SALT LAKE CITY — Entering the Palace of Auburn Hills to face the Detroit Pistons at the height of Deee-troit Basketball was a nightmare for opposing teams.
With his Afro swaying, and long “NFZ” wristbands — which stood for No Fly Zone — Ben Wallace helped lead the Pistons to six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances from 2002-08, as well as a NBA title in 2004.
A young Rudy Gobert wasn’t fortunate enough to witness that Pistons run live, as a kid in France, but he’s grown to appreciate Wallace’s defensive prowess.
“When he was in his peak, I wasn’t able to watch because I didn’t have the League Pass, so it was hard for me to watch,” Gobert said of Wallace in an exclusive interview with the Deseret News. “I was watching some highlights, some videos on YouTube and I always loved his mindset and his toughness.”
Now, Wallace is paying attention to the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and the Utah Jazz.
He lists Gobert, Golden State’s Draymond Green, Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard, and Patrick Beverley of the Los Angeles Clippers as his top defenders to watch and sees some similarities in the way the Jazz organization approaches the game to his former Pistons teams.
“I think the Jazz, they do operate as a team,” said Wallace, now a co-owner of the Grand Rapids Drive of the G League. “Anytime you operate as a team, you’re going to see some comparison to the way we played because we was one unit. When one moves, everybody moves.
“So, with the way they’re operating down there, they don’t have that big marquee name, but they find ways to win games and be competitive, so from a team standpoint, yeah,” he added. “I could see that.”
Like Wallace, Gobert’s tale is also one of an underdog rising to the top.
Wallace worked tirelessly as an undrafted free agent to find his niche in Motown en route to becoming a four-time Defensive Player of the Year winner, a four-time All-Star and NBA champion.
Gobert grinded overseas before coming to Utah in 2013, then spent time in the NBA Development League before breaking through these last two seasons to make the NBA All-Defensive First Team twice and ultimately winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2018.
“I checked him out. I like the fact that he came into the league and he established himself on the defensive end,” Wallace said of Gobert. “Once you make a name for yourself like that, winning that Defensive Player of the Year trophy, and then come out and add a little offense to the game, the sky is the limit for that guy.”
Through the first 12 games of the 2018-19 season, Utah is 6-6 and currently riding a two-game winning streak. The Jazz will begin the first of a five-game road trip in Memphis on Monday, as Gobert has posted 11 double doubles — averaging a career-best 16.4 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.
Gobert also leads the league in field goal percentage (.721), is sixth in blocks per game, and he ranks fourth in rebounds per game with the second-most double doubles.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder is challenging the Jazz to improve defensively, now holding the league’s 18th-best defensive rating (109.1) after leading the league last season at 102.9.
Gobert believes the league emphasizing freedom of movement on the perimeter and in the post is changing Utah’s style of play. However, Wallace’s advice for him is to keep doing what has made him successful.2 comments on this story
“Just go out there and have fun, man,” Wallace tells Gobert. “Embrace what you bring to the game and have fun with it. Just because they said it’s no defense and this is a scoring league or whatever, don’t fall for that trap. Somebody is going to have to play defense in order for them to win. It’s your niche, have fun with it.”
Although Gobert hasn’t interacted with Wallace much personally, he can only respect that coming from the OG.
“It’s great,” Gobert said. “He has a great understanding of the game and of defense, so I appreciate that he names me.”