His arms are so long, that it’s tough to get shots over him. He jumps for a lot of shots so you’ve just got to play smart with him. —76ers rookie Ben Simmons, on Rudy Gobert
SALT LAKE CITY — With 9.8 seconds remaining in regulation, the Utah Jazz were knotted 94-94 with the Portland Trail Blazers at Vivint Arena.
Evan Turner inbounded the ball to All-Star guard Damian Lillard, who blew past defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha in a one-on-one situation with a quick dribble drive.
As Lillard floated a 17-footer in the air for a potential game-winner, a large, 7-foot-1 Frenchman skied through the air gracefully like a bird defending its nest. Denied.
Rudy Gobert’s game-saving play would eventually help propel Utah to a 112-103 overtime victory on Nov. 1.
For Gobert, there wasn’t much to celebrate after the rejection as he strolled calmly to the bench. Those around the league weren’t shocked, either.
“I got past my guy and tried to get a floater up there, but (Rudy) Gobert does what he does best,” Lillard said. “He’s a shot blocker and he got to it, and it’s tough to win an overtime game on the road. That’s just tough.”
Throughout his five-year career, the 25-year-old center has built a reputation as one of the league’s most fearsome defenders.
To no surprise, through 12 games Gobert is the NBA’s leading shot blocker, averaging 2.5 blocks per game. Sure, offense is cool, as he gets 13.9 points and 10.5 boards per night, but the defensive end is his bread and butter.
“It’s pride. You don’t want your opponent to score,” Gobert explained. “You don’t want your guy to score and once you get better at it, you get used to it, it becomes a mindset. You just try to do it every game.”
In a stroke of unforeseen bad luck, the big man will now miss at least four weeks with a right tibia contusion after colliding with Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters. He views the setback as a rest stop while on a steady path to his final destination.
“It’s restraining for sure. We know that every game matters but at the same time, I think it’s just going to make us stronger,” Gobert said. “I’m confident that the team can win without me. No doubt. So the only thing I can do is make sure I do everything right and when I come back, I’m stronger and ready to help the team out.”
Gobert, a native of Saint-Quentin, France, realized his shot-blocking potential as a teenager competing for the French U18 National Team. His 7-foot-9 wingspan and 9-foot-7 reach make him a defensive nightmare for opponents.
If you notice him during a game, his head is constantly on a swivel, while anticipating his opponent’s next move. He’s like a goalie on a soccer field.
He’s agile, light on his feet, cat-quick and has great hands as a credit to his boxing background. Gobert is the ultimate warrior in the painted area, denying 3.55 blocks per 48 minutes and .97 blocks per fouls.
“I realized that I had good reaction, good timing, good size, good length so then it just became a habit and then I realized how much it wins games so it’s just a mindset,” Gobert said. “It’s not only size, it’s really the not-giving-up attitude.”
Last season, he finished runner-up to Golden State’s Draymond Green in the Defensive Player of the Year race, after leading the league in blocks (214) and blocks per game (2.6), but did earn a spot on the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
Utah also allows the fourth-fewest points in the league, holding opponents to 44.8 percent shooting.
Teammates can certainly attest to the impact of Gobert’s shot blocking. He’s the engine.
“It’s a big game-changer,” said Jazz forward Derrick Favors, Gobert’s frontcourt mate. “It gets the crowd excited, gets the crowd going, gets the team going.
“He does that all the time and it changes the moment of the game.”
When shots aren’t falling, Utah often relies on Gobert’s defensive process to ignite the team.
During the fourth quarter of Utah’s 84-74 loss to Miami, Gobert’s talent was on full display when he nearly willed his squad to victory. He let out a roar after using weak-side help from the 3-point line to swat Hassan Whiteside’s jump hook in the low post on Joe Ingles.
His Stretch Armstrong length and pinpoint timing help pull off plays like that effortlessly.
“He’s not deterred,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “There’s a play a few years ago where (Andrew) Wiggins went up and dunked on him, but the next time he went in there, Rudy blocked it. A lot of guys would get out of the way and that’s just now he’s wired or how he competes."
Snyder puts Gobert’s rim protection in the NBA’s elite pantheon of shot blockers, such as Dikembe Mutombo, which doesn’t always show up in the stats.
Gobert takes just as much satisfaction in making a player second-guess entering the paint as he does with being tallied for the block.
“Sometimes, I see the guys driving and they don’t even look at the rim,” Gobert said. “They just dribble out so it’s as good as a block or even better because I’m kind of laughing when I see that.”
Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons was surprised by Gobert’s length in his debut game against the Jazz. You don’t get the same effect on film until you’re matched up in a game setting.
“His arms are so long that it’s tough to get shots over him,” Simmons said. “He jumps for a lot of shots so you’ve just got to play smart with him.”
The Jazz have embraced Gobert’s greatest strength by creating a video game on NBA.com for fans titled “Super Rudy Block” with old-school 1980s graphics to highlight his shot blocking. Shirts are even being sold in the Jazz’s official team shop at Vivint Arena, using Gobert’s character in the game.
With an admirable reputation around the league and a strong fan base in Utah, Gobert isn’t afraid to confess his ultimate goal: Defensive Player of the Year.
“I think I’m the best defensive player in the league and I want to be the best,” Gobert said. “I think being the defensive player in the league is making your team better because, like I said, there’s a lot of things you don’t see on stats.
“When you make your team better, usually it means a lot.”
Even with the injury, Gobert’s goals are still the same.
“Nothing’s changed. Like I said, I’m trying to be better everyday and sometimes things don’t go as you want but that’s how life is,” Gobert said. “It could be way worse. When I look at the video, I’m feeling lucky, and I’m confident that the team is going to be fine. It’s a long season.”