SALT LAKE CITY — Ricky Rubio knew who Rudy Gobert was before he joined the Utah Jazz this past season, of course. The Stifle Tower, who is 7-foot-1 and whose arms span 9 feet 7.5 inches, is kind of hard to miss — and especially on the basketball court when he can send your shot into the stands quicker than you released it.
But the Spanish point guard learned something important about Gobert in their first season as teammates. It’s what makes Gobert even more dangerous to opponents and valuable for his team than just his size.
“I never knew what type of winner he was,” Rubio said during his exit interview the day after the Jazz were eliminated by the Rockets in the second round. “All he cares is about winning.”
It became a well-known tweet as the season progressed, but Gobert made his optimism and competitiveness clear on Twitter after the Jazz lost to Denver and fell to 16-23.
His simple tweet was more powerful than long: “We will be fine.”
Turns out, he underplayed how well the Jazz would do. They bottomed out at 19-28, but his belief never wavered. The team, as has been well-documented, went on to finish the season with a 48-34 record and defeated the favored Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.
“Rudy was always confident we’d be good,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said, “and I appreciate that confidence.”
In the process, rookie Donovan Mitchell became a star and Rookie of the Year candidate, Quin Snyder became a Coach of the Year possibility, and Gobert yet again put his name in the Defensive Player of the Year hat.
“He put a lot of work on it. He cares a lot, and it shows, the way for the other teammates to follow him,” Rubio said. “In the game, of course, he’s one of the best at protecting the rim, and that helps me a lot covering my mistakes. When I gamble, Quin doesn’t like it, but it’s in me, but then I have Rudy backing me up and helping me. Sometimes you don’t realize how important (he is) until he’s not there.”
That seemed pretty evident with the Jazz’s early-season woes as Gobert dealt with knee injuries, keeping him sidelined for 26 games. With Gobert on the court, the Jazz only allow 97.9 points per 100 possessions — and won a whole lot more.
The fifth-year player, in the first year of a four-year, $102-million contract, led the NBA in defensive win shares, defensive real plus/minus, opponent’s field-goal percentage and defensive rebounds percentage while also ranking second in points allowed in the paint and third in blocks per game, as ESPN highlighted in a recent article about Gobert’s legitimacy for the DPOY award.
"I think it's an empirical fact, frankly,” Snyder said late in the season when asked about Gobert being the best defensive player in the NBA.
Gobert doesn’t shy away from suggesting he is a legit contender — and should win — the award he covets. He was recently named one of three finalists along with Pelicans big Anthony Davis and Sixers center Joel Embiid. In 2017, Gobert finished second behind the Warriors' Draymond Green.
"I've been the most impactful player this year," Gobert told ESPN. "It's a team game. The Defensive Player of the Year is the guy that makes his team better. Not only gets stats — it's the guy that also has an impact on his teammates and leadership. There's a lot of things you don't see on the stats."
Gobert would also like to do more in the stats department when it comes to his offensive contributions.
“First of all, I think I’ve gotten stronger every year, but I think I still need to get stronger to just be able to dominate more after that,” he said. “I do a lot of things to help my team winning — set screens, roll into the rim, finishing. I think I can be even more than that. I’ve been improving my shot every year since I got here. Now, it’s time for me to be a real weapon and to be able to give them even more trouble when I have the ball in my hand.”
As far as the team goes, Gobert believes that the Jazz have just scratched the surface of their potential in the Gobert-Mitchell era. That could strike fear in the hearts of NBA opponents, considering how he projected success while the team was struggling.
Losing to the Rockets in five games — a series played without Rubio, mind you — showed him “we’re still not there yet.” The second round was a bonus this season, but it’s just the starting point.
“Just keep working, keep getting better,” Gobert said. “I think we have a lot of room to grow, but, at the same time, we’ve done a great job, and we showed that we’re going the right direction.”
Gobert said it was “fun” to prove people wrong this season. Few penciled the Jazz into a second-round spot after Gordon Hayward bolted for Boston — and even fewer thought they had any chance of the playoffs after that rough first half.
“Just beating expectations at every point — that’s our mindset and that’s what we’re going to keep doing forward,” Gobert said in an exit interview with Jazz sideline reporter Kristen Kenney.
“I think we got an opportunity to do something special.”