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Monson: Sacre bleu! Rudy Gobert's climb is just beginning

Published March 8, 2017 3:32 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There is no ending to Rudy Gobert's story. Not yet. And that's what makes it so intriguing. Many pages have yet to be turned, yet to be written.

He remains what he's been for the past few years — a rocket riding higher, an ascending presence for the Jazz, suggesting to anybody who pays attention to his progress — including himself — that the remarkable thing is well short of its apex.

"I have a lot of ambition," he said after the Jazz's win Monday night. "I mean, I'm only 24 years old. I'm improving, but I know I can get a lot better."



His upward arc includes more than just the way he plays. It's the way he's taking on the mantle of leadership, becoming more verbal, more vocal, more complimentary, more critical of himself and his teammates through the vicissitudes of a season hurtling toward the playoffs.

That was hard to miss last week, when the 40-24 Jazz played like dogs in a 27-point loss at home to Minnesota. Afterward, Gobert voiced his disgust by taking a two-by-four of truth to the side of his team's melon: "We're soft, everybody playing [with his] head down. We get our ass kicked and nobody reacts. It's frustrating, for sure."

Sacre bleu, Rudy.

"When things go wrong, you've got to say it," he said, acknowledging his new role. "I hope my teammates listen to me. I think they do."

It seems like just yesterday, the 7-foot Frenchman was an afterthought on a team badly in need of exactly what he already has become. He was shuttling back and forth from the Jazz to the D-League's Bakersfield Jam. And now he's at the center of Utah's climb.

There was one rough stretch last year when Gobert hurt his knee and struggled to maintain his momentum. But that's as much in the past as the judgments of now-red-faced NBA scouts who once viewed him as some kind of freak to kick aside, to punt into the project pile. They could measure his height and his wingspan, and everybody liked those measurables. What they couldn't measure was his brain and his drive and his pride, his desire to get better.

How are you supposed to size up that before it happens?

That thought came to mind, again, on the last play of overtime Sunday at Sacramento, when Gobert reached up and redirected George Hill's missed jumper straight into the basket a nanosecond before the final buzzer, giving the Jazz one more win that they otherwise would not have had, one more chunk of evidence that focusing in on Gobert, and acquiring him when few others believed, was one helluva great idea.

"He's competitive," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "He makes important plays and he's not afraid. He's not afraid of the moment, so he's not going to shy away from it. His competitiveness and his gusto, his verve, whatever you want to call it, he's got it."

He's got it and nobody knew it.

"If we knew he was going to be this good, we would have done more to get him earlier," Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey said.

But that's what makes Gobert's tale so captivating: There was no need.

Nobody was gnawing to get him.

On draft day in 2013, the Jazz simply traded Erick Green and cash for Gobert, who initially was taken with the 27th pick by the Denver Nuggets. Four seasons later, they are being, and already have been, richly rewarded for that bit of acumen. Turns out, sometimes you really can be smarter than everybody else.

And teams around the NBA have grown weary of kicking themselves for that collective ignorance. Think about some of the guys who were taken before Gobert in that draft: Anthony Bennett … Cody Zeller … Alex Len … Ben McLemore … Kentavious Caldwell-Pope … Kelly Olynyk … Lucas Nogueira … Shane Larkin … Tony Snell ….

Like Lindsey admitted, the Jazz, too, were guilty of delaying their grab for Gobert. They took Trey Burke with the ninth pick that year. But then, as mentioned, there was no reason to rush at Gobert because of the wholesale swing-and-a-miss on him.

If you need an example of someone willing to swim against a tide of skepticism, Gobert is your role model. Even now, every time I type Rudy's last name into my computer, the spellcheck changes it to "Goobers."

One day, Gobert's name will not be changed automatically. It will stand on its own.

It already should be that way: He's averaging 13 points and 12.7 rebounds this season, with a PER of 22. He ranks first in the NBA in blocks and true field-goal percentage, fifth in rebounding, fourth in offensive ranking, second in defensive rating.

Another "should be": He should have been an All-Star, and had he been chosen, he would have made that game a lot more enjoyable to watch. He would have played some defense, which sadly was lacking.

When Gobert was asked whether he should be named an All-Star, he said: "Of course. To me, basketball is about winning and I think I help my team win. People look at stats. They should look at impact, what you do at both ends to help your team win."

When the Jazz beat the Pelicans at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Monday night, one of the game's highlights came when Gobert sweetly blocked a DeMarcus Cousins shot attempt at the basket. The crowd roared. Gobert grinned.

By game's end, he had what has become a fairly standard accumulation of contributions: 15 points, 15 rebounds, two blocks, two steals. And he did it against two All-Star big men — Cousins and Anthony Davis.

"They're great players," he said. "I wasn't an All-Star, so I'm not as great."

Gobert smiled when he said it, but he might as well have snarled.

Night by night, he knows precisely who he's matched up against and is duly motivated to make — and leave — a mark. New Orleans shot 35 percent for the game, and Gobert was no small reason why. He anchored the defense, altered shots, freaked out guys before they even took shots. Gobert is the best rim-protector in the league.

"I feed off everything," he said.

If he makes a point of developing his offensive game, polishing up, say, a 12-foot jump shot, and maybe a few more low-post moves, he not only will become an undisputed perennial All-Star, he'll lead the Jazz to the goal that everyone in and around the club has for themselves — authentic contention.

"I just want to win," he said. "Every day, I try to get better, try for us as a team to get better. I'm still learning. I'm working on everything. Trying to be in the right place at the right time."

The Jazz think he is.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

 

 

 

 

 

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