SALT LAKE CITY — When Team LeBron and Team Giannis tip off in Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game, there will be at least one notable absence. Rudy Gobert, the Jazz’s 7-foot-1 center, will be watching from afar. He has made no secret of his disappointment. To him, not being selected was grand larceny.
It’s understandable he would feel thusly. He is tied for third in the league in blocks per game. The only reason he isn’t first is because opponents have stopped coming through his neighborhood. In one game this season he rejected seven shots. His 122 total blocks rank second in the league.
Gobert causes more reroutes than bad weather.
Advanced stats say he contests 13 percent of two-point shots. For good measure, he leads the league in field goal percentage and is first in defensive real plus-minus.
The Jazz center says defense gets disrespected and it’s true. But it’s not like that will ever change. The midseason extravaganza has always been about banking passes off the glass and hogging the ball, not protecting the rim.
None of this explains how Mark Eaton made it to an All-Star game. The Jazz’s 7-foot-4 center from 1982 to 1993 was named among 1989’s elite. He played nine minutes, logging five rebounds and two blocks. It wasn’t a laser light show on his part, nor was it intended to be. But what did Eaton have that Gobert doesn’t, besides three more inches and two more Hall of Fame teammates?
Gobert is more proficient offensively than Eaton and quicker on defensive recovery. He jumps higher, switches faster, dribbles smoother, dunks harder, runs more swiftly and scowls deeper. He has been playing only a year less than Eaton when selected.
“He’s still a young guy with a lot years ahead, and I think he’ll get there, if you just don’t get too wound up about it in one particular year,” Eaton said.
Still, in an era of inclusion, shouldn’t the league’s best defender be included?
Eaton’s response is that consistency rules.
“I think the league recognizes that, especially over time,” Eaton said.
When the Jazz visited Atlanta this year, eight-time All-Star Vince Carter shook Gobert’s hand and told him “to keep doing what I was doing” and he’d eventually succeed. Eaton is proof of that. In his era, he was the proverbial immovable object. He gave Hakeem Olajuwon night sweats.
But Eaton didn’t make the All-Star team until his seventh season, despite already having logged four years with flashier stats. During the wait, he had his own Rudy moment. After a game with San Antonio, teammate Marc Iavaroni invited Eaton to join him and 11-time All-Star Artis Gilmore for a beer.
“You’ll be an All-Star,” Gilmore assured him. “Just keep working.”
Eaton is first all-time in career blocks per game (3.5). He led the league in blocks four times. Gobert was Defensive Player of the Year last season, but Eaton won the award twice. In 1984-85, Eaton rejected a league-high 456 shots; Gobert’s league-leading blocks total in 2016-17 was just 214. The Frenchman’s 2.6 blocks per game were best in the NBA, but Eaton once averaged 5.6.6 comments on this story
The difference, though, isn’t as wide as it seems. Decades ago, paint defenders and shooters were plentiful: Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, etc. The game was inside-out. Nowadays scoring is done via remote.
Eaton had a premise that if he could block two or three shots a game, he had done his job.
“How many games are won or lost by two or three baskets?” he said.
In that light, he thinks his emotional young counterpart will reach his goal.
“You just have to put in your time,” he said.
That’s what the A-Train told Eaton 35 years ago, and Eaton is saying it to Gobert. Does that make the current Jazz center feel any better this weekend? Probably not. Kids have a hard time waiting for anything.