SALT LAKE CITY — Down the hallway at Vivint Arena, Rudy Gobert had passed by moments earlier, imposing and confident, comfortable in his space. Outside the Jazz locker room, countryman William Howard was coming from the same place — but a far different angle on Monday.
Both players were raised in France, 400 miles apart. Gobert is an All-NBA performer, the league’s two-time defensive MVP. Howard is hoping to earn a place at the table. That’s hard when you don’t play. He watched the Jazz’s summer league opener against Memphis from the bench, sidelined with a non-specific injury.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to be here,” Howard said. “Unfortunately I was a little bit injured, so I didn’t play today. Hopefully I’ll be back soon.”
Howard didn’t want to elaborate on the injury. It was small enough that he hoped to return in time for the Las Vegas Summer League, later this week. Those are worries for any player, especially undrafted ones.
Howard knows there are opportunities on the Jazz roster this year. Last summer that wasn’t necessarily the case. The 2018-19 iteration was jammed with guaranteed contracts before the offseason league began. This year there are at least a half-dozen players gone via trades or free agency. Some have been replaced, others haven’t. Draftees Jarrell Brantley, Miye Oni and Justin Wright-Foreman have the advantage among newcomers in summer league play.
Howard was one of seven roster players who didn’t see action on the first night of play, while 10 others did.
The 6-foot-6 small forward isn’t new to basketball in America. He played high school ball in the Washington, D.C., area, after being raised in France. But his five-year professional career has entirely been in his home country. The 25-year-old’s best season was 2017-18, when he averaged 11 points and shot 40 percent from 3-point range.
Thus the Jazz, ever on the hunt for outside scorers, are taking a look. Howard has one thing going for him besides his game: pedigree. You could say the Jazz are clued into France. Gobert came to the team six years ago, an unpolished import with dreams as wide as his wingspan. His success has inspired many in a nation known more for its art and cuisine than its basketball.
“Rudy’s a big deal in France,” Howard said.
He’s a big deal everywhere rims rattle.
Howard said he doesn’t “know him personally but I know him as a player.”
Though they are just a year apart in age, Gobert was young when he went pro. Howard was recruited to play at the University of Washington, but the move never materialized. He ended up playing at a sports institute in France before embarking on his professional career.
France is a significant basketball country, thanks to Gobert and other familiar players, including Boris Diaw and Tony Parker. Additional French connections are Nicholas Batum, Evan Fournier and Rony Turiaf, who was born in Martinique. Joakim Noah is the son of French tennis star Yannick Noah, but was born in New York.
At the start of last season, France was tied with Australia for the second-most international players in the NBA (nine). Only Canada (11) had more. In that light, Howard doesn’t consider his homeland underrated as a basketball country.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “They all respect you.”Comment on this story
If there is a tie to Gobert, other than nationality, it’s their mannerisms. Both are polite and soft-spoken. And both know how to celebrate a play. Howard can be seen in highlight videos saluting the crowd after dunks. The Stifle Tower has been known to deliver an equally snappy salute.
But Howard doesn’t consider it a French thing, or a copycat move.
“No, it’s just something spontaneous,” he said. “I don’t think about it. It’s just about what happened in the moment.”
As of Monday night, his moment was still waiting to take flight.