a chance to win games, and that’s what we want,” he said. “I’m trying to protect the rim. In some games I might block eight. Some games I might block two. If I block two, that means they do not come into the paint.”
Gobert has worked hard this offseason to improve his offensive capabilities, including on mid-range shots and a short floater.
“It’s a great weapon,” he said of the push shot. “It’s going to be useful.”
But like the Jazz, Gobert’s calling card this season will be based around his defense. Having a 7-foot-1 body with a 7-foot-9 wingspan only helps.
“He’s been gifted with extreme length that not very many people have. You can’t teach that,” Hayward said. ”With Rudy, if he stays focused, I think he can be really good.”
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