We’re going to follow his lead. —Rodney Hood
SALT LAKE CITY — If there was any doubt whose team it is now after whatshisname decided to take his talents to Boston, the Utah Jazz need look no further (higher) than Rudy Gobert.
Even though Gobert is a man of a few words, he is the unquestioned leader of the Jazz as they head into the 2017-18 season, which officially begins Wednesday night against Denver at Vivint Arena.
You might say Gobert was the Jazz leader even before this season. As his coach Quin Snyder says, “No one wants to win more than Rudy. We love his competitiveness. Rudy’s got a tremendous amount of confidence in himself.”
His teammates certainly look up to him in more ways than one.
“Rudy’s Rudy, he’s a competitor,” says Rodney Hood, who is expected to pick up some of the scoring slack for the team this season. “He plays hard, he’s our leader defensively and continues to get better. We’re going to follow his lead.”
As for the 7-1 Frenchman, he’s ready to embrace the leadership role for his team.
“We’ve got a great group of guys and a great coaching staff and we all want to go in the same direction and our goal is to win,” he said. “My role is to try to talk to everyone on the court and off the court. I’ve been around five years, so it’s my role to talk to the younger guys and communicate.”
Rudy Gobert | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Gobert averaged 14.0 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game last season when he was named to the all-NBA second team at center. If he can stay healthy – he played in 81 of 82 games last year -- his numbers should improve this year, at least the scoring average should.
The Jazz have added Ricky Rubio, a pass-first point guard the Jazz were lacking last year with George Hill at the point and already Rubio and Gobert have shown they work well on the pick and roll. Look for Rubio is to find Gobert open for more dunks and easy baskets around the rim as the season goes along.
While other teams in the Western Conference have improved and the Jazz have seemingly become weaker after losing their two leading scorers in Hill and Gordon Hayward, Gobert is confident the Jazz will be just fine.
“We’re going to continue to be one of the best teams defensively,” he says. “Our identity doesn’t change.”
That’s a theme Snyder echoes, saying that the Jazz have been built around defense and unselfish play and those two things are still what the Jazz are all about.
“Our identity as a defensive, unselfish team and one that passes the ball is not one that changes,” Snyder said.
Besides Gobert, Rubio and Hood, the Jazz are expected to start Derrick Favors on the inside and Joe Ingles on the wing with veteran Joe Johnson, rookie Donovan Mitchell and wing Alec Burks being the primary reserves.
Snyder has already talked about Johnson being a “sixth-man-of-the-year” type player and he gushes about Mitchell and his potential. Snyder said he has a “unique ability to score the basketball” and that he loves Mitchell's enthusiasm and willingness to play defense.
The Jazz also picked up two players known for their defensive ability in Thabo Sefolosha, former starter for Oklahoma City and Atlanta, and Ekpe Udoh, who starred in the Euro League the past two years in Turkey. Former Boston Celtic Jonas Jerebko is a good shooter, who could be a "stretch 4" type player for the Jazz, while rookie big man Tony Bradley may struggle to find minutes in the early going.
Utah was expecting big things from fourth-year guard Dante Exum, who had a great offseason and was playing well throughout the preseason, but he went down with a shoulder injury last week and will be out for an undetermined amount of time.
That means Raul Neto, who started the majority of games two years ago, will be seeing more minutes in the early season as a backup to Rubio.
Head Coach Quin Snyder talks with Derrick Favors as the Utah Jazz scrimmage at Hill Air Force Base on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
Snyder said he “tries to avoid expectations,” but understands the Jazz will be hard-pressed to match last year’s 51-win season and No. 5 seed in the Western Conference. Earlier this week he pointed out that the Western Conference added three all-star players during the offseason while losing only one.
“There’s a lot of factors, some of it is injuries, some of it is chemistry,” he said. “We’ve tried to be ambitious and aggressive, but also realistic about this team’s growth process and how quickly that comes. You don’t want to put a ceiling on anything, but hopefully we’ll continue to improve throughout the season.”
As for Gobert, who said he worked on his lower-body strength and his quickness in the offseason, he is expecting his team to have a fine season.
“I have very high expectations for us,” he said. “I think we’re a very good team. We had some players that left and some that came in but our identity doesn’t change. The mindset will be the same and we have to learn to play with each other.”