It’s been kind of weird this year with injuries to try to come back and get my rhythm back. My teammates got me involved, but it was kind of tough this year. I feel like I still got better. You can’t really see it on stats, but I feel like I got better. —Rudy Gobert
SALT LAKE CITY — On Sunday afternoon, Raul Neto posted a photo of himself and Rudy Gobert at a beach in Miami, Florida.
Both of the Utah Jazz players would rather be battling to advance in the Western Conference playoffs instead of posing under the South Beach sun, no doubt.
That’s not to say the tres competitive Gobert believes the Jazz’s recently finished 2015-16 campaign was a complete loss.
“We all know before the season our goal was to make the playoffs,” Gobert said. “I’m disappointed, but I feel like we didn’t fall short. I feel like it’s very encouraging we got a lot better.”
Disappointment also describes the Stifle Tower’s personal season.
Sure, the 7-foot-1 Frenchman improved in some aspects. His rebounding improved from 9.5 a game in 2014-15 to a team-high 11 per outing (a rise similar to his increase in minutes played). His scoring average increased from 8.4 points per game to 9.1 He also finally showed that he can hit a mid-range jumper and continued to work on a tough-to-defend push shot.
But a year after making an appearance in all 82 games, Gobert suffered from the injury bug this season like other teammates. His Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee — a friendly fire injury that happened in practice — forced him out of 18 games.
He then missed most of the important Dallas game and the season finale after spraining his right ankle.
“It’s been kind of weird this year with injuries to try to come back and get my rhythm back,” Gobert admitted after the season concluded. “My teammates got me involved, but it was kind of tough this year. I feel like I still got better. You can’t really see it on stats, but I feel like I got better.”
The Jazz were clearly better defensively with Gobert on the court this season for the most part. He was again a dominant rim protector as opponents only shot 41 percent against him within 5 feet of the basket. He saved Utah 2.03 points per game near the rim, according to NylonCalculus.com.
Thanks in part to Gobert’s defensive prowess, the Jazz finished with the eighth-best defensive rating for the season (101.6 points per 100 possessions), the third-best after the All-Star break (100.0) and the No. 1 D in the season’s final 15 games (96.3).
That is the “very encouraging” progress to which Gobert referred.
“I think every team that played us respects us,” Gobert said.
Gobert blamed a lack of experience and the Jazz’s rampant injury issues for their sub-.500 win-loss record of 40-42. He noted that Utah lost a lot of games by a close margin so that win total could’ve easily been higher.
He enters the offseason with a lot of optimism for the future.
“When you look at the standings, it’s pretty hard. When you look at the last months when everybody was healthy, you can see we were the best defense in the league,” Gobert said. “In the last month, we were back where we want to be. The main thing is to do what we have to do this offseason and be back next season ready.”
With the young crew the Jazz have returning, Gobert is among the group that believes the team’s future is bright.
“We can only get better,” he said.
That happens to be the unofficial theme of Gobert’s offseason. The biggest thing he wants to work on this summer is his strength, especially in his lower body.
While the Jazz would prefer he get what general manager Dennis Lindsey refers to as “active rest,” Gobert hopes to play in the Rio Olympic Games if the French national team qualifies in June.
“I haven’t made a decision yet about that (qualifier). I’m going to be smart. We’ll make decision,” Gobert said. “The Olympics are in August. I think I’m going to go if my team qualifies.”
The Jazz have mixed feelings about that, of course — understandably so, considering how Dante Exum missed the entire NBA season after tearing his ACL in an exhibition game with Team Australia.
However, the way Gobert excelled in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup with France propelled him to have a strong sophomore season in the NBA. The following year wasn't as rosy in terms of NBA development after international play for him. Gobert got off to a sluggish start in the 2015-16 season with the Jazz after spending two months playing with the French national team. He simply didn't have enough time for his body to fully recuperate or seriously work on his strength.
"Can that take place when you play so many games?" Lindsey said, referring to active rest and strength development. "We’ll certainly share those concerns."
The Jazz have something even bigger to deal with this offseason in terms of Gobert.
Because he’s heading into his fourth season, the center will be able to negotiate a lucrative extension on his rookie contract. Based on the NBA’s $92 million (and rapidly rising) salary cap, Gobert could agree to a five-year contract worth up to $124.6 million.